“I’d love to garden, but it’s too expensive; I couldn’t afford to buy all that stuff.’ I was bewildered the first time I heard someone say that, since gardening has allowed me to enjoy fresh organic produce cheaply.
Garden catalogs offer all sorts of expensive products to enhance your gardening experience, but you don’t need most of them. Here’s a quick introduction to gardening on the cheap.
Soil – The First Garden Essential
The first thing you’ll need for your garden is good soil, rich in organic matter. If your native soil drains well, supports rich plant growth and contains plenty of earth-worms you can just peel the sod off the surface of your garden area, spread an inch or so of compost on top and start planting.
If your native soil is poor you’ll need to add a lot more compost and organic matter. You can frame a raised bed with boards (not pressure treated!) or stones and fill it with compost and/or topsoil. Alternatively, you can mow over the existing the plants on your garden site, cover them with at least 4 layers of newspaper and pile 3 inches of compost on top of that.
Make your own compost. Food scraps, lawn clippings (unless you treat your lawn with pesticides or herbicides), leaves raked from your yard (ditto), coffee grounds, and manure (not from pigs, cats, dogs or humans) all make good compost.
You can get basic composting instructions from your local Cooperative Extension or online (see below). You’ll need to wait at least 3 months for your raw materials to break down into finished compost.
If you’re in a hurry, check whether your local community garden or transfer station offers free compost. (If it comes from the transfer station, ask what went into it and whether or not it’s safe for gardens, and be aware that it may contain glass or other sharp objects.)
Compost provides a well-drained, non-soggy growing medium. It also supplies most or all of the nutrients your plants need, so you don’t have to buy fertilizer.
Required Garden Tools
At a bare minimum you’ll want a shovel, a trowel and a watering can. Rakes, hand weeders, hoes, garden forks and hoses are also handy. You can probably get all these for free from someone who has them lying around in a garage (ask your friends and neighbors, or put a want ad up on Freecycle or Craigslist.)
Hand tools often go ex-tremely cheap at estate auctions. If you have to buy them new, you should be able to get the three basic tools for $15 or less.
Final Requirement – Seeds
Seeds are much cheaper than seedlings. Many fast-growing or frost-tolerant plants like peas, beans, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, lettuce, spinach, kale, chard, radishes, beets and carrots can be direct-seeded outside. Some frost-sensitive and/or long-season plants like peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and onions need to be started in-doors ahead of time by Northern gardeners. You don’t need a greenhouse; a sunny South-facing windowsill will do.
Choose vegetables that you know you and your family will eat. When deciding how many seeds to buy, think about how much food you get from each seed. One carrot seed will grow into one carrot; you harvest it once and it’s done. One tomato seed will grow into a plant from which you’ll keep harvesting tomatoes from plant maturity until frost.
Buy open-pollinated varieties, not hybrids, if you want to be able to save money in the future by saving your own seeds. Open-pollinated varieties are also likely to be cheaper, while new introductions and proprietary varieties can be quite expensive.
You don’t need to buy starter pots for seedlings grown indoors; old food containers will work. Refraining from buying pesticides, herbicides and fungicides will save you money and keep toxic chemicals out of your garden. If you can afford to splurge on organic pesticides and fungicides, save them for a last resort.
Start by removing pests and weeds by hand. You can guard against fungi and diseases by spraying your plants with 1 part milk to 9 parts water, repel slugs by sprinkling crushed eggshells around your plants and ward off cutworms by encircling plant stems with cornmeal. Ask your neighbors or your Cooperative Extension for other cheap home remedies.