Gardening For Cheap
A good motto to start with is to use what you already own then barter, sell, or swap for the things you don’t. I’ve found myself building my second major garden project in an urban setting near a major city. Local classifieds here have even more stuff offered up for free or really cheap. People buy new stuff all the time and are highly motivated to clear out the old stuff.
It isn’t often in the past that I would get anything brand new. I started off with old tools that I picked up from around town and they worked really well.
I first started with a hoe, hand pruners, and a trowel. That later expanded to a couple large shovels and a garden fork. Those are the basic tools you need to work a garden and they hold up well.
You need to start your compost as soon as you get the inkling you want to start a garden and build your soil cheaply. A lot of waste from the kitchen can be turned into rich compost. Have some coffee grounds every morning? Have some leftover tea leaves?
Compost is the best thing that can be used to build up healthy garden soil. Every year the topsoil will just improve more and more.
How I Started
When I started to first garden, I had no money. I didn’t have a cent to spare on gardening. I got seeds by picking out tomato seeds from my salad. I also got some pepper seeds from some dried peppers I used to spice up a meal.
I even picked a seed off a tomato wrapper after I ate a burger. It wasn’t the most tasty tomato as it was a huge ox-heart variety, but it oddly grew well and gave me a good harvest. All I did was put it in dirt and throw leftover food scraps that were finished composting into the deep planting hole.
I had an outdoor compost bucket that I filled with banana peels, coffee grounds, paper trash, newspaper, tea, and other various things good for soil building.
The planting dirt I acquired for my first container garden came from leftover dirt from funeral plants that had died and my relatives were all too happy to get it out of their house and put to use somewhere. Not all of the dirt was in good condition but most of it was just the usual potting mix.
I also got spare pots and buckets much the same way. Utilize your trash and always look for free sources for things first because there are things to be collected everywhere.
You can carve out your first garden space by acquiring free cardboard, papers, shredded papers, etc and just throwing them over the grass you want to kill off.
The grass will die and the paper layers will start to decompose. What I did my first year was cardboard kill some grass and build a good dirt layer on top mostly from my compost as I saved everything I could add to the compost pile.
Once the top looked like good loamy planting dirt I then planted directly into the dirt. Other additions were rabbit droppings as I had family more than happy to save me bags of the waste from under their outdoor pen used mostly at night.
Any leftover cardboard would get put back into the compost heap to further break down and left my shredded paper in the planting bed alone as it helped mulch a bit and kept moisture to the spot.
My plants didn’t do great for my standards as it was a first-year planting and my soil wasn’t beefed up yet. I still got quite a lot of produce and considering it was all easy to do with freely acquired materials, and just took a time cost of throwing down cardboard, compost, and poop. So it was a worthwhile thing to do.
Build Your Garden Over Time
You will feel an urge to get a lot of stuff right in the moment you want to start your garden. If your budget isn’t the best and buying a ton of stuff isn’t feasible then you need not worry. You can start your compost efforts and use other stuff.
Leaves and grass clippings can act as a mulch and in the short term can help keep the soil from drying out as much between watering. They also have this neat trick where they will decompose into the soil while doing this job and will decompose without bothering the soil health.
Nutrients will start to go back into the soil, worms will move in to work over the leaf litter, next thing you know your compost is broken down and can be used as well. The garden can start chugging along.
If you find weeds popping up then you can mulch those down with leaves as well. Leaves during fall season is my favorite way to build up soil with free mulch.
When people show an interest in building their first garden I usually tell them to start it all in fall when things are cool enough to comfortably work outside, free leaf mulch is everywhere, and if you don’t have a lot in your own yard neighbors are usually more than happy to have you haul theirs off.
By spring the leaf litter is at least a little decomposed and worked by worms and everything is ready for their first experiment into planting.
Honestly, raised beds are pretty and they are nice. The thing is they are often quite expensive to install. Those overly pretty gardens people do are a lot of money to make look good and you do not need all that.
My solution for raised beds was to buy some cedar boards from Home depot. I’d get 3 boards per box, 2 for the sides and one cut in half for the end sides. I then attached them using cheap nails.
They work well for a year or two and may or may not need to be replaced.
You’re going to need seeds or starter plants for your garden. Aside from collecting random seed from whatever you can acquire from grocery store items, there are other places you can look.
Most communities have started what are called local seed libraries. There are also a lot of groups on Facebook or random gardening forums where they will do what is called “seed swapping”. Many times people will have extra seeds they wouldn’t mind sending to a beginner gardener.
Another thing that helps is to talk to friends or family that has been gardening for some time. They might have seeds they don’t want or advice on local resources they have used.
Getting connected with local gardeners was also how I acquired some of my shrub or tree starters as well as things that could be propagated.
One thing you will find as you garden is not all vegetables, fruits, or herbs will be easy to grow and some will cost you a lot and you will get little or no return.
Some crops are also so cheap from the store that it isn’t efficient to home grow them. Though I can understand a person who wants to do their own home potatoes or try to grow as much from home as they can so they want to do everything.
If you are wanting to garden purely for money savings you will probably be best served by farming select plants. Plants you will select based on ease of growing, return on the crop, and minimal pest or disease concerns.
Garden To Save Money Plants
I gardened for many years and I had extreme harvests and extreme failures. My peppers would mammoth everything while my broccoli was being eternally destroyed by some weird insect that ate it.
Over the years some plants have stood out as worthwhile things to garden. I also garden organically so my gardening is slightly more difficult in that aspect as well.
Herbs are sort of a funny thing as they are some of the easiest plants to grow and some of the most expensive things to buy from the store for cooking use. They don’t often get picked off by pests and they often do well in the poorest soils, some even prefer poor soil.
