Gardening can seem overwhelming when you consider all of the materials you need to get started. Seeds, fencing, soil, tools, and more can add up–even on a generous budget. So what’s a beginning gardener to do? Here are six ideas for getting started without breaking the bank.
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Gardening for the Budget-Conscious
I often get asked about gardening on a budget. After all, we all have to mind the bottom line, and just because we want to do something healthy and responsible for ourselves–like vegetable gardening–doesn’t mean that we can sprinkle magic fairy dust and have everything we need to do it right off the bat.
Reader Question: Have you kept track of how much money you spend on your garden supplies, from seeds to fencing, to gravel and tools? I am feeling a little overwhelmed with all of the supplies I need to purchase to work on my yard.
Amen to the overwhelm!
Overwhelm is a common feeling when starting any new hobby or lifestyle. Take that daily yoga routine I’ve been wanting to start, or learning to play the ukulele. It just seems too much to take on if I also add a budget restriction. It makes me want to throw in the towel before I’ve started.
See, sometimes we let feelings of overwhelm talk us into procrastinating because the problem just seems too big to overcome. But let’s see if we can find some small, actionable steps that help us move forward with our garden plans (before procrastination sets in) even if we are cash-strapped.
Speaking of overwhelm, I wrote more on that topic in my post 7 ways to start a new homestead. It highlights more things you can do while saving money for your big garden dreams.
Here are six ways you can take action on starting a garden while staying on budget.
Budget Action 1: Start Slow
Gardening can be quite expensive in the early years when you’re setting up the infrastructure of the garden. It would be easy to spend upwards of $1,000 a year* buying many of the necessary supplies and equipment, and in the end, I think you might be hard pressed to grow $1,000 worth of food in those first few years. That’s not a glowing endorsement for breaking the bank and rushing into things.
The ROI of vegetable gardening tends to be gradual. You’ll grow more and more produce each year as you hone your skills and become accustomed to the conditions (soil, sun, water, climate, etc.) of your little slice of heaven. This fact can work in your favor. It means you don’t have to break the bank to get started. Start small, and the money you spend on development can be gradual to match the gradually increasing return. Expect your first year to be the starting point that it is. There’s no where to go but up!
In other words, Patience you must have, my young padawan. Rome wasn’t built in a day 🙂
*$1,000 was a random number I made up. Someone who is building a shed, raising chickens, and putting up fences might spend more than that, while someone building a single raised bed in their backyard may spend less than that. But either way, you can expect your garden development to cost more than you think it should and more than you wish it did.
Budget Action 2: Observe More, Do Less
One benefit of starting slow is that you’ll get to observe the gradual changes of your garden over time. As we developed our previous edible landscape over the course of eight years (complete with berry bushes, fruit trees, rain gardens, raised vegetable beds, a composting system, and more), one thing we said over and over is how thankful we were that we didn’t have the resources (time or money) to develop the entire landscape in the first year. We did it bit by bit, year by year.
And you know what happened?
Every time we developed one little bit and observed how it worked within the larger system, we discovered something we hadn’t thought of, and that discovery changed and improved the next little bit (saving us time and money). Sometimes this happened through trial and error, but at the end of eight years, we had developed something we hadn’t envisioned in the first year. The resulting landscape was prettier, more functional, and more robust than we originally imagined; all because we took it slow and observed along the way.
Would you like more pointers for yielding abundant harvests with limited time or money?
You’ll find more of my tips, tools, and life hacks (including the 15-minutes-a-day garden) in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Budget Action 3: Save on Raised Beds
Here on my new homestead I want to build raised beds in the future vegetable garden area, but the price tag on rot-resistant lumber such as cedar or redwood will be a nightmare. However, since these types of wood are ideal for longevity and keeping contaminants out of the garden, in the end the price may be worth it. If you decide raised beds are in your future, you can still do some gardening while you save for those expensive materials. Try adding compost to the existing soil and gardening there. It may not be the most ideal gardening scenario, but consider it practice!
If you have more time than money and like to build things, consider building raised beds out of free pallets. Here’s how to tell if pallets are safe. Other alternatives that you may have access to are concrete, cinderblocks, non-mortared rocks, or galvanized stock tanks.
More creative, budget-friendly raised bed ideas:
Raised Bed Soil
This is a biggie, because raised beds take a lot of soil, and importing it can be expensive and not always safe for edible gardens. Unfortunately, buying compost soil locally isn’t always a good idea. I bought soil from a couple of reputable local companies, only to find that the soil was contaminated with herbicide, which set my garden development back. I had to buy more soil amendments to try to fix the problem.
I now aim to make most of my own soil so I know what I’m getting. This will mean some planning, labor, and delayed gratification on my part, but huge cost savings. Building your own soil from multiple types of organic matter will save you money and give it a well-rounded constitution, but you can expect to wait a year while it makes itself (Still, it’s so cool that it makes itself!).
