Updated on 10.06.14

Reducing the Startup Costs of a Food Garden

Trent Hamm

A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter and on Facebook for detailed posts that people would like to see. I got enough great responses that I’m going to fill the entire month of July – one post per day – addressing these ideas.

On Facebook, Sherri requested a post on the topic of “how to have a food garden for cheap.” I’ll do my best, Sherri!

My background in gardening is pretty expansive. Growing up, my family always had a large vegetable garden, often multiple ones. Planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting from this garden were consistent parts of the spring, summer, and fall during my childhood.

Today, we have our own vegetable and herb garden behind our house. Here’s a peek at it:

Our garden

We tend to grow herbs, asparagus, and strawberries in the lower portion and vegetables in the upper portion of the garden.

How to Get Started with Gardening on the Cheap

1. Land

The most essential ingredient for inexpensive gardening is a spot of land upon which to put your garden. You don’t necessarily have to own that land; you simply need to have permission to plant there. For example, if you happen to know a family that has a lawn but doesn’t have a garden, you might ask them if they’d be willing to allow you to garden there while sharing some of the produce with them.

If you don’t have land, you certainly can still garden, but you’ll be relying on a series of pots and other containers in your house and/or on your balcony for your plants. The easiest way to do this is to patiently wait for sales on the containers (the fall is the best time to do this), hold onto them until the spring, and meanwhile look for sources of inexpensive (read: free) dirt to fill the pots with.

2. Good soil

I’m lucky to live in Iowa where the soil is fertile. If you don’t have access to good soil, the easiest way to start building up good soil is through composting. Take your vegetable and fruit scraps and keep them in a lidded bucket until they begin to decompose into rich organic matter. Gentle heat (like a warm day), a bit of moisture, and a few scoops of good soil will help the process along. Stop adding new things to the bucket about three months before you want to use the compost. Turn the compost regularly by mixing it up. In my experience, compost made purely of vegetable and fruit scraps doesn’t stink much at all and often acquires a sweet smell when decomposing, though I certainly haven’t made compost out of everything one might use. You can also put coffee grains and well washed and crumbled egg shells into your compost bin.

3. Cultivation

If you’ve decided to garden outside, cultivation can be another challenge. You’re going to have to turn the soil over using some method. The least expensive method is to do it manually with a hoe, but that is very intense labor. Another option is to borrow (preferably) or rent a small tiller that will churn up the soil for you. Buying a tiller can be a cost-effective idea, but only if you’re going to consistently garden a large section of land for many years.

4. Basic tools

Depending on what you’re planting, you may only need a small handheld shovel and/or a hoe. These are often easily borrowed from other gardeners if you know of any.

5. Seeds

One of the biggest challenges of food today is that almost all of the foods you buy at the store are hybridized, which means that the seeds inside of them are sterile. This means you can’t simply reserve seeds from the plants you wish to grow.

There are a few plants you can grow from the remaining portions from a store purchase. For example, we have grown potatoes by taking a potato with several eyes purchased at the store and leaving it in a warm area for a few weeks before planting it.

For many plants, however, you’re likely going to be stuck acquiring seeds, at least at first. If you plan on doing this over a number of years, your best bet is to look for non-hybridized seed sources like Seed Savers. The seeds from these fruits and vegetables can be saved for future years of growing – and, more importantly, can be traded with other growers of non-hybridized plants. This means that, while you have a startup cost for seeds, you drastically reduce your continuing cost.

6. Gardening clubs

One great method, if you’re a beginning gardener, is to get involved in a local gardening club. Check the library and the community bulletin board at city hall in the town(s) nearest you for information on such organizations. A stop at the local gardening store might also point you in the right direction.

Not only are such clubs a great source of advice and support (and often a great source for socializing and friendship-building as well), many of the members often grow non-hybridized plants of their own and will trade seeds with members and even give some seeds to new members. My first handful of non-hybridized seeds was from a local gardener who just gave them to me.

7. Education

The best tool a gardener has is education. Read everything you can about the vegetables you’re planning to grow. Wikipedia is a great starting point for this, as are many different online gardening sites. Know when to plant them, how to plant them, and how to care for them. Know how to prevent common diseases.

The effort you put into watching the garden, being familiar with the plants, keeping the garden clear of weeds, and taking preventive steps against diseases and pests will pay off tremendously in the quality and quantity of produce you receive at the end of the season.

