Updated on 11.13.11

Review: The Small Budget Gardener

Trent Hamm

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.

The Small Budget GardenerEvery once in a while, I’ll stumble upon a book that’s basically already covered the ground I had planned on using for a post series in the future. This is one of those books.

Yes, starting in February, I was planning a “how to garden on a tight budget” series. The problem is, after reading this wonderful book by Maureen Gilmer, that post series is pretty much redundant. This book covers all of the ground I intended to cover in that series.

I guess this would lead to the question of why I would write a series about budget gardening. Simply put, a garden is a great way to produce vegetables and fruits and herbs inexpensively for your kitchen, plus it gives you a great outdoors activity to fill the months of spring, summer, and fall. The one catch is that gardening tends to have a large startup budget, one that you might be repaying for quite a while out of the savings on your garden’s produce.

So, how can one reduce the startup costs? At the same time, are there any tricks for reducing the ongoing costs of gardening in the form of things like seeds, fertilizer, and so forth? That’s pretty much exactly what this book covers and it provides a lot of great answers.

Stretch Every Dollar
The book opens with a focus on the absolute essential equipment you need to get a garden up and running. One key section of this chapter that I particularly enjoyed listed about fifteen key garden tools (like a hand trowel, a pointed shovel, a hoe, a small leaf rake, and so on) and identified specifically what you should look for when buying that item. What features does it need to do its job well over a long period of time? The chapter also includes some homebrew recipes for insect repellent (mix four tablespoons liquid dish soap into a gallon of water, then spray on plants), fertilizer (a crazy mix of common household ingredients that I’m going to try soon), and other such items.

From there, the book moves onto how to shop for the initial plants you need, incorporating some great standard frugality tactics into garden supplying. One good suggestion is to just buddy up with other gardeners, so that when you buy a multi-pack of plants (saving money by buying in bulk) you can split them up among the people involved. Another good tactic is to save seeds and cuttings from previous years, but this requires that you start off with non-hybridized seeds (from a Seed Savers catalog, for example).

From here, Gilmer moves onto making good soil. Soil can be expensive if you’re buying bags of topsoil or potting soil, so she suggests making your own. Hunt around for a source of manure (if you know a livestock farmer, cattle manure is fantastic for this). Use alfalfa as a mulch. Better yet, make your own compost (which is something we do) out of your leftover plant scraps. It’s not hard to make really rich soil for your garden at a pittance.

Environmental Cents
The focus of this section is mostly on how to reduce your utility bills using your plants, making them serve double duty (or perhaps triple duty). The first example is the advantage of planting shade trees around your home, effectively keeping the hot sun out in the summer and insulating a bit in the winter. Fast-growing shade trees are plentiful and will let you start reaping that advantage in just a handful of years.

Another method is to choose ornamental plants that are drought-resistant so that you don’t have to actively water them very often. Instead, you can rely on the rainwater in your area to provide plenty of water for them, enabling you to cut down on your water use.

This section also focuses on the value of reusing the things you have on hand. Use large twigs to build lattices and other structures for your vines to grow on (we do this every year for our cucumbers). Use grass clippings and leaves as a resource for the composter or for direct mulching on your garden. Instead of buying large rocks or cement blocks, keep your eye out for flat rocks that would make for beautiful garden decorations.

Gratis – As It Should Be
The final section of this book focuses on how to get free things for your garden, from plant and seed samples to wonderful ideas. One great suggestion is to simply start following good gardening blogs (a couple of my favorites are A Way to Garden and Garden Rant).

However, the real focus of this section is on saving your own seeds and cuttings for the future. In the case of seeds, this requires that you start from non-hybridized plants or seeds of your own, which you can get from a group like Seed Savers. The book provides a great guide on techniques for saving seeds and cuttings. Once you’ve established this as a routine, you can begin trading your excess seeds for new ones, enabling you to try new plants without spending a dime.

Is The Small Budget Gardener Worth Reading?
If you’ve ever liked gardening and would like a few frugal tips, pick up this book. Furthermore, if you’ve ever thought about gardening but been daunted by the startup costs, you must read this book.

It’s colorful, fun, easy to read, and full of wonderful frugal gardening tips. That adds up to a great book to me. Ours is already accumulating dog-eared pages.

Check out additional reviews and notes of The Small Budget Gardener on Amazon.com.

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  1. Steven says:

    There’s a book already written about everything you can possibly imagine. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write something else. And when did you start worrying about being redundant? ;-)

  2. valleycat1 says:

    One warning – buying non-hybridized seeds is a fairly high initial expense. My husband has a degree in agricultural science, and he says many of the so-called heirloom plants and seeds sold at the large garden stores are not true nonhybrids. Seeds from Seed Savers are expensive but they have an amazing variety; you can order online, & their actual store & demonstration farm are fun to visit if you’re ever in Northeast Iowa.

