Free and Cheap Stuff for Your Garden

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"The Quarter-Acre Farm” by Spring Warren is the story of how one woman feeds her family for a year after converting her suburban yard into a vegetable garden. Get your hands dirty with this story of bugs, worms, rot and failure; of learning, replanting, harvesting and eating. Also, collect great tips on how to provide your garden with free and cheap stuff such as free mulch or free compost. 

Gardening can be an expensive hobby, but with the right resources, you can source free and cheap stuff and save money. The Quarter-Acre Farm(Publishers Group West, 2011) by Spring Warren is the story of how one woman kept her patio, lost her suburban lawn and started a garden that fed her family for a year. Read her advice on getting free stuff from Freecycle Network, Craigslist and friends as well as her creative ideas for free compost, free mulch and a greywater recycling system for free water. This excerpt was taken from Chapter 7, “Free Stuff.”

My idea of gardening is that I will eat well, enjoy myself, and save money. In order to save money, I need to garden on a budget. A Spring Warren budget. Which is minimal. In order to stay in that budget I use a lot of free and cheap stuff to garden with.

Cheap doesn’t have to mean ugly. I (and my neighbors and family) don’t want the garden filled with failed retreads that I’m using as raised beds. Planting in an old toilet might be cute in some people’s yards, but I’d rather not have one in mine. I am cheap, but I’m also picky. This would seem to create a quandary, except that there are so many ways to get by using inexpensive or even free items.

The number one way to get garden stuff is to have garden friends; be in a gardening loop. I have been luckier than anyone has a right to be and have often benefited from a friend’s interest in improving her garden or trying something new.

If you check Craigslist, you will find all sorts of cheap and free stuff. “Cart away the fill dirt and it’s yours.” “Peeler poles for a dollar each.” “If you take chickens today, you can have them no charge (landlord is complaining).”

In many cities there is a Freecycle group. The Freecycle Network has almost five thousand groups, so chances are good there are Freecyclers near you. It is a nonprofit entity that facilitates its members getting and giving things away for free, promoting reuse of items and keeping useable goods from ending up in the landfillI myself have been gifted a dwarf peach tree, organic potting soil, gloves, tools, and a big bag of asparagus crowns. Membership is of course free.

This sort of turnaround is one of the perks of farming in town. In the country, old stuff gets put in the barn or in the might-need-that-again-someday junk pile full of rusting baling wire, spools, a rusting truck body, cinderblocks, churn bodies, and who knows what else. There isn’t that kind of space in town, and it costs money to get rid of excess. Giving it away or selling it for a song is a win-win situation for everyone.

For instance, I have spread truckloads and truckloads and truckloads of free mulch in my yard. Store-bought mulch is almost always a chipped or shredded redwood. It is a warm sienna color for a time and then fades into a sun-washed grey brown. My mulch is free and it is never a warm sienna color, nor of a homogenous texture. Instead, it is a mixture of browns and greens and has a variety of textures because it comes from the tree-trimming companies that work in my town. The mulch is the chipped branches that are pruned from all varieties of trees. The tree-trimming companies are pleased to dump an entire truckload of mulch in my driveway; it means they bypass a trip to the dump, along with the dump fees. While this mulch isn’t a consumer-familiar color or texture, leaves are mulched up along with the branches and bark, which makes for a much healthier mineral-rich application.

Compost is expensive, but homemade compost is free. Many communities give away free composters through their recycling programs, but if not, they’re easy to build. My neighbors built theirs from discarded wooden shipping pallets.

Manure is free if you have livestock. If not, perhaps you know someone who does. If you want a lot of rabbit manure, look up rabbitries on the Internet or ask your local pet store (or butcher) where they get their rabbits from. Likely as not, a rabbit-raising entity will happily give away the manure for free, or at least at a very minimal charge.

Some say that feeding animals costs money, so therefore manure isn’t free. True, but you can get free feed for your critters — feed your livestock discards from the grocery store. We call our local co-op several times a week and ask for a box of green trimmings. He is in competition with several other people (including “J,” the other goose lady) who do the same thing. What we get in the boxes is varied. What we can’t feed the animals we put into the compost pile to feed the bacteria and worms that make the dirt.

I also get free plants from my garden, all the time — from volunteers and rooting shoots. My rosemary plants are parents to hundreds of little rosemary plants. If you trim plants in the spring when the new branches are still pliant, you can dip their cut ends in rooting hormone and stick them in the dirt. You can also bend a branch down and cover it with dirt. In no time they will be newly rooted bushes.

You also can get water for free. My parents have several vinyl-sided pools that fill up with rainwater by early summer and then are depleted little by little as rains ebb and flow and ebb and ebb. . . . My friends Alan and Emily just put in rain barrels that collect the rain that comes out of their roof gutters. Alan and Emily are heroes of mine because not only do they catch rain, but when they run their shower and wait for the water to heat, they also use buckets to catch the initial cold water and use it in the yard.

I have begun to use a bucket in the kitchen to wash produce, loathe to pour good water down the hatch (and gunk up the drains with dirt and aphids). Even more, though, I dream of utilizing a greywater recycling system — even if just to capture the sink water that runs down the drain with nothing but toothpaste in it, or the water from our washing machine, since we use phosphate-free soap.

Another thing that’s available for free, but only after you’re a together farmer (something I still haven’t managed to become), is seed from your own vegetables. I keep meaning to put together a system, not only to collect seed (and remember to collect them), but also to date, store, and then remember (once again) that I’ve got the seeds to plant. Maybe this year.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Quarter-Acre Farm, published by Publishers Group West, 2011.