Free and Frugal Gardening: Fertilizer and Mulch

Fertilizer and mulch – 2 very important things for a productive garden. Fertilizer is a necessity, especially if you expect to grow veggies in the same place for more than a year. Mulch isn’t always necessary but is incredibly helpful, especially in certain climates. It balances soil temperature, reducing extremes of hot and cold, and it retains moisture. Last summer, my garden went almost 2 months without rain, and I watered it only a handful of times because of the mulch. My neighbor’s garden without mulch required daily watering, and the plants still suffered.

Free and Frugal Gardening: Fertilizer and Mulch | The King's Table

Fertilizer and Soil Amendments

There are plenty of ways to get free fertilizer instead of investing in bags of Miracle Gro, and your homemade ones may include some minerals that aren’t in the typical bags of NPK formulas (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium).

  • Diluted human urine and wood ash — these make an almost-perfect combo for veggie plants. Dilute the urine at a ratio of 10:1, like 10 cups of water to 1 cup of urine.
  • Crushed or powdered egg shells — Egg shells add calcium, but they take many months to break down. Crush them finely and sprinkle or mix them into the soil in the fall.
  • Compost – Make your own pile and add it to the garden, grow directly in the compost pile, do trench composting throughout the garden (basically burying your kitchen scraps in different places), or steep finished compost in water for compost tea. Here’s a step-by-step guide for using compost tea.
  • Epsom salt – It adds magnesium. Dilute to 1 tbsp in a gallon of water, though I admit to just sprinkling a little around the plants before it rains. If you’re used to getting great deals at CVS, Walgreens, or another pharmacy store, getting cheap Epsom salts there will probably be easy for you.
  • Nitrogen-fixing plants — These plants absorb nitrogen from the air and put it back into the soil once they die and decompose, providing nutrients for other plants. The legume family are common nitrogen fixers, including peas, beans, and clover.
  • Other nutrient-adding plants — Seaweed and comfrey are touted for their garden-enhancing nutrients. Just chop and place around your plants or lightly dig them into the soil.
  • Fish entrails — Do you like to fish or know someone who does? Save the heads, entrails, bones, etc. and bury them where you plan to plant corn.
  • Manure — Almost any type of bird or herbivore can provide free fertilizer, though read up on your type since some manures need to sit longer than others before being applied to the garden. Consider horse, cow, chicken, rabbits, gerbils, chinchillas, ducks, pet birds, etc.
  • Aquarium water
  • Cooking water – like when you’ve boiled pasta, beans, or veggies
  • Animal bones – Bags of bone meal in the store come with a hefty price, but if you make chicken stock or beef stock, you already have a free source. After simmering the bones for broth, crush them and mix them into the soil. If you don’t make stock, you can bury your bones whole. They’ll take longer to break down, but they’ll actually have more nutrients than the bones used for broth. Bury them deeply so an animal doesn’t dig them up.
  • Shellfish waste — shrimp shells, crab shells, etc. Again, bury them well so that an animal doesn’t dig them up.


Depending on the type of mulch you choose, it will perform double-duty and add nutrients to the soil as it breaks down.

  • Cardboard and paper — This includes printer paper, newspaper, notebook paper, and shredded paper. These make a great bottom layer of mulch, especially if you’re suppressing weeds.
  • Wood chips, bark, or sticks
  • Grass clippings
  • Pine needles
  • Straw
  • Weeds – Pull them or cut them down before flowering, and let them decompose in your garden. Also called “chop and drop.”
  • Leaves – To prevent being blown away in the wind, freshly raked leaves will need to be weighed down with something heavier, like wood chips, pine needles, or cut weeds. Shredded leaves or old ones that are partially decomposed and matted together will stay in place better.
  • Dried bean shells
  • Peanut and nut shells — Black walnuts contain a chemical called juglone that can inhibit growth in many plants. Other trees in the walnut family, including pecan, butternut, and bitternut hickory, produce some juglone as well, though not as much as walnuts.
  • Corn husks
  • Small rocks and pebbles — especially for your paths
  • Pine cones, sweet gum briars (the spikey balls common in the South), and other prickly things — These can be used in low-maintenance perennial beds. The briars may keep cats and critters out of the bed, though some animals are stubborn and walk through anyways.

What do you use for fertilizer and mulch?

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Free and Frugal Gardening: 5 Lessons Learned
Free and Frugal Gardening: Plants and Seeds


2 thoughts on “Free and Frugal Gardening: Fertilizer and Mulch

  1. My wife is wanting to start a garden this year, so thanks for the tips on fertilizing and mulch. I like your point about using animal bones from cooking in the soil. We’ll have to hold onto any chicken or beef leftovers we have and try this out.


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