Gardening is an incredibly popular hobby through the spring and summer months, and it’s particularly enjoyed by people who are frugal and looking to save a little extra money on groceries. At the same time, big box stores market expensive tools and equipment, and if you aren’t careful gardening can become a pricey endeavor. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a first-time gardener, there are a few strategies you should know that can help you save money. In most cases, you don’t need the fancy, cutting-edge equipment (pun intended), and your garden can be functional and good-looking at a low price. Here are some of our favorite tips to help you garden on the cheap.
Pick the right location
If your garden fails or you end up relocating it, you will waste time and money. To avoid this, it’s important to think carefully and do extensive planning. In the months leading up to spring, monitor your yard for areas that get the most sun, and pay attention to trees that aren’t yet in bloom but could create shade later.
Start from seed instead of buying plants
Planting from seeds is cheaper, per plant, than buying plants at the store. And, you can start seeds indoors to get a jumpstart on your harvest and to make a staggering harvest easier to achieve. However, there are a few plants that are tough to start from seed or have a hard time with transplanting and might not like their new home in your garden. Be sure to research the plant variety before you sow seed.
Keep multiple plants when you thin
When you start plants from seed, particularly indoors, you’ll reach the step where you “thin” them. This usually involves cutting down the weaker plants so that they die and the strongest survives and continues to grow before you transplant it in the garden.
It’s important to note, though, that sometimes you will have multiple strong plants in the same pod. Rather thank picking one to die and one to live, you can actually break them up and replant them both. Doing this on a large scale will help you stretch your seed production. For instance, if you planted 60 seeds into 20 pods, and 10 of those pods had two strong plants, you could end up with 30 seedlings using this method, which is a 50 percent increase.
Opt for heirloom seeds that you can save and re-use
Starting plants from seed is a great way to save money, but the seeds can still add up to be a big expense (especially if you have a large garden with many varieties). One solution to this is to opt for heirloom seeds. You can buy these in stores, from catalogs and from local seed groups in your area. Not only will you get to grow unique vegetables, but the seeds will be reusable (here’s a guide on how to keep and store seeds). Of course, you will need to take care and make sure you know how to properly preserve them, but if you get it right you’ll have free seeds for next year. And besides, who doesn’t want to grow yellow and purple tomatoes?
Avoid buying stakes
Your garden will likely need stakes of some sort to support plants like squash and tomatoes, bush beans and others. However, at a hardware or garden store, you will probably find stakes to be priced around $3, and tomato cages can cost you even more. An extra couple of dollars per plant will really throw off the profitability of your garden. Instead, think outside the box to create free stakes. You can cut fallen limbs into shorter sections and use those to support your plants. Or, maybe you have old fence posts lying around that can serve the same purpose.
Make or find a re-purposed trellis
There’s nothing quite like a decorative trellis in your garden being climbed by vines. Unfortunately, these asthetically pleasing pieces can cost hundreds. If you’re handy, you can likely make a trellis for half the cost or less. You might also be able to buy a secondhand trellis, including old iron pieces from antique stores or salvage yards. Lastly, you can re-purpose other items as a trellis; one popular option for this is to use metal headboards.
Compost so you can buy less fertilizer
This is one of our more obvious tips, but don’t overlook it! Chances are you can create quite a bit of organic fertilizer in your own kitchen, especially if you have a large family. Uneaten fruits and vegetables, coffee grounds (and filters), eggshells, grains and other items can be easily composted. On top of this, leaves and grass clippings can be added to the mix. In hot months, this mixture should break down pretty quickly into a nutritious addition for your soil.
Find free or cheap manure
If you live within driving distance of a rural area, chances are that you can find some farms that have a surplus of manure, and many of them try to get rid of it in the spring. They know that local gardeners can use it and frequently post on Craigslist and other forums. Take advantage of these opportunities, as manure will add important nutrients to the garden. Manure can go for $5 or more per 50 pound bag at the store, and that only serves a small area.
