How to Garden Without (Much) Money

Reader Contribution by David Goodman
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“Really, when it comes right down to it…gardening costs more money than it saves,” a friend said recently, giving me a knowing look. He continued, “I mean, I suppose if you count that you’re growing organic, you’re getting a bit more value… but by the time you buy plants…and build beds…and pay for water…and do all that work…you might as well shop at Walmart.”

Is this true? Should we look at our beloved garden as a simple economic equation? As a crass consumer calculation? As a grimy little matter of dollars and cents?

Sure. Why not?

My friend has a point. If you garden like most gardeners, your plots are a hobby that occasionally gives you some tomatoes you can brag about. Every year you replace rotted boards from the sides of your beds, buy transplants and maybe rent a tiller. Then you worry over holes in your broccoli leaves…slugs in your lettuce…and fire ants in your paths, so you buy various chemicals, organic or otherwise, to fix those things. When plant vigor is low, you spring for fish emulsion, blood meal, bone meal, kelp meal, oatmeal or a Happy Meal™ and so on and so on.

The bits and pieces add up quickly and prove my friend’s observation. Or do they?

The quick answer is no. In tough economic times, we need to figure out how to garden in a way that strengthens our finances rather than straining them. In that vein, let’s look at a few ways you can garden on the ragged edge of cheap.

First, let’s look at beds. You don’t need pretty raised beds. They’re nice, but they’re not necessary. Have you ever seen images of subsistence farms overseas? No block beds or cedar boards there — and yet, they’re growing enough food to live. If you’re longer on time than money, simply double-dig a patch of ground and remove the grass, then amend with whatever you can find. This method is just as productive as your neighbor’s adorable red brick bed by their oh-so-cute spitting frog fountain.

A second money-saver is starting your gardens from seed. Transplants often create the illusion of a head start on your garden, rather than the actuality. Putting out neat rows of 6-inch-tall peppers might feel good, but between transplant shock, light differences and their often root-bound condition, they’ll often get passed up and out-produced by the plants you seed in place — and for the price of one or two of those pepper transplants, you can buy enough seeds to plant 50 directly in the ground. There’s a long growing season in the South — the whole “planting out” and “hardening off” fetish of Northern gardeners is not only unnecessary, it’s expensive. If you do need to transplant because of a short growing season, build yourself some inexpensive flats and plant your own transplants. That’s money in the bank.

Now, about those bugs. What do we do with those? Well, there’s this awesome chemical, see, and it’s non-toxic, and it makes cutworms decapitate themselves, vaporizes caterpillars and magically turns aphids into ladybugs…and it’s only $50 a pint…and… I’m totally just kidding! We’re NOT spending money, remember?

We need to change our attitude towards pests. You don’t have to kill them all. Most of the time, in a healthy garden, the pests won’t significantly reduce your yield. If you’re having serious trouble, however, there are a few steps you can take without breaking the bank.

First of all, make the bugs go nuts finding their favorite foods. Mix up beans and cabbages, tomatoes and onions, and keep rotating. Most pests are plant-specific and don’t rise to plague proportions if you avoid making big monoculture plots. Secondly, don’t locate your garden at the edge of the yard. Put it right where you live— and give it the once-over every time you walk past. Pick caterpillars, stink bugs and other pests and toss them into a cup of soapy water. Badda-boom! Dead! You can also find plenty of info on cheap insect repellents/killers on the internet. Garlic, red pepper, dish soap and even cigar butts have been used to create insecticides— though my favorite method is simply spraying away the pests with a blast of water. Many, like aphids, have a hard time getting back to their host plants and predators and the elements make short work of them on the ground.

Fertilization is another area where we blow too much money. Kitchen scraps (bury these where plant roots can get them), homemade compost, manure or forest duff are great amendments. Others have reported good results from using —no lie—urine on their plants.(1) Before running out to the store, think about what you have on hand. Additionally, sowing a “green manure” crop adds nitrogen and organic matter to your soil. Neighbors are often happy to give you their leaves and other yard “waste.” Provided they’re not spraying chemicals around, ask them to dump their trimmings and debris over the fence so you can start composting. Free fertilizer!

As for tillers and other motorized implements, they’re all well and good if you have a huge space or more money. For me, however, I prefer to use a shovel, a spading fork, a landscaping rake and a stirrup hoe for most of my gardening. Tools like these quickly pay for themselves in veggies— and the added exercise is another bonus.

Will you reach profitability on your gardening? I have, but the answer is ultimately up to you. Some years you’ll fail (I’m great at failing) but those years will become fewer as you gain experience. Keep working the ground and looking for simple answers to tough problems. Build more compost piles. Talk with your local Master Gardener. Plant and save heirloom seeds. Put up rain barrels. See what’s growing great for your neighbors and plant that. Get seed from the bulk bins at the organic market (that’s where I get my fava beans and rye, among other things). Learn to like okra and zucchini. Or not.

Just never, ever give up.

(1) Carol Steinfeld, Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants. Vermont: Green Frigate Books, 2004

For a massive serving of madcap gardening inspiration for the sub-tropics and beyond, visit David’s daily gardening blog