Growing your own food can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be and I wouldn’t want concerns over costs to prevent anyone from starting their first garden. So today I thought I’d share my top 5 money-saving tips for beginning gardeners.
Raised Garden Beds
Raised beds are very popular among home gardeners and I certainly like them a lot, but if you’re starting a new garden building several raised beds can be quite expensive. So today’s first money-saving tip for beginning gardeners is to weigh the pros and cons of raised beds before making the investment. To help you with your decision if raised beds are right for you let’s talk about some of their pros and cons.
Let’s start with the pros. First if your native soil is very poor you might want to consider raised beds. For example, if your soil is hard clay, very sandy, or full of rocks a raised bed filled with quality garden soil will get you growing right away. It may take a few years to improve the fertility of your native soil. My raised beds are quite shallow. Taller beds are more accessible to those with back problems or other physical challenges and if the edge of the bed is wide enough you can even sit on it for easier planting, weeding, and harvesting. Other pros include reduced soil compaction, erosion, and improve drainage. Also initially a weed-free area to plant in. Finally one of the reasons we built our raised beds is that our garden slopes away from the Sun. Which is a significant disadvantage in a garden that’s already quite shaded. So we built our raised beds to slope toward the Sun. Of course, the more your slope is away from the Sun the greater the advantage raised beds can provide.
Now let’s talk about some of the cons. Since this post is about saving money we’ll start with the cost if you have to buy or build several raised beds and fill them with soil. It can be quite expensive especially if you’re buying all the components of the soil that you’re adding to the beds. A 4 by 8 raised bed can easily run over $100 if you have to purchase the materials and soil. The cost adds up fast if you’re building several beds. Also if the beds are made of wood or some other material that breaks down you’ll have to replace the beds eventually. By contrast, setting up a 4 by 8 bed in the native soil using a no-dig approach would cost next to nothing. For example, the autumn before you start planting, you could cover the area with brown corrugated cardboard and then cover that with compost. You could also use free mulches like untreated grass clippings, autumn leaves, used coffee grounds and, crushed eggshells. Even if you had to buy the compost your overall cost would be very little. Raised beds also have to be watered more frequently because water moves through them faster and evaporates faster than in the native soil. So raised beds will increase your watering costs, especially in taller beds. Finally because of the small soil mass in raised beds the soil temperature fluctuates much more than the soil in the ground and, it gets much hotter in the summer and this can be an issue for some crops in hotter climates.
So before making the decision to invest in raised beds make sure to weigh the pros and cons. Another major expense for many gardeners is fertilizers and soil amendments. There are so many products out there as well as conflicting advice. It’s hard for beginning gardeners to figure out what their garden really needs. Fortunately, there’s something you can do to eliminate a lot of this guesswork and, this leads to tip number 2.
Get your soil tested
Before spending a lot of money on fertilizers and amendments have your soil tested by a professional lab. In the U.S. local soil tests are available through your Agricultural Extension which you can find online where we live for about 25 dollars. You can have your soil tested by a lab for a variety of beneficial elements in soil pH, percentage of organic matter, and cation exchange capacity which is a measure of soil nutrient holding capacity. The lab will tell you if levels are too low or too high and, they’ll provide recommendations on how to correct any issues with your soil. So at a very low cost, twenty-five dollars in our case you can figure out what your garden soil really needs and perhaps, more importantly, you can identify what it doesn’t need. By learning what your soil doesn’t need you can potentially save hundreds of dollars in fertilizers and amendments in the long run. Also, you don’t have to have your soil tested every year. We test ours every three to four years just to give us an update on how we’re doing and our last test showed us what we pretty much already knew, our soil is high in nutrients just from compost and mulch and there’s no need for additional fertilizers. Three years ago we made a small one-time investment in a bare root Red Haven peach tree and now we’ll have peaches for many years to come with very little ongoing cost now that’s a great investment.
Plant Some Perennials
Money-saving tip number three is to make sure to include some edible perennials in your garden. Of course, we love our annual crops too but they require new investments every year. Whether it’s new seeds, new plant starts,or electricity in the grow room. You don’t even have to water most of our perennials because we get a good amount of rain and free organic mulch holds moisture in the soil. We don’t fertilize our perennials we simply mulch them with free organic mulch like wood chips so our ongoing costs are next to nothing. In addition to being a great investment edible perennials are also some of our favorite garden treats. We’re currently growing over 30 different perennials including, peaches, Asian pears, blackberries, raspberries strawberries, blueberries and, asparagus. Our garden is powered by compost and, we’ve made all of our own compost for years without spending a penny.
Make your own compost for free
Money-saving tip number four is to make your own compost for free using only kitchen scraps, autumn leaves, untreated grass clippings, straw, woodchips, garden waste and, used coffee grounds from the local coffee shop. Making compost can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. We currently use a very simple approach. We pile organic matter in a bin and wait for it to decompose. We don’t worry about the carbon to nitrogen ratio. We don’t turn it or even water it, we just wait. The compost is usually ready in one to two years and to make sure we have a steady supply we always keep two to three piles going at the same time. Of course, when you’re starting your first garden you probably don’t want to wait a year or more for finished compost. In that case you’ll want to make a hot compost pile but, no matter how you make it there’s a good chance you can make all the compost you need using only free supplies. If you apply compost to your garden annually there’s a good chance you eventually won’t need to buy additional fertilizer.
Use Free Organic Mulch
The fifth money-saving tip is to keep the soil covered with free organic mulch. I like to use chop and drop garden waste, untreated grass clippings, autumn leaves, wood chips, straw and, organic mulches. Save money by saving water and providing a slow release of nutrients into the soil. Which reduces fertilizer requirements and will also help reduce diseases like blossom end rot and blight. People are sometimes concerned that using organic mulch will attract unwanted pests like slugs and snails. In our case, I think we did see an increase in slugs in the first year, but after that, we’ve seen a steady decline in the slugs and basically over the last 20 years to the point where pests are really not a huge problem in our garden. I think that’s because the mulch provides habitat not only for pests but also for their predators. Of course, you’ll see different results in different gardens and in different climates. So if you’re concerned about mulch attracting pests try using a layer of compost to cover the soil instead.