Out of all my herbs my oregano and basil were my cornerstone. They were good for adding to my Italian sauces, they dried or could be frozen well, and they were pretty easy to clone.
One plant of each would usually serve all my needs for that growing season. They easily paid for themselves before summer was done. I had an indoor grow space and had a few years there where my herbs would get carried on to next year.
Lettuce is one of those cool crops that will keep pumping out leaves a long as the weather is just right. You could plant up a salad garden and have it where it is cut and come again for a while. You want to buy the fancy leaf lettuces or you can opt for Romaine lettuce if you want a high-yield type.
A small bed of lettuce can supply a family’s salad needs for the week and in no time they will be ready to be harvested again. I usually made sure to have a couple arugula in the mix as well just for the peppery kick in the salad.
I really like tomatoes and usually grow a couple of varieties a year. Many cherry tomatoes or slicing tomatoes are great to plant then you will be rewarded with a long harvest season with little care requirements. You might need to water them and stake them, but otherwise, they don’t need a lot. Pretty good deal considering a tiny batch of them from the store is about $4 a pop.
You might choose to go for a more heirloom variety like a Brandywine though I’ve always been partial to Roma tomatoes. Roma tomatoes are extremely productive and hardy where they are almost always my most abundant producer unless I have a hybrid out there.
Roma tomatoes are also good for all types of sauce, slicing, or paste. Roma is said to be one the best variety to cook in the oven a bit and eat because of the taste profile.
Cherry, paste and slicing tomatoes all have long harvest seasons and little upkeep after planting and caging or staking, other than moderate watering – and lots of harvesting!
Just about every year I’d end up with very high yields from my zucchini and my spaghetti squash. One problem is squash can take up a lot of space so I always opted for container approved varieties even if I was ground planting.
One good squash or zucchini can product a lot at harvest. It should be mentioned that for the most part pumpkins are not worth it. They take up way too much space. I had good results with a container variety, but I would have been better off with another zucchini.
Sort of like the zucchini, cucumbers usually have huge harvests an can be turned into pickles. Some people who like to do Farmer’s Markets sometimes only grow cucumber so they can offer pickles.
Cucumbers are also good for fresh eating.
When someone comes to me asking about gardening advice and asks what plant they should start with, I always say peppers. People all seem to think it is tomatoes that are the ultimate starter gardener plant. I think that peppers make the more viable candidate.
They are drought resistant, have very little in the way of pest or disease, can be cloned, can be started from seed easily, they are basically immortal if you have a garage that can safely overwinter them. Peppers can also grow extremely large if you keep them going for a few years.
Some people prefer jalapenos and some prefer the ancho. I used to grow some of the rare super hots and I’d sell the seeds for about $5 a pack or I’d sell the small plants to people. You could technically build a whole small business as there are a lot of pepper enthusiasts.
Nice thing about peppers is they can do well in hot or cold climates up to a point. They ripen up about the same time as tomatoes as well so salsa can be made.
Hot peppers are ripe just about the same time as tomatoes which will allow you to make amazing fresh salsa and perfect canned salsa if you have enough plants.
Berries and Berry Trees
Berries are probably the most bang for your buck. Berries in the store are a LOT. A few years ago I spent a couple months trying to plan to convert my whole garden into a berry bush garden. I was even prepping up to get my yard converted into proper raised bed planters for some specially picked berry varieties.
Where I lived I potted up some wild blackberries and they about took over their planting patch. It was nice having those berries and during that time I realized that I had a mulberry tree out back in my forest lot as well.
If you go to the store to get some blackberries you will want to go with the Triple Crown Thornless variety. Good producer and good taste.
Mulberry trees are also a good addition in terms of value. Each leaf can be used for tea and you can look at Etsy where people sell their mulberry leaves to get an idea on their worth. They also give berries which are a good snack or good for pies or jams.
Strawberries are one of those weird things where I’ve had good results and awful results. When I was a young girl my mother installed a strawberry garden because she had a long strip of land off to the side of her house that was ripe for planting. She put in about 50-70 plants and those things gave us berries for many years and grew out there wild.
Rhubarb is a bit fussy the first year it is planted. After it gets set in the growing area it can basically be ignored. This plant is also perennial and it was a reliable spring producer.
It was pretty nice having a small patch because where I lived I couldn’t find it in stores and the guy I was with at the time liked rhubarb pie. It is also pretty expensive to buy when it is available.
Rhubarb is very versatile for a variety of food applications from pie to chutney to muffins to cakes. I’d almost add asparagus to the mix though it takes way more space to be useful and longer to establish.
Bonus Super Plant
This plant makes the list not exactly because of a huge cost-saving thing, but because it is so reliable and near impossible to kill. I tried something I saw on a gardening site where I planted the roots of a spent green onion.
That green onion produced all year long and I never watered it, never fertilized it, and harvested from it when needed and otherwise forgot about it. If you have a famously brown thumb, then go plant some green onions and impress people.
I found that after my first successful harvests or even after a growing season of testing, I often had either a lot of seeds or seeds I knew I wasn’t going to grow again. Something I did was set my extra or unwanted seeds aside and would offer them up to anyone who acted like they were interested in growing them.
This helped people looking to get started and also helped me declutter unwanted seeds.
Learn to Save Seeds
Part of having a garden is learning to save seeds. I really liked developing a couple of plant lines that came from selecting from my best performing plants. I didn’t have to purchase seed again and the resulting plant lines were doing well in my yard. Saving seeds is also pretty easy and it cuts down a lot of expense not having to buy seeds or plants.
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