Gardening on a Budget
A few ways to save when you're just starting out.
The ability to grow our own food from seed can be very empowering. Seeds offer far more variety than nursery stock, and they're relatively cheap compared to other gardening start-up costs. But if you’re new to gardening, you’ll need supplies and equipment to lay the groundwork–and these initial expenses can add up. Aside from seeds, a garden will require soil, containers, tools, amendments, water, mulch and more. Gardeners are a creative bunch, though, and we find ways to keep growing–even on a tight budget. If you’re gardening with a limited budget, read on for a few of our favorite cost-saving hacks.
Dream big, start small.
Whether you want to create a container garden or need to landscape a larger area, carve out some time to compare prices before you spend. Because of supply chain issues and inflation, prices can be wildly different depending on where you’re looking. Add up essentials–like seeds, containers, and soil–and then prioritize the items on your plant wishlist. In the beginning, get yourself at least one good multi-purpose tool (our farmers love the Hori-Hori Knife and the Ika Hoe).
For larger areas, consider landscaping with a native wildflower mix that includes perennials. Single pots of nursery-grown perennials are bigger and showier the first year, but seed-sown varieties need just 1-2 growing seasons to catch up. Native plants will also require less maintenance. To get started, visit this page for a selection of wildflower mixes, or browse our collection of Meadow Seed Shakers.
For a container garden, some plants will perform better than others. Avoid wasting money on plants that will prefer more room to ramble; instead, sow herbs, nasturtium, calendula, and compact vegetable varieties. Browse this collection for more ideas.
Don’t buy when you can swap or borrow.
One of the best things about gardening is realizing how much other gardeners love to share. Whether its herb cuttings, over-crowded perennials,* or an abundance of seeds, you’ll find a lot of generosity within the gardening community. Join a local community garden, or just strike up a conversation with your neighbor about their plantings. Community-run gardens often have low membership costs and will usually provide access to shared tools, mulch, and more. Type “community garden” plus your town or county into a search engine to find a garden near you–or try this tool provided by the American Community Garden Association.
Start a seed swap with a friend.
Once you make a few gardener friends, ask them to join you in a “seed swap.” Here's why: If a seed pack comes with 25 tomato seeds, well, most of us won’t be growing 25 tomatoes–so, it just makes sense to set up an exchange. You can even make or decorate seed envelopes to add a personal touch. Ask your gardener neighbor or friend to swap seeds or seedlings at the start of the season and you’ll both have twice the variety of plants to enjoy.
At the start of your gardening journey, muster up the courage to occasionally ask for plant cuttings or to borrow tools and equipment; more often than not, fellow gardeners are happy to help. Swapping, lending, and borrowing aren't just about “stuff”; these exchanges can make a big difference in our lives. Ask a neighbor if you can borrow a shovel or wheelbarrow and you might make a friend for life!
*Note:– When sharing plants with fellow gardeners take precautions not to inadvertently spread invasive species, such as the Asian jumping worm. Learn more about best practices for sharing plants here.
Seven more ways to save.
There are lots of ways to save in the garden–from using old t-shirts as plant ties to starting seeds in tofu containers. Here are a few of our favorite approaches to cutting down costs.
1 ) Shop seed sales whenever you can, and get into the habit of saving seeds from mature plants in your garden. Stored in cool, dry conditions, most major vegetable crop seeds will last 3-5 years; some exceptions include alliums, parsnips, and spinach, which may only last 1 or 2 years. For flowers, most annuals typically last 1-3 years. Perennials tend to last 2-4 years. These estimates depend on the way seeds are stored. The ideal conditions for saving seeds is in a cold (but not freezing), dry, dark place. To learn more, check out this blog post.
2) Seed libraries can be another great source for free seeds. Some public libraries are now offering seeds that patrons can check out just like books. In fact, our seed company started out as a seed library! (Learn more about our seed library origins in this talk with co-founder K Greene.) Seed libraries get their seeds from donations made by seed companies like ours or from patrons returning seeds that they’ve collected to return at the end of the season. Some of these libraries will even run community gardens and plant swaps! Read more about seed libraries here.
3) Get thrifty with containers. Save plastic take-out containers for starting your seeds indoors in spring. Many of these containers even come with clear dome-shaped lids for creating a mini-greenhouse. Re-using these and other containers season after season can reduce waste and save money. For larger growing containers, scour yard sales, thrift stores, and freebies advertised in local online listings.
4) Make your own plant labels! Repurpose white plastic food containers into plant tags. Here's how: Cut the bottom off of a yogurt container or a milk jug, then cut the sides lengthwise into strips to create your tags. Snip the ends into a point and then use a permanent marker to label your tags. Watch this video for a demonstration. Otherwise, find long-lasting metal labels here.
5) Save on soil. Filling a raised bed or larger container with store-bought potting soil can be expensive. For raised beds, offset soil costs by first layering the bottom with cardboard, followed by twigs, wood chips, leaves, and other compostables followed by a layer of top soil and broken down compost. Find an example here. For instructions on making your own homemade potting media, visit PennState Extension's overview here.
6) Compost. Maintain a compost heap near your garden to replenish and build your soil, season after season. Add shredded leaves, lawn clippings, cardboard, newspaper, and kitchen scraps to maintain a healthy ratio (3:1) of carbon and nitrogen inputs. Composting improves soil structure and drainage and helps plant roots access nutrients more easily, producing healthier plants that require less maintenance.
7) Succession sow all season. It's a no-brainer! Succession sowing and intercropping will bring you more harvests throughout the season. There's really no better way to see a return on your investment! For fall harvests, sow at mid-summer. Read more about summer-sown crops here.
As you can see from this list, limitations can foster creativity and resilience. Whatever your budget may be, remember to stay curious and learn from your fellow gardeners; don't be afraid to borrow; and be generous when you can be.