Growing your own garden is a smart way to save money on delicious, fresh produce, but you don't need to be born with a green thumb to harvest a fruitful bounty. You also don't need to spend huge sums on plants, gardening supplies, or hired landscapers either -- despite what some nurseries or big-box stores might tell you. From free seeds and compost to low-cost ways to care for your plants, here are 22 ways to continue gardening for dirt cheap.
GET FREE GARDENING ADVICE
Before you dig in, get advice from the pros. The USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture provides free and informal education and other helpful resources for home gardeners and farmers through university extension programs across the country. Local garden clubs and community gardens offer free classes; look for those led by Master Gardeners. Don't forget to check your local library or the USDA National Agricultural Library for helpful books and articles.
JOIN A COMMUNITY GARDEN
Community gardens are a popular option for people with limited space, particularly in urban areas. You get a small plot of land usually for low annual membership dues, and you can save money thanks to shared tools, free compost, classes, and advice from fellow gardeners. The American Community Gardening Association website can help you find a garden. If the waitlist is really long at the gardens in your area or there isn't one close by, the site offers resources and advice on starting your own.
TRY CONTAINER GARDENING
Container gardening is another low-cost option if space is scarce. Whether growing in pots on your porch, a window box, or maybe a creative vertical garden on a wall, container gardening cuts down on costs because you don't have to use as much fertilizer, water, and other resources. You can often create one using free or found objects, such as wooden pallets and boxes. It's a great way to develop your gardening skills with minimal investment. Plus, the plants will brighten up your home.
SPLIT THE COSTS
By connecting with other gardeners, you can cut costs tremendously. Together, you can buy in bulk and save on fertilizer, compost, plants, and other supplies. You can host plant swaps and seed exchanges so you can diversify your garden without spending money. You can also share tools, equipment, and other resources. To find your gardening community, ask friends, post on social media, or see if there's already a gardening club in your area.
TEST AND IMPROVE YOUR SOIL
Healthy soil is the ultimate key to a healthy garden. You can do some simple at-home tests to find out how much sand, silt, or clay is in your soil. Inexpensive soil tests are also available at garden stores. If you want a deeper look, most local extension programs offer free or inexpensive testing that examines pH levels, salinity, and the overall biological composition of your soil. After testing your soil, you can find out what to add to create a productive garden.
MAKE COMPOST OR GET IT FREE
Adding organic compost is one of the best ways to improve your soil, and you can do it without spending a dime by making your own. You can build a container with inexpensive or found materials, or check local message boards to see if anybody is giving one away. You likely already have compost ingredients like kitchen scraps, grass clippings, dry leaves, wood chips, and newspaper. You can also often get free materials like coffee grounds from local coffee shops or manure and straw from farms. Local municipalities often give away free compost.
GROW PLANTS FROM SEED
Rather than buying seedlings, you can start your garden from seed for much less money, and in many cases for free. Most seed companies offer free seed catalogues to order by mail. If you order very early in the season, you can usually get discounts. One seed packet is usually more than enough for one home gardener for a season, so this is a great time to go in together with your gardening pals. Find out if there is a local seed lending library where you can "check out" seeds for free if you bring back seeds at the end of the season.
PLANT WHAT YOU'LL ACTUALLY EAT AND ENJOY
This might seem obvious, but it's easy to get carried away with wanting to plant everything under the sun, when you're really going to eat only your favorite vegetables and fruit. Think about what you currently eat and start growing those items, and hold off on the more exotic varieties until you've got the hang of it. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, beans, and hearty greens like kale are usually a good place to start.
CHOOSE LOW-MAINTENANCE, HIGH-YIELD PLANTS
Choose plants that are simple to care for and produce a big yield, such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and squash. You'll want to know your local Plant Hardiness Zone to find out what plants thrive in your area. Talk to other local gardeners to learn what grows well. Also, consider easy-to-grow salad greens and herbs, since you can cut them as you need them and they'll continue growing. Succession planting, where you continually replant and rotate crops throughout the season, is another way to increase your yield.
GROW YOUR OWN HEIRLOOM AND ORGANIC PLANTS
Big-ticket grocery items, such as heirloom tomatoes and organic greens, can be grown in your garden, and you'll save a bundle. Plus they'll taste even better when you pick them just before eating them. Growing organically can also save money as you don't buy costly pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides.