The truth about gardening is that once you’ve taken care of a few startup costs, it really is a very inexpensive hobby that results in delicious produce. However, there is a cost to be paid, and that cost is time. If you don’t appreciate gardening as a hobby, you’ll find it hard to push yourself to do the things that need to be done to maintain a garden, such as weeding and stopping pests. This will drastically reduce the success you see from the garden and reduce the return on your initial investment in seeds and basic equipment.

Good luck!

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  1. Tracy says:

    For land, I’d also like to add that if you don’t have any, you can check if there’s a community garden in your area. Plot ‘prices’ can vary wildly, but they’re often very inexpensive and in some cases are free or available for financial aid. The one closest to me is only 25 a summer for a plot (and if you have a friend or neighbor who wants to go in with you, you can split the costs so it’s even cheaper)

  2. AnnJo says:

    Seeds from hybridized plants usually aren’t sterile, they just won’t produce exactly the same product as they came from. I’ve used seeds harvested from various peppers, tomatoes and winter squashes bought at the grocery store and they grow, but the result usually is a little (or a lot) different from the vegetable the seed originally came from.

    Hybridized seeds are developed to offer specific advantages that produce higher yields, such as pest or drought resistance, so depending on local circumstances, the cost of the seeds may trivial compared to the increase in yield.

    Not to say experimenting with non-hybrid seeds isn’t worth trying, but as a beginning, inexperienced gardener, I’m inclined to take every advantage I can get until I build up my skills.

  3. Steven says:

    Tilling the soil destroys the soil structure, causes organic matter to oxidize faster and generally ruins your soil fertility over time. Thought you’d like to know.

  4. valleycat1 says:

    #2 AnnJo is correct. Hybrid seeds are not sterile – but since the produce is from a combo of different varieties, any seeds the hybrid produces could revert back to any one of the original varieties.

    One way to save on seeds is to share packets with friends – the standard seed packets usually have a lot more than any one person needs. Or you can just use part of the packet this year & save them for next season.

    BTW we love Seed Savers – we have family that live just down the road from them & one of our side trips when we visit is to go to their farm & store.

    Also, for beginners, start with a small garden to be sure you enjoy the whole process. Be sure to pay attention to the plant spacing & thinning directions. For some items like corn, you need a minimum number of plants or rows for it to actually produce. If you have gophers, it’s worth the effort to put a below-ground enclosure of chicken wire at your deepest planting level, especially if you’re planting any root crops.

  5. Melanie says:

    I have a garden but bugs are killing it. Beautiful strawberries with tiny wholes thanks to the slugs. I don’t want to use any bug killer but I’m thinking that. Lots of time and money and I can’t eat most of it.

  6. gail says:

    We just let our plants reseed themselves every year. We bought a few tomato plants at a local “big box” store a few years ago, and whatever tomatoes fell to the ground at the end of the season have reseeded for the past three years. The tomatoes are delicious and free!

  7. maria says:

    Our first year of gardening ( hoping for an organic garden) produced ALOT of insect damage. We decided to use sevin dust and commercial fertilizer to help save the crop.. Our thought was it still has to be better than the stuff you buy and the grocery store.
    It has been about 3 years now and we have a 2500 sqft pesticide free organic plot. Gardening takes a lot of experience from trial and error. Don’t get discouraged. Through the seasons you will learn what works best for you and your garden and it will become less of a chore and very frugal as you become skilled with soil, propagation, and harvesting and natural insect repellent… ie.. the marigolds in Trent’s garden

  8. Sara A. says:

    Don’t buy containers! Bakeries get throw away 5 and 10 gallon buckets everyday and are happy for you to reuse them. I make self watering containers out of two buckets and a piece of pipe. It took me an hour to make 6 self watering pots. Very easy! I would post a link but then my comment would go to the moderation black hole.

  9. Gretchen says:

    Slugs: crushed up eggshells or what I’m going to call outdoor/waterproof sandpaper, placed around the edge of the bed. They get cut up and die.

    Thinning: idea from the Square foot garden guy- just plant less seeds. You use less seeds but also don’t have to thin.

    In the beginning, I would not recommend starting from seed. Starter plants (especially the few “easy” things ) aren’t hard to come by and are hardier than what you would produce right away.

  10. Nancy says:

    In the spring, check with your local high school and see if they have a FFA or science club that is selling plants as a fund raiser. Better to give money to schools than a big box store.

