Penny-pinchers and green thumbs alike often tout gardening as a way to save on groceries. Yet it’s equally possible to spend a small fortune on it. For example, William Alexander, author of “The $64 Dollar Tomato,” explains how all his startup and maintenance costs resulted in an average expenditure of $64 for every tomato he produced. Buying seeds, plants, grow lights, soil, tillers, watering hoses, shovels, pruners, soil amendments, fertilizer, and materials for raised beds, you can easily sink hundreds — even thousands — of dollars into your garden.
Fortunately, with a little ingenuity and a few do-it-yourself skills, you don’t have to spend a lot to get started growing your own food. In fact, it’s possible to start your own vegetable garden for next to nothing. There’s no need to spend on expensive fertilizers, potting soil, or even garden beds and containers. You can get it all for free. And even if you do end up investing a little money upfront, with a few tips and tricks, your garden can keep producing food year after year for no cost at all.
Whether you choose to grow directly in your own soil, set up raised beds, or plant in containers, getting your garden started is generally where people sink the bulk of the money. However, it’s possible to spend very little — or even zero — on getting set up no matter which gardening method you opt for.
1. Get a Free Gardening Education
Before you do anything else, do your research. The more you know about what’s necessary to grow your own food — which is very little — the more money you can save.
Additionally, if you’re a beginner, taking a course, reading a gardening blog, or watching any of the wealth of free videos available on any gardening topic you can imagine, can turn you into an expert in no time. That means not only knowing what to spend money on and what to skip, but how to get maximum yield from your gardening efforts.
Look for free gardening courses through your local parks and recreation department as well as local garden clubs and community gardens. Additionally, university extensions frequently offer free options for beginners, including online classes. A few other free online courses include:
- Organic Gardening Course. The “Introduction to Growing Organic Food Sustainably” course on Alison introduces organic gardening in a single two-hour session. Students learn how to maintain a vegetable plot and make compost in addition to best practices for organic gardening.
- Home Gardening Course. The “Garden Tutor Master Course” on Garden Tutor is an eight-module course you can complete in two to three hours. Students learn everything from choosing, designing, and preparing your garden site to planting and maintaining it. Although it focuses more on decorative landscaping than vegetable gardening, the techniques are general enough to translate to caring for any kind of plants.
- Butterfly Garden Course. The “Create A Butterfly Garden” course on Udemy teaches you how to attract more butterflies to your yard, including what to plant in your garden to make it inviting to them.
- Basic Vegetable Gardening Course. The “Watch Your Garden Grow” on the University of Illinois Extension is not exactly a course. But this collection of articles has all the makings of one. Visit the main course page, and you can click through sections like “Vegetable Gardening Basics” and “Planting the Garden.” Additionally, its vegetable directory page contains links for common vegetable garden crops. When you click a vegetable, you get information on how to grow and care for the plant and a set of frequently asked questions, nutrition information, and even recipes.
If you’d rather go directly to what you want to learn — whether that’s how to build a cheap raised bed or prune your tomatoes — articles from a trusted gardening website can teach you all you need to know. A few quality ones include:
- The National Gardening Association. The website for the National Gardening Association contains a vast storehouse of articles on every type of gardening — from edibles like vegetables, herbs, and fruits to trees, lawn care, flowers, and houseplants.
- American Horticultural Society. The American Horticultural Society publishes The American Gardener, a magazine delivered to paying members six times per year. However, their website has many of the magazine’s useful articles on home gardening, which are free to the general public — just click the resources tab in the header menu. They also sponsor the “Green Industry Leaders Network” podcast.
- Better Homes & Gardens. The gardening section of the website for the popular Better Homes & Gardens magazine has a variety of articles on all subjects related to home gardening — no subscription required.
Sometimes watching an experienced gardener plant a container with strawberries or prune a basil plant is more helpful than reading about it. For expert video demonstrations, visit the free resources available on YouTube. A few quality gardening channels to check out include:
- Garden Answer. Hosted by Laura LeBoutillier, the “Garden Answer” channel features informative videos covering food gardening as well as flowers and landscaping.
- Epic Gardening. Hosted by Kevin Espiritu, the “Epic Gardening” channel focuses on urban and suburban gardening. It features tips for gardening in raised beds and containers.
- MIgardener. Hosted by Luke Marion, “MIgardener” (or “Michigan Gardener”) features videos on organic gardening through all methods — in-ground, raised beds, and containers — including many videos on ways to garden for as little cost as possible.
- CaliKim Garden & Home. CaliKim focuses on organic, backyard gardening. Additionally, her “CaliKim Garden & Home DIY” channel features several videos with tips for cutting expenses.
- Huw Richards. The author of “Grow Food for Free,” Huw Richards’ channel focuses on ways to grow organic food inexpensively.
Once you have an idea of how to garden, sit down and make a plan. What kinds of plants grow well in your area? What type of garden will you plant — in-ground, raised beds, or a container garden? How much sun do different areas of your yard or patio get? What kind of food do you want to grow?
Planning helps you avoid impulse buys. For example, I once impulse-shopped a seed catalog and ended up spending more than $100 on seeds only to discover I didn’t have the space or use for most of them. If you only have shaded areas and buy plants that require six to eight hours of full sun, you’ll have wasted your money on plants that will never produce well. Likewise, you’ll waste money if you buy more than you have space for. And while it may seem exciting to try exotic vegetables and herbs, it doesn’t pay off to grow something your family refuses to eat.