PICK PLANTS THAT CAN BE PRESERVED
As you may have learned from your grandparents, preserving the vegetables and fruits from a garden is a practical way to extend its bounty and save money throughout the year. Potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, and winter squash can be stored for months at cool temperatures in a cellar. Tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, beets, and sweet corn can be canned or frozen. Follow the guidelines from the National Center For Home Food Preservation to stay safe and to make the most of what you grow.
GET CREATIVE WITH YOUR GARDEN DESIGN
Why buy fancy garden containers and decorations when you can save a bundle and have a unique look by getting creative with your design? Raised beds are a great way to cut costs as you only need to focus on watering the beds, and you can build your own beds fairly easily and cheaply often using found or discounted lumber -- just be sure the wood is not chemically treated. Consider repurposing things like old drawers, tires, wooden pallets, and shipping crates to build creative plant containers.
SAVE MONEY ON WATER
Avoid costly water bills during the growing season by utilizing water-efficient designs in your garden. There are plenty of ways to cut water costs, including using drip irrigation and soaker hoses, and watering early in the day to avoid evaporation loss. You can also collect water with rain barrels and other water harvesting techniques. Many cities offer incentive programs and discounts on rain barrels and other systems. Pay attention to how much water each plant requires. Some plants, such as lettuce and broccoli, need more water than others.
Mulch is another way to curb water costs as it helps retain moisture and cuts down on garden maintenance like weeding without the use of herbicides. Bark mulch from the store can get expensive, especially if you have a lot of ground to cover. Cheap mulching options that will also help improve your soil include shredded dry leaves, newspaper printed with soy ink, biodegradable landscaping paper, or a layer of compost. Your city or town might offer free wood mulch. Just be sure that it's been well-aged and doesn't contain weed seeds or other contaminants.
MAKE YOUR OWN ORGANIC PEST DETERRENTS
Avoiding harsh chemical pesticides and herbicides in your garden is not only a good idea for the planet but also for whoever is eating your fruits and vegetables. Thankfully, there are plenty of homemade pest deterrents that can be made from common household items such as garlic and chili pepper.
GROW COMPANION PLANTS
One of the best ways to organically deter unwanted insects and encourage beneficial ones such as bees and other pollinators is by planting helpful border plants and flowers such as marigolds, lavender, and sunflowers. Companion planting can also deter pests and help boost the flavor and strength of multiple plants.
PLANT AT THE RIGHT TIME
While you might be excited to start planting everything at once, knowing the right time to plant certain crops can save you money and make your garden more productive. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is a good place to start as you plan your garden, and the Planting Dates Calendar from the Old Farmer's Almanac can show you what to plant and when, as well as when to harvest, based on where you live.
FIND INEXPENSIVE EQUIPMENT
Yard sales and online classifieds are great places to pick up useful garden tools such as shovels, trowels, and pruners for cheap, just be sure they're in good working condition. You also should visit garden supply shops and hardware stores at the end of the growing season, as they'll often sell tools at a huge discount to clear inventory.
CARE FOR YOUR TOOLS
You'll want to take good care of your tools so you don't have to spend more money later. Be sure to rinse off your tools after each gardening session and dry them well before storing them. Wiping down wooden handles and metal parts with linseed oil will help preserve and protect them. You also may want to invest in a sharpener or a whetstone to prolong the life of blades and pruning shears. Also, add lubricant to keep pivot points moving.
TEND TO YOUR GARDEN REGULARLY
As exciting as starting a garden can be, our busy lives can sometimes get in the way as the season moves along. But by tending to your garden regularly and making it part of your regular routine, you can keep your garden flourishing and get the most bang for your buck from your investment. Creating a special calendar or using an inexpensive or free garden planner, easily found online, can help you stay on schedule and remind you to tend to your plot.
EXTEND THE GROWING SEASON WITH COLD FRAMES
One way to start growing your plants early in the season and protect them late into the fall is by using cold frames. Think of a cold frame as a mini-greenhouse that requires less space and usually costs less. Most cold frame designs can be built in a weekend afternoon and can be constructed from inexpensive or free recycled materials such as old windows, spare lumber, PVC pipes or sheets of vinyl. Cold frames can extend your growing season by weeks and sometimes months.
CONSIDER PLANTING TREES FOR FREE AIR-CONDITIONING
If you have room, planting trees is a great way to provide shade on hot sunny days and help keep your house cool with free and natural air-conditioning. Plus, fruit trees and bushes can add to your edible harvest. Trees can get expensive, but if you start small, the cost isn't usually too much and the pay off down the road will be huge. Certain trees can be grown in large pots on rooftops, balconies and porches, including citrus, figs, and stone fruit, depending on where you live.