    Another useful series of short books is The Weekend Homesteader by Anna Hess. This year she’s been issuing one Kindle book a month on gardening & other homesteading topics applicable to that month (for where she lives). I expect that sometime next year there will be the full-year version. Her husband designed a chicken waterer they make themselves from accumulated parts & sell from their homestead. Her blog has interesting posts on other projects they’ve tackled, as well as links to a variety of similar blogs.

  3. Gretchen says:

    I’d love a garden series.

  4. deRuiter says:

    I can’t get all that excited about non hybridized seeds at a high cost. Find out what varieties do well in your area and buy that kind of hybrid seed. Or, go to Shop Rite or the dollar store in the spring and knock yourself out with 5 packs of seeds for $1. We have great luck with these. Then, if you are satisfied with the performance of the plants and like the produce, save the seeds from your favorite vegetable of each variety. What grows from them the next season will be the same or a bit different from the plants last year and you will have several slightly different plants (and produce) from the saved seeds of one plant as nature takes its course. Save the seeds from the produce (lettuce, dill, spinach, squash, corn, pumpkins, basil, and on and on) you like best for the next year. You will quickly get strains which grow best in your garden location and climate. Most seeds sold as hybridized seeds are not pure, nature has sent some bees who did a bit of hybrididizing, but you are still paying high prices for the words “non hybrid.” What is wrong with a hybrid tomato plant if the seeds provide you with good tomatoes, and non hybrid seeds for the next year, even if they are not quite the same as the hybrid parent plant?
    Food gardening is a cheap hobby. Get your hand tools at yard sales for pennies on the dollar. Hire someone to turn over your patch the first year, the only big expense. Compost all vegetative waste. Pick up free manure if there is a local stable. Then follow Ruth Stout’s “no work garden” method with heavy mulch and you’ll never have to till the garden again. If you want only a small garden and have the strength you can turn over the soil in the fall, plant in the spring, mulch heavily as Ruth Stout teaches, and garden cheaply forever without a single major expense. Food gardening is cheap to do! Want to grow butternut squash? Go to the market, buy a nice butternut squash. At home, cut squash apart, spread seeds without pulp on paper towels to dry for a couple of days and cook the squash and eat it, you’ve got free seeds! Same with all winter and summer squash, even things like tomatoes. And you’ll be surpirsed that the tomatoes you raise from the seeds of those tasteless store tomatoes will be much better when they are from your own garden because you pick them when they turn red, not when they are green and then gas them to make them red. Food gardening doesn’t cost much and it provides a huge return on your investment. It’s good exercise and gets you outdoors so you don’t need a gym membership. I am so bored with articles which claim that to raise 11 tomatoes and a row of leaf lettuce costs $987. and that the “gardener” is going to buy from farm stands in the future. Successful food gardening has been done with minute amounts of money or no money for thousands of years by people unable to read or write with no access to modern equipment. Surely well educated people can figure out that if they buy the tools at tag sales and buy cheap seeds or scrounge the seeds from vegetables they buy at the market, they can garden successfully and cheaply, producing large amounts of almost free food.

  5. Lori says:

    I garden and have done so for years. I live in NoCal, where water is NOT free so I garden around the hot summer months and use gray water to water (run off from my hose that is collected or redirected to the raised beds). I have done flat, row gardening and raised beds and I like raised beds. We live on a farm, so we have a huge scrap wood pile my husband has accumulated from projects and work castoffs, so I build them myself, 100% recycled wood and 80% recycled screws. We have goats and so that makes wonderful dirt. Using Alfalfa as mulch would work, but at 18.99 a bale (I bought 2 bales this weekend for goats and it is really high right now) is an expensive option…plus you will have to weed because it will sprout. I use pine needles, old newspapers (black and white only), mown grass clippings (weeding again).
    For seed, I have used the Tightwad Gazette’s recommended source of FedCo seeds. They are GREAT and cheap. You can get organic too. We eat all year and I can what we don’t eat right away AND the table scraps go to the pig and chickens, which are then recycled back to us via pork and eggs. My mom was born in 1928 and NEVER wasted. I was born in 1967 and , although a product of the 80’s, I save and recycle. ANyway, I like the gardening topic.

  6. valleycat1 says:

    #4 deRuiter – I ‘m pretty much with you on using hybrids, particularly for beginners. Collecting & drying seeds & tracking what’s what would be quite a project. Plus you have to let items go to seed that you might not normally – & some plants aren’t edible once they bolt. Most seed packets have more than you need for one year, and the extra can be saved if you’re really wanting to be super frugal. Usually the big-box store items are those that grow well in your area, but you do still need to familiarize yourself with what growing zone you live in so you can double check.

    The counties in our state have a “master gardener” system set up where you can get useful free info, I think as part of the county extension service. Most states at least have the county extension service which can be a good resource; colleges/universities with ag. science departments also usually are helpful.

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