How to Have a Frugal Garden
I have only four years of gardening experience under my belt, so I’d say I still fall into the “novice” category. I am definitely no Master Gardener. But, I’ve improved my gardening skills every year, and I now can count on having a bountiful supply of delicious home grown food in a veritable variety of colors (even though three members of our pack are colorblind). I strive for a frugal garden, to save money on my grocery bill. I am shocked from talking with my friends that they can spend hundreds of dollars each year gardening! I can happily report that each year I’ve saved more money on groceries than I’ve spent on soil, seeds, fencing, and starts. So in addition to getting hyper-local, fresh picked produce, I have a frugal garden!
Before you read this post, if you know you want a frugal garden read this book! I read it this spring, and it showed me all that I was missing out on in my first three years in the garden.
How do I start a frugal garden?
To start gardening you should first learn what is your USDA Plant Hardiness zone. I live in 5b, so if you live in zone 1 or 7, my advice will probably be no help at all! You can find your zone here, by entering your zip code. You’ll want to check the back of your seed packet or information in the seed catalog to confirm the plants you are growing will survive and thrive in your area.
Watch the sunlight move through your yard throughout the day to find the sunniest spot. That will be the best place for a garden! We also chose to butt ours up to a corner of our lot to be efficient even though the plants along the east fence don’t get sun until 11 am. As a benefit, this helped us save on fencing costs and labor. Our frugal fence consists of chicken wire (one inch mesh or less) and scrap aluminum fence posts. We got the chicken wire for free from a relative cleaning out their garage. The fence posts were also free to us from the dinky fence the previous homeowner built that we tore out when we fenced off our whole back yard. (Now our dogs have room to do their business and roam!) We buried the chicken wire 6” into the ground to keep out burrowing creatures, which works great, but is labor intense.
While it is most exciting to talk about the tasty veggies and fruits you want to spring from your land, we must first talk about your soil. I would be a bad civil/environmental engineer if I didn’t mention that this is where your plants get their nutrients to give you the crunchy veggies or juicy fruits. The soil is where it all starts.
Every resource I’ve read recommends you soil test your garden (find a lab local to you). This should only cost about $20. I must admit, I have never done this, but everything I read says that soil testing is key. And it definitely is if you plan to add fertilizers (organic or conventional). I really don’t add fertilizers that I can control, so I don’t really stress about the soil testing, but I bet if I did soil test it would be helpful. So, I’ll plan to soil test this fall to prepare for next spring.
The testing lab will give you instructions on how to test your soil, but basically you’ll want to collect soil from ten random spots throughout your garden beds and mix them in a five gallon bucket to get a “composite” sample.
The next thing you need to do for your soil is start your own compost. Our ⅓ acre lot backs up to woods that the neighborhood owns. We have our compost pile right up against our fence in the woods. It is 8’x3’, and we dug down into the soil 6” to get soil to mix with our yard waste and indoor compost (produce scraps, paper towels, some papers, etc.). Once or twice a week we bury our indoor compost in the pile working from left to right. Each time we have yard waste, we add it on top of the pile. By the time we make it to the right side, the left is ready for more. Our neighbors also have a compost pile in the woods that the community adds to. As far as I can tell our house is the only one that actually uses that compost. Every spring we haul finished compost the 200’ in our awesome utility wagon to layer into the garden. Each year you want to blend in some compost to your soil to replenish the nutrients.
If you have a smaller lot you may want to get one of these compost tumblers. Check with your city/township, they may have some to sell at a discount! I know ours does!
Just this year we are doing our first season of no till in the frugal garden. This supposedly helps support nematodes and soil health. We’ll see the benefits (hopefully) next year. We just added some compost to the top of our established beds. And we mixed it into the new expanded beds.
If you have sandy or super heavy clay soil and no access to a giant compost pile you may need to bring in some soil. Buying in bulk, by the cubic yard, is way cheaper than getting the bags at your home improvement store. A 50/50 topsoil compost mix will be best. You can get it delivered or find a friend with a truck/trailer to haul it to your home. Unless you have a super tiny garden this is one of the key ingredients of a frugal garden.
THIS IS THE KEY WAY TO ACHIEVE A FRUGAL GARDEN! Sorry to yell at you all, but constructed raised beds are not always the best way to garden and they are certainly one of the least frugal ways to garden. (but they do look pretty awesome.) We have our garden beds mounded and followed the advice in this awesome book.
Basically, we turned over the topsoil in the area of the garden bed, loosened the soil below, and added the topsoil from the walkways between beds to create a raised bed. This did not involve buying any expensive lumber, and we get the benefits of less backbreaking weeding. We added in some compost, and voilà, garden bed. Our beds are 3-4’ wide, which works great for us.
We NEVER step in the garden beds since that compresses the soil, which reduces the oxygen content. You need to be careful to not build your garden bed so wide you cannot weed it without stepping on it. Also, whenever I give people a tour of the garden, even though the beds are knee height people just walk on them. So, I always start the tour with a gentle request that they keep to the paths.