Additionally, some fruits and vegetables are more cost-effective than others. For example, a plant like a tomato continues to produce more fruits throughout the summer. But a carrot is one and done — plant one seed, get one carrot, and it’s over. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plant carrots. Just keep in mind that if free food is your top priority, some plants pay off better than others.
Once you have an idea of what vegetables you want to grow and how, start sketching out your space. You can do that by hand or use a free online tool like Garden Planner Online, which lets you add objects and plants. So if you’re gardening in containers, you can easily tell how much space you have on your patio.
3. Get a Free Soil Test
Healthy soil is essential to a healthy garden. If you’re planning an in-ground garden, you need to test your soil so you’ll know what plants will grow best in it or if you need to amend it (add material to it to improve its physical properties) with nutrients.
Test the composition of your soil with a free DIY method using simple ingredients you likely already have.
Easy Soil Composition Test
This test tells you how much of your soil is clay, sand, and silt. It’s crucial to know how much of each you have because some plants don’t grow well in some soil types. For example, tomatoes don’t do well in clay soil.
- Spade (optional)
- 1 clear 30-ounce glass Mason jar with a lid
- Permanent marker
- 1 tablespoon dish detergent
- Using your hands or a spade, dig up an 8-inch-by-4-inch scoop of soil from your garden bed.
- Fill the Mason jar 1/3 full with soil, and use the permanent marker to mark the soil line.
- Fill the jar to within 2 inches from the top with water. Mark that line.
- Add the dish detergent, screw on the top, and shake the jar vigorously.
- Within about an hour, the soil will settle into layers of sand, silt, and clay. Mark each layer with the permanent marker. Using the ruler, measure each layer to find the percentage you have of each. For example, if you have 1 inch of each, your soil is 33.33% sand, 33.33% silt, and 33.33% clay.
- For more information on interpreting the results, visit the Clemson University Cooperative Extension.
If you’re in the United States, you can get a more comprehensive test of your soil, which tells you its pH and microbial and nutrient composition, by contacting the extension service of your state’s land-grant university, which you can find through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most offer free or inexpensive soil testing.
4. Amend Your Soil With Household Ingredients
After you get your soil test results, add amendments to your soil to make it more productive. The Planet Natural Research Center has a chart of basic soil amendments. But for free options, look to your kitchen scraps. Although you can add most kitchen scraps to your compost (except for meat, dairy, and oils, which will cause odor problems and attract pests), the most beneficial ones include:
- Eggshells. Eggshells add calcium to your soil, which is essential for all plants, especially for tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, peppers, and potatoes, according to Dave’s Garden. The best way to use eggshells is to dry them for three to five minutes in a 250-degree F oven. Once they’re cool enough to touch, put them into your blender and crush them into a fine powder before adding them to your soil. Grinding them helps them decompose much quicker for more immediate use by your plants. For full instructions and other ideas for using eggshells in your garden, visit Attainable Sustainable.
- Coffee Grounds. According to The Spruce, coffee grounds are an excellent source of nitrogen — a critical nutrient that helps plants produce flowers, vegetables, or fruits. They also help aerate the soil. Just toss your used grounds, which were destined for the trash anyway, into your compost bin or directly into your garden. Even if you don’t drink coffee, you can still get used coffee grounds for free. Just ask for them at your local coffee shop.
- Banana Peels. According to Gardening Know How, banana peels add a variety of nutrients to your soil, including calcium, magnesium, sulfur, phosphates, potassium, and sodium. However, they suggest tossing them into your general compost bin, where they’ll break down faster, rather than simply burying them in the dirt where they’ll take longer to decompose.
- Epsom Salts. While not exactly a kitchen scrap, if you have any in the house already, Epsom salts are a free (or inexpensive if you have to buy them) way to add magnesium to your soil. According to Bob Villa’s website, you can add them directly to your garden. Sprinkle some in the planting holes of garden vegetables like peppers and tomatoes or make a natural fertilizer by mixing one tablespoon of Epsom salts per gallon of water. Water your garden with the mixture once per month.
5. Start Slow
It’s easy to throw away a lot of money trying out different kinds of plants. Whether from lack of know-how or buying too much, you waste a lot if you go too big too soon. Also, though gardening might sound like a fantastic idea now, it’s a lot of work. You may later decide it’s more work than you want to invest. Instead, start gradually.
Try a few plants you know your family loves and that are proven producers — like cherry tomatoes. Then test out your skills and get a feel for how much you actually enjoy gardening and eating the fruits of your labor. Keep notes on what worked, what didn’t, and what you’d like to try planting next year. Then keep gradually adding in new plants and expanding your garden as your needs and desires dictate.
You need different tools for different gardening methods, but regardless of which you opt for, you don’t need to spend a lot to get started.
6. Buy as You Go
It’s easy to get carried away buying equipment in the beginning. And you can put a lot of money into buying a bunch of tools, only to discover later you don’t use most of them.
For example, I’ve gardened exclusively in containers for years. And though I own a few garden tools, I rarely use any of them. I often dig in the dirt using just my hands. And the only tool I use consistently is my hand pruner. So rather than stock up on tools you think you might need, wait to see what you actually need.
7. Get Equipment Secondhand
If you just can’t wait, buy a few tools secondhand and take notice of which ones you keep reaching for again and again. Even if you start with a few poor-quality or damaged tools, going this route lets you see where to invest your money when you’re ready to buy high-quality equipment. However, it’s also entirely possible to get good-quality tools secondhand. People often resell equipment that’s in good condition because they no longer have a use for it.
Search resale sites like eBay, Letgo, and Craigslist for used gardening tools. Garage sales are also a popular place to find tools you can use in your garden, including shovels, trowels, fencing, seed-starting flats, garden art, stakes, trellises, and pots and other containers you can repurpose as planters.