Look for free mulch (like leaves)
Mulch in a garden is great because it can reduce maintenance by keeping out weeds, add nutrients to the soil and help retain moisture. But store bought mulch isn’t cheap. The good news is that you really don’t need store bought mulch. You can use your own leaves (remember all that raking you did back in the fall?), especially if they’re shredded. Or, you can likely find free mulch at your area landfill. The quality here can vary, though. In some instances, you’ll get mulch that includes all sort of debris (chunks of rubber tires, for instance), but in others you’ll get mulch made completely from yard waste. You’ll want to opt for the latter, so be sure to check with your local authorities.
Make efficient use of space
Big or small, you can stretch the ROI of your garden even further if you make wise use of the space. This means growing as much as you can in a carefully planned manner. One popular school of thought is square foot gardening, which devotes a square or group of squares to particular plants. One important theme in efficient gardening is to grow vertical, and you might be surprised to discover just how easy it easy to train cucumbers and even some tomato varieties to grow upward.
Ditch the raised beds if possible
Raised beds look great. They give your garden a clean, professional look and are incredibly useful in small spaces. The catch, though, is that they are quite expensive. Kits for raised beds usually end up costing over $100 just for 30 square feet or so. Even if you buy the lumber to make them yourself, it won’t be cheap. If it’s feasible, skip the raised beds.
If you need a raised bed, look for cheaper options
Not feasible? Ok, you might really need a raised bed because of space limitations (rooftop garden, anyone?), to help with drainage or to make life easier on your back. Luckily, there are many options to choose from, some of which might be cheaper than a traditional wood version. You can re-purpose bricks and even cinder blocks to help elevate your garden, for example. Other off the wall ideas include using free wood that you can find from places like Craigslist, or to make a bathtub garden (the possibilities really are endless).
Pick high-yielding varieties
If you devote money and garden space to plants, you will want to pick those that offer high yields. Of course, there are exceptions, particularly if you have a large garden, but if you’re dealing with a small area then this is extremely important. While there’s some debate on the most cost-effective plants, here’s a good list of high-yielding varieties to get you started:
- Lettuce (and just about any other salad green)
- Pole beans
Remember, grow vertical when you can, which will help stretch these yields even further. And, be sure to check out out our post about the top 3 cost-effective vegetables to learn more.
Pick plants that would cost a lot at the store
Not only do you want high yields, but you also want to save on costs at the store. Grow the items that have higher prices in order to increase your savings (just be sure they are fruits and vegetables that you enjoy and can use).
Buy local to avoid shipping
One cost you shouldn’t have to worry about too much is shipping, but the big exception is seed catalogs or online retailers. Try to avoid going this route, by checking with local nurseries instead, who tend to carry large selections and quantities. You can also look for local seed exchange groups. If all else fails, try to make your catalog or Internet order a large, one-time order so that you don’t pay for more than one shipping expense.
Make free animal repellent
Aphids, rabbits, deer and every animal in between can wreak havoc on your garden and undo your hard work. There’s nothing as discouraging as finding a prize fruit or vegetable in the making that’s been bitten in half. Your best defense against critters big and small is to be proactive, but it doesn’t have to cost much. Sure, stores will sell expensive and exotic-sounding solutions, but you might not need those. Water with just a little dish soap has been known to solve aphid problems. Squirrels hate the smell of pepper, and a homemade cayenne pepper spray can keep them away. If that won’t work you might also try rubber snakes. For any critter, there is likely a homemade solution.
Shop yard sales for tools and pots, specifically
Like with just about anything, yard sales are a good way to find deals on gardening supplies. The two things you’ll want to keep an eye out for are pots (or other plant containers) and tools. You’ll be amazed at the markdowns you find on these to items specifically, as compared to their retail prices.
Borrow a truck or utility trailer when needed
In your gardening venture you might come across a situation where you are tempted to pay for delivery. It could be plants, mulch, or a bunch of soil amendments. Whatever the case, delivery charges likely aren’t worth it. Instead, you should sweet talk a friend who owns a truck or trailer and ask to borrow it for the day. You could even buy them a meal and save more than half of the delivery fee. You could even consider buying a used trailer on Craigslist, as they hold value very well.
We hope these tips help you enjoy a greener garden and wallet this year. Be sure to make wise use of the money you save, and put it toward goals like paying off debt. For more help with your budget and ideas for saving money, be sure to check out our ebooks and try out our build a budget calculator. Thanks for reading!