Gardening Resources: Cheap or Free

Gardening can be a very expensive hobby.  Between buying soil, plants, containers, compost, mulch, supports, tools, and other gardening needs and wants gardeners end up spending a boatload.  Some years I think I spent way more money on growing food than I would have spent if I just bought the food at the supermarket (the food wouldn’t have been as good or fresh of course).  There’s even a book called The 64 Dollar Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden.  

While I’m not always a proponent of doing things the cheap or free way, in gardening oftentimes doing things this way mimics nature and leads to better long term results.  In some other regards, you get what you pay for.  I’ll say that especially holds true with tools.  Tools are usually something where it’s worth paying up for better quality.  That’s not to say that you should get the most expensive, but the $5 shovel with a wooden handle will break digging out tough roots, I’ve had it happen to new shovels.  The $12 hose will kink and break much faster than the $30 heavy duty hose, which are often guaranteed for life.  In these situations spending more upfront is an investment as your tool will last longer and you won’t have to replace it after just a couple uses.  

Although there are places where it is wise to spend up to get something that will last, there are also great things you can get for cheap or free.  Here are a few things you can do to have a thriving garden at little cost. 

Chipdrop – Or anywhere else you can get free woodchips – Arborists and landscapers are often looking to get rid of wood chips.  Chipdrop is a service that will match you with arborists that have wood chips to get rid of.  Before signing up for a chipdrop, watch their video Why Chipdrop is Not for You.  If you can obtain wood chips, especially arborist wood chips that mix in leaves, pine needles, and twigs, you’ll have a fantastic mulch with many benefits.  Wood chip mulch helps soil retain moisture, it makes it harder for weed seeds to germinate and easier to pull out weeds that do germinate, as they break down they add nutrients to the soil, and they are a great home for microchorizae fungi that help plants take up nutrients.  You may have heard that wood chips rob the soil of nitrogen as they break down, This is true, but only when they are mixed into the soil.  When they are used as mulch on top of the soil this is not the case.  So, whether through Chipdrop, a landscaper friend, or with your own wood chipper, put this free resource to work for you in your garden!  

Piggybacking on woodchips, compost is of course essential if you don’t want to be spending money on amendments and fertilizers in your garden.  Woodchips can actually be composted too, and can help to utilize an enormous quantity that you may have gotten in a Chipdrop.  But your compost doesn’t have to include woodchips, and actually if your pile is small, you probably shouldn’t include woody things unless they are very finely shredded.  Now, you can spend a lot of money on a compost tumbler and on compost activators, but you don’t need to spend anything.  Compost can be done on the ground, or with a compost bin made from recycled pallets or other recycled material.  Now, you can read a lot about compost but there are a few secrets that really speed up the process and help your organic materials to break down faster.  First is the ratio of brown (carbon rich) to green (nitrogen rich) materials.  Generally for every one green material (think veggie scraps or fresh grass clippings) you want two units of brown material (shredded fall leaves or straw).  The ratio doesn’t have to be exact, but the closer you get to it the faster your materials will break down.  Another way to set yourself up for success is to make things smaller before putting them into the pile.  Shredded newspaper will break down a lot quicker than just tossing a whole newspaper into the pile (glossy parts taken out of course).  The same can be applied to eggshells, banana peeds, and anything else you decide to add to your compost.  The last tip I’ll give is to keep it moist but not soaked and to turn frequently.  There are a lot of other methods and tools for composting, and I recommend you research them all to find what’s right for you.   

Seedlings on bench under lights.
Seedling setup under lights. Unless you have really good south facing windows, your seedlings will probably require additional light.

To me, something that is completely unnecessary and actually causes more headaches than anything is landscape fabric.  I completely get wanting to smother weeds and build up to plant on top of them, but landscape fabric creates problems like having weed roots stuck through the fabric, it doesn’t break down quickly, and it may have to be cut or torn to plant things on top of it.  I’m not against layering, but it should be done using materials that break down, like the lasagna gardening method.  The lasagna gardening method is very specific about how and what to stack, but the principles can be applied in a much less specific way.  You can simply put cardboard over your weeds, and add soil/compost/amendments right on top of the cardboard.  I’ve also had great success using contractor paper (make sure to get the non-glossy stuff).  I  planted over a hillside that was formerly covered in English Ivy (which had to be cut back first).  It worked, as the contractor paper followed by layers of compost, coconut coir, and woodchips prevented the ivy from coming back.  To be honest, the first year there was occasionally an Ivy leaf that poked through from somewhere, but I diligently plucked it out and now the hillside is ivy free with desired plants thriving.  You can also use newspaper as a barrier, but to keep weeds down it does take a thicker application of newspaper, as newspaper tends to break down faster than cardboard or contractor paper.  

One final way to save money that I’d like to mention is propagating your own plants, rather than buying seedlings (and this is coming from someone who sells seedlings, check out our website in the spring!).  Propagating plants, either from seeds or cuttings is much more cost effective.  Propagating plants through cutting is an easy process that I’ve written about on this blog before.  All you need to propagate is an existing plant, something to cut with, seed starting medium or potting soil, and if you want to up the odds of success rooting hormone.  You can do this with many plants, including tomato plants if you start your cuttings early enough.  Seed starting is also relatively inexpensive, provided you have a surface by a window that receives lots of light (south facing ideally) or you have some kind of grow light.  Many retailers sell seed starting kits with everything you need to get started.  There is a little art and science to it.  Like how far in advance you want to start your seeds in advance of your last frost date, how to keep your seed starting medium moist, and how many hours a day your seedlings should be under lights.  Another consideration is when to pot up.  You don’t want to have your seedlings just in the seed starting mix, which is usually sterile and devoid of nutrients.  You will want to pot them up to an enriched potting mix or another sterile mix and add an organic liquid fertilizer.  If you re-use your seed starting equipment it will add even more to your savings.  For some folks, buying seedlings may be a better option as it saves time, space, and energy.  And us nursery folks love you for it, but if you are looking to slash you gardening budget, propagating your own plants is another way to do it.  

This list is not at all extensive.  I am sure I missed many ways to save money on this ever important hobby.  Please share any money saving secrets you may have in the comments below!           

PS As someone who works in a library for their day job, I feel obligated to include your local public library as a free resource. There are many good books on gardening. The library is a great resource for any kind of knowledge, and that is especially true for gardening knowledge!

Published by scottmeneely

Gardener passionate about organic gardening, fresh food, sustainable landscaping, home brewing, and much more! Our nursery also includes my wife and 2 kids. We work together, learn together, and travel together. My wife is Panamanian and we try to grow lots of good Latin American ingedients. We live in Baldwin, Pennsylvania in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.

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