Also keep an eye out for things you can use in your garden — free for the taking — through your local Freecycle group. Members often list stuff that’s perfectly fine. They just need to offload it for some reason, whether that’s because they’re no longer using it or they’re moving. Freecycle is an especially useful place to find free plants from owners looking to downsize before a move.
One more place to check is with your local residents or homeowners association. Some areas set up tool swaps among neighbors. And if your community doesn’t currently have one, you can always float the suggestion.
8. Shop for Supplies at Discount Stores
It’s possible to pick up a few basic gardening supplies at your local dollar store. For example, Dollar Tree carries hand tools, gardening gloves, small pots, seeds, and garden stakes in their seasonal rotation for spring. And if you’re shopping during another season, you can repurpose some of their merchandise. A laundry basket makes an excellent strawberry planter, as shown on DIY Everywhere.
Additionally, visit your local thrift store. Depending on what others have dropped off, you can score any number of useful supplies, including pots and planters, watering cans, shovels and pruners, and garden decor.
Garden Beds & Containers
There are many beneficial reasons to garden in raised beds and containers — including saving on space, avoiding the need to weed and dig up the ground, and gardening in high-quality soil. But with the average pot starting at $15 and raised garden beds running near $100 or more, dropping money on container or raised-bed gardening can get out of hand fast. And that doesn’t even include the cost of soil, which can run $100 or more, depending on how many beds and containers you’re filling.
Yet there’s no need to forgo this type of gardening and its benefits. A little creativity and DIY skills can result in a container or raised-bed garden that costs little to nothing.
9. Repurpose Containers
If you’ve opted to grow your vegetables in containers, it’s tempting to buy the prettiest pots to house them in. But if your goal is to save money, keep in mind that you can repurpose just about any kind of container for gardening. If the container isn’t waterproof, you can make it waterproof by lining it with a plastic garbage bag. Some things to keep in mind when it comes to the practicality and safety of repurposing containers for growing food include:
- Size. Is it deep enough for the plants you plan to grow in it? Most vegetables need at least 10 inches of depth. Additionally, consider how many plants you want in each container. If you plan to grow several tomato plants in one container or a vining plant like cucumber or zucchini, you want something big — like a plastic storage tub.
- Drainage. If your container doesn’t already have holes in it, it needs them. Use a drill to make several in the bottom of your chosen containers so water can get out and your plants won’t suffer root rot.
- Safety. Don’t use anything that once housed toxic materials — like an oil can — as these chemicals could leach into your food. Additionally, although some have raised the question of safety when it comes to growing in plastic, as long as your containers are food-grade — recycle Nos. 1, 2, 4, or 5 — it’s safe to grow in them. And while the safety of plastic in general has often been questioned — food-grade or otherwise — any chemicals that might leach into the soil are so low in dose they won’t affect your food, according to Garden Myths.
As long as a container meets these basic guidelines, it will work fine for growing food. So before you spend your money, first look around your house for anything you can creatively repurpose, such as:
- A Hanging Shoe Organizer. The small pockets of a shoe organizer are perfect for growing a variety of herbs. Get the instructions on LifeHacker.
- A Pair of Rain Boots. Rain boots make a cute container for flowers, but they can also house small edibles like herbs. Get the instructions on Good Housekeeping.
- A Suitcase. An old suitcase adds vintage charm to your vegetable garden, plus it’s ideally suited for vegetables that need a little more space but not a lot of root depth, like lettuce. Get the instructions on Hometalk.
- A Rain Gutter. If you have any extra gutter lying around, shallow-rooted lettuce grows well in it. Get the instructions on Garden Gate magazine.
- A Reusable Grocery Bag. Whether you opt for a nonwoven or fabric grocery bag, either works for herbs, lettuce, or deeper-rooted vegetables, depending on your bag’s size. As a bonus, a fabric bag allows your vegetables to air prune. Their exposure to air causes the roots to naturally “burn off,” so they’ll grow new, healthy off-shoots. If not exposed to air, roots will grow around a pot in a restricted pattern. Get the instructions for grocery bag gardening on The Spruce.
- Old Furniture. Turn an old bed frame, a bathtub, the seat of a chair, a dresser drawer, or even the entire dresser into a planter. Anything that can act as a container can become a planter or garden bed. Get the instructions on DIY & Crafts.
- A 5-Gallon Bucket. A 5-gallon bucket is the perfect size for growing plants that don’t like to be crowded, such as a single tomato or pepper plant. But many other crops also do well in them, including cucumbers, squash, carrots, and melons. Plus, if you don’t have any on hand, they cost only a few dollars at your local hardware store. Get the instructions on Gardening Know How.
- A Plastic Storage Tub. Large Rubbermaid totes are what most of my family’s vegetables are growing in, including tomatoes, peppers, carrots, cucumbers, and strawberries. Because they’re rather large, just about any vegetable grows well in them. Plus, they work almost the same as a raised bed, meaning you can plant several vegetables in each. And using them as a garden planter keeps old bins that are cracked or missing lids out of a landfill. Even if you don’t have any extra large plastic storage containers, you can purchase them for half the cost of a small planter. Get full instructions on Hunker.
10. Use Inexpensive or Found Materials for Raised Beds
As with gardening in containers, setting up raised beds doesn’t need to be expensive. It means doing them yourself, but with a few basic DIY skills, you can construct them from repurposed materials, foraged materials, or inexpensive lumber. A few ideas for raised beds include:
- Cinder Blocks. If you have any lying around, cinder blocks make sturdy walls for a garden bed that won’t rot over time like wood. If you don’t already have them, you can purchase them rather cheaply for just over $1 per block. That means you can build an 8-foot-by-4-foot raised bed for about $20. Plus, they’re easy to set up — just lay them out in a rectangular formation. Get the instructions on Sunshine & Rainy Days.
