I grew my first vegetable plant in 2009 as a way to cut our grocery bill. I was a newlywed right out of college, with no big-time job prospects and plenty of student loans. It made sense to grow a garden with the least amount of expenses, so we had to get creative in some areas. No bagged Miracle Gro or easy pre-built garden beds; they were out of my budget. But I had to come to terms with a few things.
1 – A cheap garden may not by pretty. I took what I could get, which means things were going to be mismatched. I had to accept that I wouldn’t have raised beds of all the same materials or nice gravel on all of my pathways. Also, no matter how pretty annual flowers are, I didn’t splurge on a plant whose only purpose is to be colorful. The plants and seeds that I bought had to be edible (or medicinal, if the price was right). I could only get flowers if someone gave me cuttings or I got them free at a plant swap.
2 – I had to be vocal. I typically lean more introverted than extroverted, but people have to know what I need if I want free garden materials. I talked to people about gardening, comparing notes with others about what worked for them and what I’m doing. I made it clear that I was looking for certain plants and materials, so these people thought of me when they had things to get rid of or were dividing plants.
3 – A free garden takes more time to set up. Instead of buying a plant whenever I wanted, I often waited until I found someone with cuttings or extra seeds. Seven years after starting the garden, there are still MANY plants that I plan to get. If I had an extra $1000, I could have bought them all in 2009. Also, instead of going to one store to buy all of the supplies at one time, I drove to different houses on different days to pick up the materials. (Make sure the gas money is worth it before doing this.) I wasn’t able to mulch the whole garden at one time. Leaves were my main source of mulch and people rake on different days, so I got a few bags of leaves one week and more bags the week after. Also, a cheap garden means more DIY stuff, which usually takes extra time compared to premade supplies.
4 – I needed a budget, because completely free gardening wasn’t going to happen for me. Maybe a set of seeds didn’t sprout, a free supply of fertilizer fell through, or there was a plant that I just really, REALLY want. Every year, I’ve splurged on something, so a budget makes sure I don’t splurge too much.
5 – You don’t really need much to begin gardening. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of raised beds, fertilizer, plants, seeds, compost, hand tools, row covers, trellises, fencing, and every other cool garden supply. However, the only things that are absolutely necessary are soil, water, seeds, and light (but even soil is negotiable, such as in hydroponics). Yes, unique containers and raised beds are nice. Store-bought soil amendments will help your plants grow better and produce more fruit. A trellis for those cucumbers would be helpful instead of letting them grow on the ground. But if you are absolutely stretched for cash, none of these are necessities. After the necessities, I’d invest in soil amendments, a trowel, and gloves, but your growing medium and personal gardening preferences will determine what you need most.
Gardening for free is possible, but I prefer inexpensive or frugal gardening. It forces me to be creative and less wasteful without feeling deprived. When I have a little extra money for gardening supplies, I ask 3 questions before buying anything. First, how necessary is the item? Second, how difficult would it be to get a free substitute? Third, how many hours do I have to work to pay for the item? In other words, do I want it badly enough to spend those hours working?
Why do you garden? Is it for cheaper produce, the love of gardening, or something else?