  11. Liz says:

    A great source of helpful information is your local land grant university’s or county extension office. They can help you with insect problems, fertilizing problems, and so on.
    And if you find that you really enjoy gardening, look into the extension service’s Master Gardening program. It’s volunteer, and you learn tons of things that you can use in your own garden, plus pass on to other interested gardeners.
    And everyone trades or gives away all kinds of surplus, from plants to seeds to produce.

  12. Meg says:

    Melanie – you can also pour a little bit of beer in a very low container (a lid to sour cream or cottage cheese container) and they will die.

    Our first year for the garden was really expensive because we had to bring in dirt and build a fence around it (we had a pot bellied pig – no way around it!) It cost us close to $350. This year, we’ve paid less than $50 in seeds, asparagus & strawberry plants.

    Next year, it should be even less because we wont be buying any more asparagus! Just the seeds.

    The best part is the harvest.

  13. Ginger says:

    For my first garden I did not use seeds. It was more expense to buy plants but I still broke even. I wanted a better chance of success as a new gardener and buying the plants gave me an edge. This year, being my second year I am trying some seeds and some plants. We will see how it goes.

  14. mary w says:

    In the spring your local 99 Cent store is a good source of seeds. I’ve paid as little as 9 cents a pack for basic seeds.

    Starbucks gives away used coffee grounds. There is generally a bucket tucked away in a corner that has packets of used grounds. A great addition to compost or use as mulch (worms love it). Starbucks doesn’t care whether you buy anything or not. It keeps it out of landfill.

    A great information resource is IDigMyGarden Forum at Baker Street Seeds. I guess you can figure out why I’m not giving you a direct link. :-)

  15. mary w says:

    Whoops…Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

  16. deRuiter says:

    “You’re going to have to turn the soil over using some method. The least expensive method is to do it manually with a hoe,…” Now this I’d like to watch! Personally if I tilled a garden by hand I’d use a spade or shovel to turn the earth, but to each his own. On the other hand you can use Ruth Stoudt’s technique for a productive vegetable garden with very little work and no tilling of the soil. Ruth says about her gardening technique, “My no-work gardening method is simply to keep a thick mulch of any vegetable matter that rots on both my vegetable and flower garden all year round. As it decays and enriches the soil, I add more. The labor-saving part of my system is that I never plow, spade, sow a cover crop, harrow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. … and I don’t go through that tortuous business of building a compost pile.” We use Ruth Stoudt’s method on strawberries, asparagus, rhubarb, the horseradish bed, and all the hosta beds, works like a charm. Sometimes we use it for the tomatoes and peppers too. If you have a local stable you can get the used horse bedding for free, and it makes fine mulch, with a dusting of lime on top. With
    Ruth Stoudt’s method, you cover the area to become vegetable garden in the fall with perhaps a layer of newspapers, and then whatever organic material you have (fallen leaves, grass clippings, horse stall bedding, pine needles, spoiled hay, sawdust, shredded bark or any combination) and in the spring you scrape away the mulch where you want to put the tomato and pepper plants, for instance, plant the seedings, and then water. Any stray weeds which poke through the mulch are easily pulled. Then you drop the pulled weeds on top of the mulch, the sun kills the pulled weeds and they become part of the solution, not part of the problem. Take a peek at Ruth Stoudt’s two books on “no work” gardens and it might save you a lot of useless effort and get some great vegetables, to say nothing of improving your soil structure and fertility. Thank the above readers for mentioning that hybrid seeds aren’t sterile, if they were they wouldn’t grow. Nothing wrong with hybrid seeds although the plants you get from the offspring of the original seeds will be very different. You can save seeds year after year and the vegetables will change from time to time as they are polinated by bees who have visited neighbors’ gardens before visiting yours.

  17. Daina says:

    Some seed varieties you buy in the store are non-hybridized… if you want, search for your crop variety, say, “sweet genovese basil” and the word “hybrid,” and you can usually figure out if they’re hybrid seeds or not.

    I think hybrid seeds are often fine for first-time gardeners… they tend to grow well, and if you start a small plot, one seed packet will often give you seeds for a few years worth of sowing.

    My big trick for EASY pesticide-free gardening has been to stick with plants that grow well in my yard. I can’t seem to grow zucchini to save my life due to fungus, bugs and nutrient problems, but tomatoes and green peppers grow great!

  18. Amy says:

    There is a great gardening book called Lasagna Gardening that talks about how to easily improve your soil by layering different items creating a raised bed of sorts. We did this over rocky, horrible soil and got the best crop of tomatoes we have ever had! It’s worth checking out if you have less than desirable soil.

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