- Logs. If there’s a tree going down in your neighborhood, ask the owner if you can have the logs. You can save them the cost of hauling them off. Dig trenches for your logs to rest in, and then lay them down. It’s a more rustic look than finished wood, but this free solution lasts just as long — if not longer. Get the instructions on Practical Self Reliance.
- Rocks. Rocks are another foraged material that make sturdy, long-lasting beds. Simply pile them in your desired shape like the spiral raised bed on Family, Food and Garden.
- Pallets. Check with your local hardware store, recycling center, or garden supply store to see if they have any leftover pallets you can haul off for free. Then take them apart and use the wood to construct a raised bed. Just make sure it’s marked with an “HT” for heat-treated and not an “MB,” which stands for methyl bromide — a highly toxic pesticide. Get the instructions on the Gardening Channel.
- Lumber. To find inexpensive lumber, visit your local Habitat for Humanity or ask for second cuts (scrap lumber), which is available for steep discounts at your local lumber yard. Alternatively, build a 6-foot-by-3-foot raised-garden bed for under $20 using rot-resistant, chemical-free cedar fence boards. Get the instructions on Rocky Hedge Farm.
11. Fill Large Beds & Containers With Natural Materials
Unquestionably, one of the most significant expenses of starting a new garden is investing in high-quality soil. Your plants need it to thrive, but the cost can quickly outpace your budget — especially if you’re filling large beds and containers. For example, an average 8-foot-by-4-foot raised bed that’s only 1 foot high is 32 cubic feet. A 1.5-cubic foot bag of organic gardening soil averages almost $9. You need at least 21 bags to fill a raised bed that size — a total of just over $188. For taller beds, multiply that amount by each additional foot of height.
You can significantly reduce the cost of filling deeper beds and containers by filling up the bottom with natural materials like logs, branches, leaves, grass clippings, shredded cardboard or paper, and kitchen scraps. The roots of most vegetables don’t grow deeper than 10 inches. So use these free materials to take up the rest of the bed or container’s height and invest in good soil only for the top 10 inches.
This method not only saves you money, but over time, the natural material breaks down and returns nutrients to your soil, allowing your plants to thrive year after year — just like amending your soil with compost. In the meantime, the materials help aerate your soil and provide a home for beneficial microbes. Get the full instructions on Self Sufficient Me.
Note this method works equally well in large containers as it does in beds. For example, we filled the bottoms of our Rubbermaid totes with shredded paper and cardboard, and our plants are thriving in them. If you get a lot of packages delivered or typically shred your bills and financial statements, adding this material to your garden helps your plants and keeps them out of a landfill. Just be sure not to use any colored or glossy paper, as it could leach toxic chemicals into your plants. And be sure to remove any tape before you shred your cardboard boxes, as it doesn’t break down.
12. Use a Soil Mix
To cut down even further on the cost of soil, avoid it altogether and go with a mix of compost, peat moss, and vermiculite called Mel’s Mix after its inventor, Mel Bartholomew, author of “Square Foot Gardening.” Mix equal parts compost, peat moss, and vermiculite, a natural mineral that helps aerate and hold moisture in the soil. Get the full instructions on Growing in the Garden.
Note that the use of peat moss has raised some environmental concerns, as its harvesting contributes to the release of greenhouse gases, according to Scientific American. But you can use these general principles substituting something more environmentally friendly, such as coconut coir.
Using a mix with either peat moss or coconut coir, you can fill your containers and beds for half the cost of buying bagged soil. Plus, you’ll never need to buy any more peat moss, coconut coir, or vermiculite. Although the soil will naturally sink year after year as the compost breaks down, the peat moss or coconut coir and vermiculite won’t. And you need to regularly amend your beds and container soil with compost (which is free) anyway to add nutrients back to the soil without relying on chemical fertilizers (which are not free).
Whatever you do, don’t dig up soil straight from the ground to use in your garden beds. Regular ground dirt isn’t light and airy enough for beds and containers. Plants need loose — not compacted — dirt to thrive, which is why you need to till in-ground garden beds every year. Additionally, beds and containers need good drainage as well as the ability to hold moisture to prevent both overwatering and underwatering. That’s where the coconut coir and vermiculite come in.
13. Buy in Bulk
If you end up buying soil, the cheapest way to fill your raised beds is to skip the bags and buy it in bulk. Bulk topsoil is a fraction of the cost of bagged garden soil. Just keep in mind there are no fertilizers in topsoil, so you need to add compost to your beds and containers if going this route.
14. Preserve Your Soil for Reuse Next Year
Whether you invest a little upfront in buying soil or making Mel’s Mix, you never have to buy either again. Just keep amending your soil with compost to ensure it has enough nutrients for your plants to thrive, and you’re good to go year after year.
In fact, even if you garden in containers, you can still hang onto your soil for reuse. Just keep amending with compost the same as in your raised beds. The one exception is if the plants you grew in the containers acquired any diseases. If you regrow plants in infested soil, next year’s crop will be susceptible to the same diseases. To ensure your reused soil is as healthy as possible, you can pasteurize it by laying it out on black trash bags and baking it in the sun. Get the full instructions on Dengarden.