If your garden is in a highly visible area, you could line the sides with marigolds or another low growing flower to help with the aesthetic. Plus they help encourage pollinators. Next year we plan to start farming the front yard, which means we’ll have to keep the whole thing more visually appealing.
Throughout the spring/summer I mulch the beds with grass clippings to keep weeds in check and help the soil retain moisture. In the fall we rake all of our leaves into the garden.
Free and Cheap Seeds and Plants
A frugal garden is not complete without frugal plants. Buying seeds by the packet is so expensive! Find out where the farmers buy their seeds in your area! Most counties or regions have a farm co-op, where anyone can shop and buy seeds by the scoop! Some nurseries also sell seeds this way. This might limit some options, but you can always buy a couple of seed packets if you have a specific MUST HAVE plant.
Your local nursery will sell flats of annuals, which includes annual vegetable plants. We are able to scoop up a flat for $14, and includes about 30 plants. Depending on the size of your garden, this will be enough plants! You will only need seeds if you plan to grow lettuce, beans, peas, radish, beets or carrots. You can get everything else as a started plant. Each year, I set and stick to a budget of $30 for seeds/plants. This year, I spent about $10.
The only way I got down to $10 spent is by asking around! I was not afraid of being seen as a frugal weirdo! I asked my friends, coworkers, and the Internet where to find free seeds and plants! By attending extension education events I increased my network of local gardeners and found the best free supplies! Our local food bank gives away 25 free seed packets each year to any household in the area. They also have free plant starts! This is all free regardless of income, and helps to support the programs by increasing the households served in the area. Since we are not a low income household, and feel a little selfish taking supplies from the food bank, we decided to make a donation to offset any costs of the materials we use (like the free tomato plants). They have pick up events three days a week in May, and we would head over towards the end, and they always had plenty of plants to go around. They have experts on hand, tools you can rent, and help support 100 community gardens in the area. I plan to discuss community gardens in the future since they are great for renters or urban dwellers!
Best Frugal Plants
I have quickly discovered the some plants are exceedingly temperamental, some grow well with loving care and attention, and some grow great (even better than the weeds). Here’s my list of favorite (annual) plants to grow in our frugal garden from seed:
- Yellow Squash
- Leaf Lettuce
- Sugar Snap Peas (although the bunnies like these too)
- Cilantro (but it bolts quickly come July)
Best Plants to Grow from Starts:
- Peppers (Jalapeños have always given me my best yields)
- Cherry Tomatoes (these have less issues that the large slicers since they grow more quickly)
- All other tomatoes (though cherries are the easiest)
I’m not the best at starting starts, but I try every year! I probably struggle since we keep our house pretty cool. The ones from the nursery are way larger than my seed starts and not that expensive!
Free Local Resources
- Use your public university’s Extension services. The one in my state offers loads of seminars on-line and across the state. Some are free, some charge a reasonable fee. And, as a frugal win, many of them entice people to attend with free food!
- Your local library will have a plethora of gardening books. They may also offer classes or other events. Libraries are always looking for opportunities to bring the community together, so you can always request an event. Bonus points if you volunteer to help arrange it, then you can personally meet the experts and maybe get some advice tailored to your specific needs.
Free Labor, Free Exercise
I love spending time outside, and when I’m gardening I’m getting something productive done too! You can build a garden with just one person! Though sometimes having two or three makes it more fun!
In the spring I’m always itching to get outside, and that’s when you need to invest the most time in your frugal garden preparing beds, planting seeds, and building trellises. Then there’s a lull come mid-may to mid-July. We harvest what’s ready (leafy greens, radishes, beets, peas, and the firsts of other plants). Then come mid-July harvest gets more time consuming. By mid August we are in full on food processing mode (we mostly freeze)! This continues into October, until the first freeze. Throughout the season we keep up on weeding, which takes an hour or two a week in the spring and almost no time come summer. The best parts of having a frugal garden include:
- No gym membership is needed when you are the one turning your garden beds and amending the soil
- Watching plants grow from just a tiny seed
- Tasty food, I love eating a meal made only from our garden
- Seeing the seasons change and connecting directly with nature in a garden is proven to help health and happiness
- You can add some variety to your diet and try to grow food you wouldn’t normally buy at the store (I’m thinking of you patty pan)
- We make awesome homemade spaghetti and BBQ sauces each year and spend hours in the kitchen, bonding as a pack, perfecting recipes
With the frugal garden I’m able to use more veggies in our food, reduce trips to the grocery store and save about $300/year in groceries. (I’m kind of guessing on that number. I will work to hammer that out this year.)
I spend more time gardening every year since I love it so much. There’s nothing like filling my salad spinner bowl every day after work with ingredients for dinner and the next day’s lunch.