Beginners Guide To a Thrifty and Appealing Backyard Garden
7 Money Saving Gardening Tips for the new or experienced gardener
Your social media keeps flaunting pictures of stunning vegetable gardens! "Victory gardens" some of your friends called them when the pandemic started and everyone rushed to hoard seeds and baby chicks!
Does the idea of growing your own vegetables, fruits and herbs excite you? For a very small upfront investment of time and money, you too may join the elite ranks of those who enjoy the amazing rewards of fresh food from their own yards.
I have been a gardener for over 50 years. If you need any further convincing about WHY you should start at least a small garden in your backyard read this: 7 Ways a BackYard Garden Will Improve Your Family’s Lives
Then come back and learn how you truly can save money and enhance your life with even a small garden.
Gardening On a Budget
You are ready to jump in. You’ve done a little research. Here are my:
Top 7 ways to get started without breaking the bank.
If you follow my money saving tips, you will know that saving money for me does NOT always entail buying the cheapest. Sometimes saving money happens by investing in an item that will last long enough to offset it’s slightly higher cost. In gardening, I do both. For some things I will suggest the least expensive and for others we will invest in a longer range savings.
1. Garden Beds
The first question is always: Why garden beds? It is a great question which I will not explore completely here. Suffice it to say that in order to keep a garden neat and contained many backyard gardeners prefer the ease and the ascetic of garden beds over designated garden plots. So for the purposes of this article which is intended more for backyard gardeners we will talk about garden beds.
This is an area where I see gardeners spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars. I am about to share with you my very thrifty garden bed secret.
The secret is Fence Boards. And not just any fence boards. Get the untreated seconds. (Seconds are the ones that are not perfect. Sometimes they have odd knot holes or they might be cut slightly off.) Even with the outrageous prices of lumber right now, my 18 inch deep garden beds would cost me $40.00 each or if I reduced them to only 12 inches deep I could make one bed for about $25.00. Each side is 3 six inch high pine fence boards. I started with a pile of 6 foot boards and cut two feet off six of them. I have had the best results with ¾ inch thick boards. The half inch one's are too weak to last. My beds are therefore 6’ x 4’ the perfect size for me to be able to reach every part of the bed for planting, weeding and harvesting. I chose two by two’s to use for my corner anchors due to cost. If you are willing to spend a bit more, a 2 x 4 or even a 4x4 would serve as a sturdier corner support. You might wonder how durable fence boards are. Mine have lasted nicely for 9 years only needing a few repairs here and there. This year we did a major repair and replaced maybe one/sixth of the boards.
If you are resourceful and handy there are a myriad of other materials that make serviceable garden beds as well. Watch for a separate article detailing the pros and cons of different materials like pallets, tires, bricks, cinder blocks, logs, railroad ties, milk jugs, and more.
Soil is the area I choose to invest in for the long range benefits. My suggestions for what to fill your garden boxes with are as follows: Soil, sand if needed to loosen the soil, compost and peat moss. There are many other things you could add but this is an article not a book so I will keep it simple. If you are building only one or two boxes then one of the cheapest ways to buy compost, if you have not created it yourself, is to go to your local gardening or box store and ask what they do with the ripped bags of compost or soil. Many will sell them to you inexpensively. (Pro tip: Lay a tarp in your vehicle to avoid dirt spreading everywhere.) If you are going all out and building more than two boxes, having a load of compost delivered by a local landscape company is likely the best way to go. If you have a pick up truck and can get it yourself that’s great but I have found buying it in bulk is usually cheaper and they can often mix if for you with a good proportion of soil and compost. Peat Moss is controversial because it is a finite resource. It is wonderful at keeping the soil from compacting and at holding water so it doesn’t just filter through your bed. It is an investment for sure. I chose to buy one large (3 cubic foot) bag for every three garden beds. After filling the bed with my compost/soil mix, I add the peat moss and stir it into the top 6 inches or so of each bed. I believe my water savings has offset the original cost of the peat moss.