Sourcing Seeds & Plants
Though seeds and starter plants aren’t nearly as expensive as containers and soil, there are still ways to save. The No. 1 tip is to plan. That helps prevent overspending on impulse buys you don’t have the space for or your family doesn’t eat. Additionally, look for cheaper ways to grow, like starting from seed, participating in seed swaps, and saving your seeds from one year to the next.
15. Use Recycled Materials for Seed-Starting Pots
If starting seeds indoors, there’s no need to spend a lot on materials — including seed-starting pots. Instead, reuse household materials that were bound for the trash. A few ideas include:
- Plastic Produce Containers. Create a miniature greenhouse from a clear plastic strawberry or lettuce container by filling the bottom with soil, planting your seeds, and closing the top. Once the seedlings are hearty enough, separate them by hand and transplant them to your garden.
- Egg Cartons. Poke a hole in the bottom of each cup of an egg carton for drainage. Then fill the cups with soil and plant a seed in each one. If you use paper egg cartons, you can even plant the whole cup straight in the ground. No need to take out the seedling, as the paper naturally decomposes.
- Toilet Paper Rolls. Stand the rolls straight up in a box, fill each with soil, and plant your seeds. As with paper egg cartons, these can go straight into the ground, as the cardboard tube also naturally decomposes.
- Newspaper. Fold newspaper into small pots, fill them with soil, and plant your seeds. These can also go straight into the ground. Newspaper breaks down even faster than cardboard, adding compost to the garden. Get the full instructions on Learning And Yearning.
- K-Cups. Used K-Cups already come with a hole in the bottom, and reusing them for seedlings allows you to repurpose everyday trash. In fact, these do double duty, as you also want to save the used coffee grounds inside for your garden compost.
- Plastic Food Tubs. Wash out sour cream, yogurt, or plastic salsa containers, poke holes in the bottom for drainage, fill them with soil, and plant your seeds. These make ideal containers for plants you want to let grow a little bigger and stronger before transplanting, like tomatoes or peppers, as they’re larger than some of the other repurposed options.
16. Grow From Seeds
The cost of a starter plant averages $3, whereas you can purchase a package of hundreds of seeds for $1 or less. Although many beginners are intimidated by growing from seed, it doesn’t have to be complicated. No need for heating pads, grow lights, or greenhouses. Just add some soil to a container, plant the seed according to the package directions, set it in a sunny windowsill, water regularly, and be pleasantly surprised when something sprouts in a few days, weeks, or a month, depending on the fruit or vegetable. That’s how I’ve always done it, and the majority of my garden is grown from seeds.
Additionally, many seeds can — or should — be sown directly in the ground rather than started indoors in a seed tray or pot. Be sure to check the seed packet for directions.
17. Grow Old Seeds
To save even more on seeds, hold onto those you don’t use this year so you can sow them next year. According to the Gardening Channel, vegetable seeds can last from one to five years, depending on the plant. But even seeds past their expiration date could potentially germinate. If you have old seeds or aren’t sure how old your seeds are, try pre-germinating them. Dampen a paper towel, lay some seeds on it, and fold it over so the seeds are covered. Then put the towel into a plastic sandwich bag, which helps retain the moisture. You can plant any seeds that sprout (which could take several days to a week) in seed-starting pots to grow into starter plants. Get the full instructions on The Spruce.
18. Swap Seeds
If you have leftover seed and are eager to try something new, save money by swapping your seeds with friends or a seed exchange group. They’re like a party where everyone shows up with seeds to trade. If you’re a brand-new gardener and don’t have anything to trade, consider going anyway. Gardeners tend to be generous with sharing seeds, and if they hear you’re just starting, they’re often happy to help. Other gardeners are also an excellent resource for advice.
To find a seed exchange group, explore your local parks and recreation department, local community gardens or garden clubs, or local arboretums. Alternatively, check out online options. Search Facebook for seed exchanges or gardening groups, join the seed exchange forum on Houzz’s Gardenweb, or join the Seed Savers Exchange.
Or find out if there is a local seed lending library. These are similar to a book library: They allow you to “check out” seeds for free as long as you return an equal amount of seeds at the end of the season. They’re basically similar to a seed exchange, but you don’t have to have any seeds upfront — which is particularly helpful if you’re just starting. Start your search at the Seed Library Social Network.
19. Use Seeds From Grocery Store Cast-Offs
Another method for sourcing seeds at no cost is to ask your local grocery store for one or more of their castoffs. Overripe fruits and vegetables destined for the trash bin are at their peak for seed harvesting. However, not all varieties will produce. For successful growth, make sure to use only nonhybrid produce. Hybrids produce a good crop initially, but their seed doesn’t usually result in tasty food and may not even resemble the original vegetable. Generally, any fruit or vegetable labeled “heirloom” is safe to assume is a nonhybrid variety. Get the full instructions on Networx.
20. Save Seeds for Next Year
Even if you invest a little money for this year, next year’s garden can be zero-cost if you save seeds from your own plants. Simply wait for your plant to produce a fruit or vegetable, let it fully ripen, then harvest the seeds. To remain viable, seeds need to be fully dried and stored in a paper (not plastic) envelope to keep out moisture, which could cause them to rot. Get the full instructions on You Should Grow. And for a complete guide to how to save seed from specific fruit, vegetable, and herb plants, see the encyclopedia of seed saving on The 104 Homestead.
21. Regrow Plants From Kitchen Scraps
Not only is it possible to harvest seeds from produce you already buy, you can also grow a whole new plant from your kitchen scraps. Produce that can regrow itself includes:
- Onions. Save about 1 inch of the root end of an onion bulb. Let it dry out for a day or two until the edges start to curl. Then plant it cut-side-up in soil.
