I’ve heard it over and over again, “Gardening is expensive!” Well, yes it can be. But it doesn’t have to be. Our family spends about $300 a year on our garden and orchard. We’re able to grow about 75% of the produce needed for our family, which at this time is mostly 6 people – two adults, three older teens/adults, and an elementary child (with frequent visits from our oldest son and grandson). There are many ways to practice frugal gardening and today I’m sharing some of our best frugal gardening tips.
Planning your frugal garden
It’s been said that 10 minutes of planning can save you an hour of work. I believe that’s true for garden planning too. What kind of garden will you have – a row garden, raised beds, container garden, square-foot garden, or a mixture of all of these?
If you need help planning your garden, The Gardening Notebook will help walk you through figuring out all basic stuff, like what gardening zone you’re in and how to map out your garden.
Investing in your soil
So, this isn’t the pretty side of gardening but I believe building healthy soil is more important that what seeds or plants you plant. If you have great soil, you can plant not-so-great seeds and still get a decent harvest. But if you’re soil is dead, even the best seeds on the market won’t grow and produce.
If you’ve never had your soil tested, here are some frugal ways to do it. You’ll get best results by sending your soil off to a soil testing site, but you can still learn a lot about your soil with these other ways.
In the beginning of your gardening experience, if you have to make a decision between spending money on building healthy soil or buying seeds (or plants)… build healthy soil.
As your soil becomes healthy, you’ll be able to invest fewer dollars in building it because the microbes will do the work of keeping it healthy.
Investing in your soil,would mean doing things like not tilling, purchasing good quality compost, using worm castings, and mulching. It’s easy and cheap to set up a vermicomposting system to harvest worm castings. You can even use it as a tea to combat plant disease.
Eventually I’d love to be able to create enough compost and mulch on our property that we don’t have to bring it in, but that’s just not the case yet. So, we purchase several cubic yards of mushroom compost from a local mushroom farm each year. We also try to get the tree trimming guys to dump their load of wood chips on our property instead at the landscaping company across the street. Sometimes the tree trimmers are game and sometimes they aren’t – but I ask whenever I see them in the area.
Everything that can be composted, should be. I’ve been knowing to bring home scraps from church functions or family visits to put in the compost bin. I rescue cardboard from friend’s homes before it gets carted off to be recycled.
We use the deep litter method in our hen house and clean it out twice a year. When we clean it out we pick an unused bed in the garden and start a new compost pile with the bedding from the hen house right in the garden bed. Every spring and every fall we have a new bed that is full of beautiful loose composted soil – and microbes. We also use this method every winter to create a lot of free compost to use around our trees.
Tools, seeds and plants for frugal gardening
Ask around for what you need. You can get leaves for mulching from your neighbors’ curbside. You can get coffee grounds from your local coffee shop. You can get cardboard for weed suppression and composting from your local stores.
If someone has a plant you like, ask if you can have a cutting to start your own. Gardeners are some of the most generous people I know and will gladly share clippings from their plants. Here’s a list of other places to get free or cheap seeds and plants.
Use what you already have. What do you have that you can use in the garden instead of buying something? That’s the question you need to ask every time you’re about to buy something. Do you have access to large logs you can use for raised beds? Can you use milk jugs for a homemade irrigation system? We have some cattle panels that we use for trellises but for years we used (and still do use) things like the iron bars that we removed from our windows when we bought this house and an old futon frame. We made some trellises for my sister from some old wooden window screens (we took the screens out). Some people use pallets as trellises.
For harvesting I use baskets that I pick up at thrift stores, a knife from my kitchen, and kitchen scissors I get free with a purchase from Harbor Freight. There are so many fun gardening gadgets but honestly, most are not needed and you can easily use something you already own.
Saving on seeds and plants. Not many people need all the seeds that come in a seed packet, so get with a friend and decide on what seeds to share. Also, starting your own plants from seed is a lot cheaper and you’ll get more variety than buying transplants. To start seeds you can use household items like old strawberry containers or yogurt containers, toilet paper rolls or paper towel rolls, or my favorite tool – the soil block builder – then you don’t need individual containers. You can also make your own seed tape so you don’t waste those little seeds such as carrots and lettuce.
If you need to buy seeds, my favorite place is MiGardener Seed Company. They only sell heirloom seeds and most are just $2 a packet. If you use this link you’ll get a 10% discount on your entire order.
Plan to let some of your vegetables grow to maturity for saving their seeds. I also let some plants just go to seed and reseed themselves for the next year; basil is really good at reseeding. Propagate your own plants with cuttings or their roots. Herbs propagate really well, so start there.
Buy smaller plants if you buy plants. I promise, in time your smaller plant will be just as big and productive as the larger one – and maybe more so.
Understand Gardening Economics for Frugal Gardening
In order to get the most out of your frugal garden, it’s important to consider how much a plant can truly produce. For some plants, if you plant one seed, you get one vegetable to harvest; onions, carrots, cabbage, and cauliflower are some examples.
For other plants, if you plant one seed, you get many fruits or vegetables to harvest; tomatoes, beans, kale, and squash are some examples. For the most part you’ll want to focus your time and money on plants that give you lots of produce to harvest.
I use some worksheets to track how much I need to plant to feed my family for a year. They aren’t perfect but give me a base line to start with and the more I use them the more useful they are. You can get a copy of these worksheets emailed to you by filling out the form below.
Then there’s the difference between varieties that that produce a lot in a short period of time, and those produce steadily all season. Tomatoes and snap beans fall into this category. Determinate tomatoes will set fruit and ripen it all about the same time and indeterminate varieties will set and ripen fruit throughout the growing season. Unless you’re going to can the tomatoes, indeterminate varieties are probably the best for eating fresh throughout the season.
Bush beans will produce all at once but pole beans will produce throughout the season. Some people plant both types so they can have a lot ready at one time for canning and then have some ready throughout the season for eating fresh.
Lastly, there are plants that die after one season (annuals), plants that die after two seasons (biennials), and plants that will produce for many seasons (perennials).
On a per plant basis, you’ll want to spend the least amount of money on annuals. There is no reason to spend $10 on a tomato plant that will only give you tomatoes for one season. But it makes perfect sense to spend $10 on a fruit tree that will give you years of produce.
It’s your turn, what are some of your favorite frugal gardening tips?