Some DIY approaches to building soil include starting multiple worm bins for composting kitchen scraps, shredding and composting leaves (pick up curbside leaf bags in the fall/winter), yard waste, and free wood chips (contact local tree trimmers). These composted materials will add soil structure, bulk, minerals, and micronutrients.
If you’re brand new to homesteading, I don’t always recommend getting animals. But if you’re motivated and have the time to research and care for them properly, they will be a boon for your garden. Keeping chickens or other livestock and composting their bedding and waste will make a high quality bulk soil conditioner that contains essential nutrients for plant health.
At the very least, these actions will cut down on the amount of soil you need to buy. It may take longer to build your beds, but they will be healthier without breaking the bank. Importing contaminated soil can take years to restore. With a little delayed gratification, you’ll be ahead of the curve.
Budget Action 4: Choose the Right Tools
When I first started gardening, I didn’t have any tools for digging or building a landscape. So I started out with the cheapest tools I could find. Some of them came from my parents’ garage that were no longer being used there. Others I found at garage sales and discount stores.
If I hadn’t had a restricted budget in that first year, I would have gone out and bought a bunch of tools I thought I needed. But they wouldn’t have been the tools I actually needed. To find out what tools I actually needed, I needed to get started, get my hands dirty, and discover what I needed.
This is a round-about way of saying that if you have to start out with cheap or poor-functioning tools, you’re actually in a good place. You’ll quickly discover which tools would make your life better because they will be the ones you always reach for. You’ll groan with frustration because they’ll be the ones that break, give you blisters, or make you work twice as hard.
Through this process of just getting started, I discovered which tools were going to give me a good return on investment, and I purchased good quality versions of them as the cheap ones broke or as I found money in the budget.
If you are considered to be on a low-income, there may even be some non-profits or other local assistance that can help you access the tools you need.
There’s no need to play victim here. A good gardener–regardless of budget–will be resourceful. It just makes good common sense to start out with what you can hunt down, and add the things you truly need later.
My top five favorite tools for my no-till garden are:
I purchased these nicer versions as soon as I could, somewhere between my second to fourth gardening years. I’m sure I whined about it until I convinced Mr. TAF that they needed to be in the budget. But you know what? I appreciate them immensely because I planned ahead, chose the right tools, and budgeted for them.
Budget Action 5: Forage for Other Awesome Materials
Things like garden borders and pathways can be made up of whatever you have on hand. For a DIY border that keeps kids and dogs out of the garden, try found rocks or wine bottles. If you don’t personally enjoy wine, simply ask at your nearest bar or restaurant; I’m sure they’d save some for you.
Ask your friends and family for possible useful items. Remember, their junk could become your treasure, and everybody wins!
Craigslist and Freecycle are great places to check, too.
Budget Action 6: Become your own Seed/Plant Vendor
This one requires you to learn some skills, but they can be easy to get the hang of. You might find a free class locally or find information online.
Starting your own seeds can save a lot of money that you would normally spend on purchasing seedlings locally. If you have a greenhouse or cold frame, you’re way ahead of the curve. A more expensive option that will save money in the long run is to start your own seeds indoors under lights. This solution requires a lot of equipment to be purchased up front, though, so I don’t recommend it until your garden is more established.
Saving your own seeds is a really rewarding experience. How amazing would it be to start off spring planting with your own seeds that you saved from your own plants? This is a worthwhile skill to learn that doesn’t cost you a thing! Check out Seed Saving 101 and How to Save Garden Seed (podcast).
Grafting: This is a technique used by horticulturists and agriculturists to attach the tissue of one plant to the tissue of another. It’s most common use is in creating fruit trees that meet our needs. For example, if one variety of apple is known for its strong roots, and another variety is known for its disease-resistant fruit, tissues of the two can be attached together to create a hybrid variety that is more robust. But grafting is even more amazing because it can produce a whole lotta fruit trees for a very low cost (sometimes free!). Here’s a great tutorial on grafting.
The Hard Truth About Gardening on a Budget
The beginning years of developing a garden or edible landscape will certainly cost more both financially and in terms of sweat equity. This is understandably overwhelming to think about.
At the end of eight years at our old house, the garden and landscaping were fairly established, so we spent maybe $100 (over the course of the year) to buy seeds and other miscellaneous supplies. But the first few years were really expensive, and I’m reminded of that now that I’m looking forward to developing my new homestead. I will have to do it in stages as my budget allows.
It’s hard to delay gratification when you’re so excited to start a garden, but you will be rewarded for budgeting, planning ahead, and starting small. In the meantime, observe your landscape through the seasons, creatively source the items you need, and practice gardening even if the situation isn’t ideal.
As I build soil for my raised beds, I’ll be shopping locally for bulk produce so I can continue to feed my family well and practice my kitchen prep skills.
Stay focused on the small actions you can take to move forward, and you will meet your dreams in no time.
What is your tip for saving money on garden supplies? Share it in the comments below!