- Scallions. Save the white bulb end with the roots, leaving a small amount of the pale green stalks, and plant it directly into the soil.
- Celery. Cut the root end from the stalks, leaving about 2 inches of celery. Place the end in a glass or dish with enough water to cover it without submerging it entirely. Then leave it out on a sunny counter. Change the water every couple of days to keep the celery fresh. After eight days, transplant it to soil.
- Lettuce. Cut the leaves about an inch from the bottom. Then place the bottom piece in soil.
- Potatoes. Plant whole potatoes or cut pieces with at least two eyes directly into soil and cover with mulch.
- Garlic. Separate the garlic heads into cloves and plant the cloves with the pointy side up in the soil. Note that the best time to plant garlic is in the fall, which results in a spring harvest. Also make sure your garlic is organic. Nonorganic garlic is treated with a growth inhibitor to prevent it from sprouting in the grocery store.
- Ginger. As with garlic, be sure to start with organic ginger, as nonorganic ginger is treated with a growth inhibitor. Like potatoes, choose a piece with several “eyes” — sprouting roots. Plant the pieces in soil, and keep moist. Note that ginger is a slow grower. It will take a few weeks before you see shoots and a few months before any is ready to harvest.
- Peas. Sprout dried peas by placing them on a wet paper towel. Fold the towel to cover them, and then put them in a plastic bag. Once they sprout (in a few days), plant them in soil.
- Basil. Place the cut stem in a glass of water. Once it sprouts hairlike roots, which typically takes about 15 days, plant it in soil.
For more information and full instructions, see our article on growing food from scraps.
22. Propagate From Cuttings
You can propagate many plants from cuttings. These include blueberries, peppers, and tomatoes. To grow a new plant from a cutting, find a friend or neighbor with your desired plant and ask for a branch. Slice a cutting from right where the branch meets the main stem. Dip the end with some rooting hormone and plant it in a pot. It will sprout roots within a week and be ready to transplant in two weeks. Get the full instructions on Gardening Know How.
23. Make Plant Markers From Repurposed Materials
You definitely want to mark your seed pots so you don’t forget what you planted where. And even after transplanting, it’s best to mark your seedlings in the garden, as most plants look alike when they’re small. A few no-cost ideas include:
- Sticks. Grab some sticks from the yard and use a vegetable peeler to scrape off some of the bark. Then write the name of the plant directly on the bare wood with a Sharpie. Get the full instructions on Home Road.
- Rocks. Gather some small, smooth stones from outside, and write the plant names on them using a permanent marker or paint pen. If desired, get creative with some rock painting for a decorative touch. Get the full instructions on One Hundred Dollars a Month.
- Plastic Food Tubs. Cut strips from the sides of sour cream or yogurt containers and use a permanent marker to write the plant names on the blank white sides.
- Wine Bottle Corks. Save your corks or ask friends for a few of theirs. Then stick them on the end of a bamboo skewer, use a permanent marker to write the plant name on the cork, and plant them in your garden or seedling tray. Get the full instructions on One Hundred Dollars a Month.
- Craft Sticks. If you eat a lot of ice pops or have any craft sticks lying around, just use a permanent marker to write the plant name on one of them and stick it in the dirt.
Supporting the Growth Cycle
Gardening doesn’t end once the plants are in the ground. To produce as much food as possible, they need to be watered, mulched, and fertilized. And some plants — especially vines or those with branches that support heavy fruits or vegetables, like cucumbers, squash, melons, tomatoes, and larger peppers — need the support of trellises, cages, or stakes. If you buy these in a store, they can add another hundred dollars or more to your total gardening costs. But a few DIY options can solve all these issues for next to nothing.
24. Make Your Own Trellises & Cages
A single tomato cage, necessary for helping these plants support their branches and fruit, runs between $6 and $10 at a garden store, depending on the size. But you can make one yourself by foraging for sticks and branches in your yard and tying them together with twine. Get the full instructions on Creative Jewish Mom.
Likewise, you can fashion any kind of trellis — from pea trellises to cucumber trellises to watermelon trellises — in almost any type — cage, conical, A-frame, or ladder — from fallen branches. Get the full instructions on CaliKim Garden & Home DIY.
If you don’t have enough branches for your needs or you don’t have a yard you can gather them from, make trellises with inexpensive bamboo poles. You can buy these in bulk from garden supply or hardware stores.
25. Fertilize With Compost
There’s no need to fertilize with expensive synthetics when you can make compost. It provides all the fertilizer your garden needs naturally, organically, and for no cost. Just collect your kitchen scraps (excluding meat, dairy, and oil, which causes odor problems and attracts pests), shredded paper and cardboard, and yard waste like grass clippings and fallen leaves. Avoid yard waste that’s been treated with chemicals, which could kill the beneficial microbes that feed on your compost to turn it into soil. Also avoid pet waste (it could contain parasites and germs), scraps or shavings from chemically treated wood, diseased plants, or black walnut leaves and branches (they’re harmful to plants).
Simply throw your compostable scraps and waste in a pile in a corner of your yard. If you leave it alone, you should end up with finished compost in a year or two. To cut that time in half, water it and toss it from time to time. Keeping your compost wet helps it break down faster. And stirring it helps the microbes heat it, which also helps in the decomposition process.
If you’d rather keep your compost pile neatly contained, build a simple box using free pallets. Get the full instructions on Lovely Greens.
