Last Updated on October 18, 2020
Starting, expanding and maintaining a garden can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. From developing and increasing soil tilth and fertility to what we grow in and the tools we use, there are plenty of ways to save money. Some of them are handy for saving time, too.
Leaf mold and compost can be done in any sized yard, just about, even without turning to keyhole gardens, worm towers, or tumbling bins that speed the process and keep it compact.
Mow over leaves or rake them up whole, stick them in a bag, and in 3-15 months there’s rich organic matter full of nutrients to serve as powerhouse amendments and mulch. Composting can also be done by digging a trench right in our gardens, covering it as we go.
There are still easier ways to boost our gardens.
We can add coffee and tea right to the surfaces of pots or planters or plants out in larger plots. Leftover brewer’s mash also works, although there’s a bit of a smell. Algae is a powerhouse of nutrients, and can also be collected and spread right on the surface around our plants.
Mulching helps us in numerous ways, making soils, crops and our time much more productive. Different types of mulching accomplish different things, but there are freebie and lower-cost options available for almost anyone.
Cardboard from liquor and appliance stores or newspaper and shredded paper we source from recycling bins are excellent weed exclusion barriers for both rows or beds and for walkways.
Grass clippings can form dense mats that also function as a weed barrier. I typically only use them around perennials (I don’t love the decomp and they typically have seed heads by the time I mow). However, others very successfully use them in the garden.
Just poke them with a hay fork or run a weasel over the top (just enough to puncture, not really stirring it), because that mat solidifies much like shredded office paper, and can create a rain/irrigation barrier and anaerobic conditions.
If we’re after lowered irrigation and evaporation, or the ability to water faster, straw, leaves, pine needles, and chipped wood all work well.
If you’re buying either straw or bagged bark mulch, comparison shop locations, and check out alternatives such as shredded and flake animal bedding.
When our local Big Box and smaller stores put “real” bark mulch on sale, it’s typically four or five for $10, working out to be about $1-$1.25 per cubic foot (some are doing bags of 1.75 cu/ft instead of 2 cu/ft now, so watch that, too).
Tractor Supply, Fleet Mills Farm, and others all carry animal bedding at about $6-$8 for 8-10 cubic feet, working out to well under $1 cu/ft.
That pine bedding is less likely to have odd bits of painted furniture and big chunks left in it, too, and is typically heat treated and animal safe, making it a good option for people who worry over chemicals in their gardens.
It’s also light to carry and haul, even though it’s tight packed, is less messy to spread with less dust/mud in it, seems less attractive to slugs and ants, and eliminates the big chunks that poke holes in the bags.
Buying in loose “bulk” loads by the bucket, pickup bed, tarp-lined trunk, or dump-truck drop-off can also help lower costs if no DIY options are available.
They’ll all last differing amounts of time by climate and soil health (the happier and more active our soil biology, the faster our mulches get incorporated into the O layer).
Woody types and whole leaves last longest; green leaves and grass clippings the shortest. Newspaper and cardboard typically fall in the middle. The depth we use also affects lifespan – deeper layers last longer.
Depending on what we already have, tools can really add to the cost of setting up a garden shed. Buying secondhand can significantly reduce outlay.
Many pawn shops have sections with our basic construction tools (see if you can get a 7-10 day if not a 30-day return/exchange/credit guarantee on power tools). Some thrift stores will also periodically carry garden-oriented and basic household-yard management tools, but it’s usually worth calling instead of popping in to find out
Flea markets, yard sales, and estate sales are even more likely to yield everything from our rakes and spades to clippers and pruners.
While shopping for wheelbarrows or garden carts and cultivators or watering cans, repeatedly scan the full materials list for anything we’re building, and stay open to suggestion.
Pre-owned step ladders, carpenter’s squares, levels, and somebody’s can/jar of mixed nails or screws can seriously reduce our Lowes/ACE/Walmart bill. High-test fishing line and rotten electrical cords can form trellises and plant ties instead of screws/nails or cord, sheets can be slit for plant ties or used as frost blankets, loose-woven curtains become bug barriers, and old hoses work as row cover supports or drip irrigation lines, further reducing the cost of our builds, expansions, and upgrades.
Internet Hunting & Gathering
We can source all sorts of materials for gardens without paying a penny. Check classifieds for yard sales, too – near the end of the day and the next day, many become open to deep discounts and there’s a fair chance of curbside pickups.
All sorts of furniture comes apart to help us build beds or serve as stakes. In other cases there are blankets, curtains, or clothing that works as mulch, hoses and tubing we can repurpose, or specific tools for breaking ground, building, or maintaining our veggies.
Bed frames, old bikes, and mattress springs become trellises or fencing. Canoes, bathtubs, sinks, and totes can be planters or rain “barrels”. Laundry baskets, clothing and shoe organizers, lamp shades, cookie jars, bookcases, and even boots can also serve as planters.
Baby pools, trampolines, buckets, and pallets have entire articles and whole websites devoted to their usefulness, many of which apply to the yard and garden.
Whatever we’re looking for, hit the internet to see if there’s a same-shaped item that can be had simply for detouring on our way to work or while we’re out shopping and running around anyway.
Trash to Tasty Treasures
While we’re poking around upcycling, don’t forget to eyeball recycling bins and broken goodies that can have a very different life. Hollow bed frames or busted lamps can the watering tubes for sub-irrigated planters, but so can plastic bottles.
There’s a million and five ways to turn former food containers into both irrigation assists and small container gardens for herbs, companion flowers, strawberries, greens, and peas.
Everything from puppy-chewed wicker baskets to badly worn jeans can be planted in, and curtains, blankets, or badly stained and ripped towels or clothes all work as weed exclusion cloth in our gardens, or can be rigged to provide shade or frost protection, keep mosquitoes out of our water catchment, or serve as wicks and water sinks for our planters and beds.
Sticks & Saplings
If we don’t generate our own, chances are, somewhere nearby somebody is pruning trees or there’s a road verge, power line cut, or abandoned pasture in early stages of succession. Early succession means small saplings that are nice and straight, and pruning means smaller branches we can use to fill in around them.
With those offerings, we can build beds several different ways, provide supports for our plants, and fence it all in.
With smaller, supple sticks, we can also make squirrel and bird exclusions and frames to support netting around brassicas and berries, or form the hoops for season extenders.
(Bamboo is also a good one if you see any driving around somewhere – don’t plant it.)
Those freebie sticks can also be easily cobbled into frames for curbside pickup windows and storm door screens, creating cold frames and insect exclusions for beds and rows.
Cheap Out to Do More
There’s plenty to spend money on when it comes to preparedness. Starting, expanding, and maintaining gardens are only part of the draw on our finances and time. From our soil amendments to garden tools and equipment, taking a frugal route can alleviate some of the inputs required, so we can produce more groceries, faster, and with less stress to our budgets.
The “fugly” solutions can be of issue for some, although there’s usually a relatively inexpensive fix (just about anything can be painted and-or tied up in old Goodwill or yard sale sheets/curtains, or surrounded by old house paneling).
Sourcing lower-cost items and learning to see things anew has other advantages as well, especially for preppers. Both personal crises and national/international issues can upset usual supply lines. Training ourselves to accomplish our goals with whatever’s at hand is a pretty good life skill across the board, and even handier in tough times.
These are just a handful of ways we can apply that to our gardens, from secondhand shopping to freebies. Even just gardening, there are plenty of others. Before spending, run some searches to see how others are saving money on the same project.