Obviously buying plants will cost more than starting with seeds. If you have the ability and the time and space to start your own seedlings indoors a few weeks prior to the frost free date, you will realize the greatest savings. You may even find that you have extras and can either sell or gift them to friends and neighbors. If you live in an area with a limited growing season, starting with plants will dramatically increase your yields each year. If you prefer to start with plants and are unable to grow them yourself there are more budget friendly sources. Search your neighborhood or local sales sites for gardeners with extras. You are likely to find many cheaper or even free plants to fill your garden. If you are not particular about varieties this is often the way to go. It is also a great way to connect with and learn from gardeners in your particular region.
Usually a bit more expensive than neighbors but less than the gardening store would be a farmer’s market or a co-o. There are many co-ops and farmers markets, you just have to find one in your region.
Once you get your garden going you may want to learn how to save seeds from your own plants for the following year for an even greater savings. It is such a satisfying feeling to plant seeds that you collected and saved from your own harvest.
There are a few very useful tools for the backyard gardener to own but again, it is not necessary to rush right out and break the bank. Used tools work great. Estate sales are my favorite source of good gardening tools for less. Minimally I suggest a sturdy shovel, a good garden rake, a hand trowel and a small pair of pruning shears or scissors. One additional item that makes my life easier is my digging fork. I expect after your first year as a backyard gardener you will be hooked. Take your time and add to your used tool collection over the coming years.
You can’t have a garden without water. This can also be the greatest expense in some areas. Here are my tips for saving money on water: Collect rainwater to be used for your garden. Water twice a day early and late not when the sun is shining directly on the garden and evaporating everything before it has a chance to reach the plants’ roots. Use a timer so that you don’t accidentally over or under water. Put peat moss into each of your garden beds. Add mulch to the surface of your garden. This helps hold moisture and cuts down on weeds. A drip system is much more efficient than over head watering but it is also time consuming and costly to install. If you decide, after your first year that this is a long term hobby, it is worthwhile to invest in a watering system for your garden.
Ground cover or path cover! Mulching can save on weeding and watering. Here are some free or cheap ground covers: Cardboard boxes, broken down and laid on your garden paths. Grass clippings. Weeds, yep --pull them out and stack them on the garden paths and let them dry. Carpet scraps. Or really anything that will prevent weed growth. (Buried under my bee garden area is a giant hamburger advertisement! Many Billboard Advertisement companies will give the used signs away rather than add them to the landfills.) In the actual garden beds you may mulch with grass clippings, newspaper, black plastic, landscaping fabric, or straw.
Compost is free and easy. You need a home and a system. Many communities offer free compost classes every April in celebration of Earth Day and each participant leaves with my favorite kind of compost bin: FREE. Pallets work nicely to organize and contain the decaying piles or you can literally just make piles. The keys to good healthy compost are: make sure it can get air, turn it regularly, add water, and mix both green and brown matter in each compost pile. By having your own compost you save money on waste by throwing out less. You save by having to buy less compost. Making it is free. You save by adding nutrients right back into your own soil rather than having to replenish the soil more frequently.
Gardening On a Budget is Rewarding in Many Ways
It does not require a major investment to start and maintain your own garden. Even the more costly additions that many people choose to add to a backyard garden can be done within a reasonable budget still allowing your garden to produce more benefit for your family than it costs. Some years I spend a bit more than others. In 2021, I did not get my own plants started indoors, so I spent about 110.00 at a co-op on plant starts. I save my own seeds from year to year so this should be my only out of pocket expense besides water costs. We will eat hundreds of pounds of produce from this garden and I will can salsa and pickles and store squash, onions and tomatoes to last through much of the winter. (I still have a few spaghetti squash left from last year’s harvest.)
Extra Tip for Low Income Americans:
If you live in the United States and qualify for Food Assistance (formerly known as Food Stamps), your benefits will cover gardening supplies. You may purchase bedding plants, seeds and more. Check your individual state for details.