If you’re short on space, try composting in a trash can. Poke some holes so the compost can get air and just make sure to toss the compost occasionally. Get the full instructions on MIgardner. If you’re really short on space, it’s even possible to make compost in a 5-gallon bucket. Get the instructions on CaliKim Garden & Home DIY. Or take up vermicomposting (worm composting). It’s perfect for small-space gardeners, as a worm bin doesn’t take up much room. And because the worms digest everything, you don’t need to worry about any smells.
Alternatively, skip the compost pile altogether and compost in place. Dig a hole in your garden bed so your kitchen scraps don’t attract flies or pests, then just bury it over with dirt. Over time, it breaks down and adds nutrients to your soil, the same as finished compost. Get the full instructions on The Spruce.
26. Mulch With Repurposed Materials
Mulching, laying a ground cover over your soil, is crucially important to your garden’s health. It aids with water retention by keeping water from evaporating off the soil — especially in the heat of summer. It decomposes back into the soil, which helps fertilize and build up your soil. And it suppresses weeds, reducing the workload of your garden. Fortunately, mulching can also be zero-cost.
A few free materials you can use as mulch include:
- Shredded Paper or Cardboard. Run cardboard boxes or paper destined for the trash through a paper shredder to make scraps the ideal size and shape for mulch. Our beds and containers are all mulched with cardboard, and it works perfectly.
- Grass Clippings. Grass clippings break down fast, which means you have to remulch your beds often with this method. But grass clippings do double duty as a fertilizer, adding valuable nutrients into the soil as they decompose. Just avoid any grass clippings that have been treated with weed killer, as it could also kill your plants.
- Leaves. Collect leaves in the fall and save them for mulching your garden beds in the spring. Running over them with a lawn mower first helps shred them to the perfect size for mulch. (Full-size leaves could potentially mat up and prevent rain from getting through.) If you don’t have trees on your property, look for neighbors who’ve set bags of raked leaves on the curb for pickup and ask if you can take them off their hands.
- Chipped Branches. This idea requires investing upfront in a wood chipper. To cut costs, check Craigslist or Letgo. Once you’ve made the initial purchase, chipping fallen or pruned branches from your trees, bushes, shrubs, or roses will result in a decent supply of free mulch if you have enough woody plants on your property.
Dealing With Pests
Even if you’re not looking to save money, using natural pest solutions that rely on common, food-safe household ingredients keep chemicals out of your food. Remember: Whatever you put on your plants also goes into your body. Fortunately, many organic and natural solutions are also low-cost.
27. Plant Perennial Flowers That Attract Beneficial Insects
Although it’s easy to think, especially as a beginner gardener, that all bugs are bad, only a handful of them actually are. In fact, sometimes it’s best just to let Mother Nature work her magic, as many beneficial insects naturally eat the bad ones. For example, ladybugs prey on harmful pests like scale, mealybugs, aphids, thrips, whiteflies, and mites, according to Get Busy Gardening. So if you indiscriminately kill all the bugs in your garden, you’ll interrupt the natural ecosystem and could face a worse infestation of the bad bugs.
Planting flowers and herbs that naturally attract beneficial insects keeps nature in balance and reduces the need for more expensive pesticides. Some of these include:
- Purple coneflower
- Shasta daisy
- Black-eyed Susan
Visit the Permaculture Research Institute for more information on which plants help attract which insects.
28. Keep Pests Away With Kitchen Scraps
If your garden is plagued with ants or aphids, repel them with orange or banana peels in lieu of using harmful pesticides. According to SFGate, orange peels contain d-Limonene, a natural chemical that causes ants and aphids to suffocate and die. Orange peels also give off an odor that naturally repels them.
Likewise, according to a 2017 study published in Nature, bananas give off pheromones — alpha and beta-farnesene — that are also emitted by aphids as an alarm when there’s a nearby predator. Therefore, bananas can help keep aphids away from your plants. Cut up the peels and bury them 1 to 2 inches deep around plants prone to aphid infestations. As a bonus, as the peels decompose, they also add nutrients to the soil.
29. Make Your Own Pest Deterrents
Avoiding harsh pesticides is better for the planet, your body, and your wallet — especially when you can make homemade insecticides and deterrents using common kitchen ingredients like garlic and cayenne pepper. A few recipes that work well include:
- Insecticidal Soap. Soap kills most bugs on contact. And while it may seem too simple to be true, I’ve used this one to kill aphids on my tomatoes to great success. So if you have an infestation, spray them regularly with a small amount of mild dish soap mixed with water. Be careful because some soaps can also harm your plants. Avoid any with harsh chemicals like degreasers, such as Dawn. Fortunately, you can find effective mild dish soaps like Ajax at the dollar store. Get the full recipe on Get Busy Gardening.
- Homemade Garden Fungicide. Certain crops, including cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and watermelon, are prone to fungal diseases. But you can keep the fungus at bay using just a couple of common household ingredients: baking soda, dish liquid, and water. Get the recipe on Grow Network.
- Homemade Garlic-Mint Insect Spray. A homemade garlic spray deters more than vampires. It also keeps just about any garden pest, including slugs, snails, and aphids off your plants. And the spray doesn’t penetrate them, so your cucumbers won’t taste like garlic. This recipe of garlic, mint, cayenne pepper, and dish liquid works after just one or two applications — giving you better results than anything you could buy at the store. And if you don’t have mint on hand, you can omit it since its primary purpose in the spray is to make it smell better. Get the recipe on An Oregon Cottage.
- Oil Spray. An oil spray gets rid of sap-sucking insects like aphids, thrips, spider mites, and whiteflies. Plus, it only requires a bit of dish soap, some cooking oil, and water. Get the full recipe on SFGate.
