A lot of people start gardening with the intent to save money- and there certainly is great potential there. However, when there are books with titles like “The $64 Tomato” clearly, something has gone wrong! A long time ago I wrote up what I did to make the most of my frugal garden, and I decided it’s time for another. Remember as your reading, that this is a post that puts frugality as the priority, and is talking about gardening when you don’t have a lot of time, or a lot of space, to devote to it. This is gardening advice when cost has to be the forefront, not taste.
Gardening is frugal, if:
- You identify the plants you eat a lot of, are expensive, and thrive in your care and grow those. Eat a lot of potatoes? Probably not a good idea to grow them, because they’re so dang cheap. Like chives? Well, they are really easy to grow, and cut herbs are expensive in the store, so go ahead. Raspberries are also super easy, and pretty expensive. My general rule is: grow leafy vegetables, herbs, berries and stone fruit. Buy root vegetables and squashes, plus anything that doesn’t get enough heat here. Don’t forget to consider your climate. Somewhere else I’m sure eggplants grow vigorously during the summer and are thus economical to grow. Not the case here!
- Develop your soil’s fertility cheaply or for free. For example, in the past, I’ve gotten truck load of composted horse manure from a friend for the price of gas. Compost kitchen scraps and lawn clippings, check out coffee stands and see if they’ll give you coffee grounds. Check out college campuses and apartment complexes for leaves and grass trimmings-ask first! All of these are free or nearly free sources of fertility that will make your garden really produce. As you go along, learn about cover crops and how to use them. Set up contacts with juice bars and other restaurants that have lots of plant-based waste, and get them to use for compost. Let your neighbors know that you want their fallen leaves.
- Don’t get carried away and buy a pile of brand new tools. Really, unless you have a big garden, all you need is a shovel, a rake and maybe garden fork. A hoe and a trowel would be nice, but not necessary. Same for a wheelbarrow- two free buckets will work fine. You do not need to buy rototillers or other fancy and expensive doodads. You do not need to buy them new! I’ve never spent more than 5 bucks on a gardening tool- check out yard sales and free piles!
- Be water wise. Oh boy. If you’re on city water, it gets expensive to just set a sprinkler and forget it. Look into water saving garden techniques, like mulching. Irrigate with grey water- and I don’t mean set up a fancy system- I mean take the water from rinsing or washing your dishes, and apply it judiciously to your garden (like don’t pour it over the leaves of a plant you’re about to eat). Whenever possible, direct sow your crops so they can grow deep roots and water themselves.
- Realize that gardening is a skill, and may take some time to develop. Some people are fantastic their first year, but many have entire crops fail before they figure out what they need to do.
TL;DR: Find out what crops you eat a lot of, aren’t cheap, and basically grow themselves for you. Get free and cheap sources of soil fertility. Only grow what you will actually eat. Figure out how to minimize effort and time investment while maximizing yield.
In other words, don’t be this guy. At least not if you’re trying to save money by gardening.
A final word: Yes, there is room for fingerling potatoes and heirloom tomatoes. You just have to decide how much of your space, time, and effort they are worth to you. Just recognize them as a luxury, and not a staple.
BTW, Costs for the peas pictured at the top?
$3.50: Packet of seeds for more than I planted.
$0.00 Trellis shackled together from items found in free piles and branches
$0.00: Soil and water from the sky.
Total cost: $3.50 for more peas than we could eat.
This is possible because peas grow really well here, and I planted them close to when the fall rains started, so I could just use water from my rainwater barrel to irrigate them until they got started. Also, since peas are self fertile, I now won’t have to buy seeds for this variety of peas again- unless I mess up the seed saving processes somehow, which is fairly hard to do with peas.
What are your tips for saving money in the garden? What do you do to make the most of the time, space, and energy you have?