Get the Most From Your Garden
Whatever money you save on your garden is compounded when you have a good harvest. That’s where a home garden can really help supplement your family’s food budget. Fortunately, increasing your yield has more to do with technique than spending lots of money.
30. Keep a Journal
One benefit of starting slowly with only one or a handful of plants is that you get to observe what works and what doesn’t as well as what you enjoy growing and eating. Every year, keep a gardening journal. Keep a record of things you’d like to try next year, things that didn’t work, or things that worked really well. This process of gradual trial and error combined with good note-keeping helps you increase your harvest every year.
Additionally, keeping a journal every year helps you organize gardening tasks, including scheduling planting, watering, harvesting, and fertilizing — all of which maximize your yield. Plus, if you keep track of when you do these things and how your garden came out, it can help you make adjustments for next year and keep growing your gardening skills to reap a better harvest. For example, this year, I planted my peas too late in the season, and they never bloomed. Peas don’t like the heat. So next year, I’ll know to start this cool-weather-loving crop earlier.
To help with your record-keeping, download free garden journal pages on Green in Real Life.
31. Follow the Growing Season
Timing is critical when it comes to some vegetables. For example, if you try to plant spring peas in the warmer months of summer, the vines will grow, but they won’t produce. Similarly, if you plant cool-weather-loving lettuce in the warmer months, it will bolt — prematurely go to seed and spend more energy producing flowers than salad greens. In fact, lettuce and hearty greens like kale and collards love the cool weather so much that planting them in the fall is one way to extend the growing season.
So, for the maximum yield, follow the planting guidelines for your chosen produce and growing zone. To find the best time to plant certain crops in your zone, click the planting calendar for your area on The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Succession planting sets you up for a continual harvest. With some vegetables — like carrots — once you pull them up from the ground and eat them, they’re done. But if you plant some now, wait a month or two and then sow some new seeds, you can harvest more.
It’s also a productive way to make use of limited space. If you interplant fast-growing crops like lettuce with slower ones like cucumbers, after you’re done harvesting lettuce in the spring, the summer-blooming cucumbers will fill in the space. To help you make a succession-planting schedule, get a free printable at Modern Frontierswoman.
Some vegetables grow well together, and others don’t. Good companions — like tomatoes and basil — enhance each other’s flavor, attract pollinators, or provide shade for heat-sensitive crops. Companion planting means grouping together the plants that benefit each other and avoiding the bad combinations, which decrease your yield.
Companion planting is an advanced topic that can get overwhelming, although it’s fun to experiment once you have some gardening experience. In the meantime, however, there’s no need to stress. Try out some of the most proven combinations, and grow your expertise from there.
34. Rotate Crops
If you plant the same things in the same spot year after year, it can cause some major problems in your garden, including pest infestations, nutrient depletion, and plant disease, according to Grow a Good Life. That’s where crop rotation comes in. Rotating your plants every year helps them stay healthy. Some pests and diseases only attack certain crops. Similarly, some plants are heavy feeders, whereas others actually add nutrients back into the soil. So rotating them prevents recurring issues.
35. Preserve Your Harvest
At certain times during the growing season, multiple vegetables begin ripening at once — potentially more than you can eat. So it definitely pays off to have a plan for preserving the fruit and vegetable excess from your garden. For example, you can store potatoes, onions, and winter squash for months at cool temperatures in a cellar. You can freeze or can fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans. And you can dry herbs or chop them up, mix them with olive oil, and freeze them in individual portions in ice cube trays to use in future meal preparation.
And these aren’t the only ways to preserve your harvest. You can also include them in make-ahead recipes. For example, dice up peppers and include them in a make-ahead freezer meal. Shred zucchini and bake and freeze loaves of zucchini bread. Premake fruit pies and freeze them (before baking). Or make relishes or jam. Any of these options allow you to continue enjoying the harvest from your summer garden year-round. For example, my mom preserved strawberries from our backyard patch in homemade jam we ate all year.
Whatever you do, don’t let your harvest sit in the fridge for more than a few days without preserving it in some way. Not only is it a shame to let all that food go to waste, but one of the best benefits of your hard work is the ability to preserve your food at the peak of its freshness. Grocery store produce is picked before it’s ripe, shipped to the store over several days or weeks, and sits on the store shelves for even longer. But your own homegrown food goes straight from garden to table. And preserving it before it sits for too long helps you hang onto that freshness, including all the nutrients.
Visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation for guidelines on how to make the most of what you grow.
Using even just a few of these cost-saving strategies can help you reap huge benefits. According to the Journal of Extension, the average home vegetable garden produces $677 worth of food after spending an average of $238 on materials and supplies — already a good return on investment (ROI). Yet relying on even just a few of these low- or no-cost garden hacks increases the ROI even more, especially if growing your own food costs nothing.
And don’t forget, while saving money is undoubtedly one of the benefits of growing your own food, there are plenty of others as well. These include:
- The joy of making something from nothing
- Knowing exactly where your food comes from
- Doing something good for the planet by reducing the carbon footprint involved in food transportation
- The ability to grow healthy, nutritious, and organic food
- Getting some exercise
- Spending time communing with nature, which research like a 2014 study published in Ecopsychology has shown improves mental health
Additionally, if you have kids, getting them involved in the garden helps encourage healthy eating and the willingness to try new things. It’s typically a struggle to get my 5-year-old to touch a vegetable, but he’s excited to try the peppers, carrots, and cucumbers he helped grow himself. Plus, gardening gets kids outside, where they’re enjoying the sunshine and away from screens, making it a perfect summer activity.
What are you growing in your garden this year? Do you have any tips for cutting costs?