Our approach to frugal gardening isn’t just to look for great deals on gardening products. We also try to limit our use of purchased inputs like water and electricity. Today I’ll share 10 strategies that allow us to get excellent results while spending very little money on products and other inputs.
The first strategy to save is to have your soil tested before buying fertilizers and amendments. People often think of a soil test as a way to learn what they need to add to the soil, but more often than not the real value is in learning what not to add. When you know what your soil doesn’t need you can avoid buying unnecessary fertilizers and amendments and save money in the process. In our case even though we haven’t used store-bought fertilizers for many years a soil test showed high or very high levels of most nutrients, and all we do is add compost worm castings and mulch to the garden. With nutrient levels as high as they are we can actually use less compost in order to bring them down. If you live in the United States, low-cost professional soil testing is available at your local Agricultural Extension office. Some states even offer free testing, either way, soil testing can save you a lot of money over the long run by helping you to identify what products you don’t need. You may even find like we did that no additional fertilization is needed.
The second strategy to reduce your gardening costs is to make your own compost from free local resources. The amount of compost you’ll need will vary depending on your soil test results, but if the results show your soil needs more organic matter and nutrients, a good target is to produce enough compost to cover your garden beds with a half-inch to an inch of compost per year. When soil is deficient in nutrients, compost alone can often correct the deficiencies and the good news is that you can usually find all of the compost inputs you need without spending a penny. The best place to start looking for free compost ingredients is on your home property. You can use kitchen scraps, autumn leaves, grass clippings, and other yard waste. If this isn’t enough material to produce a half-inch to an inch of compost per year you can look for free local resources in your community. Where we live there’s an amazing abundance of free resources for compost and as many of you probably know when I started I was on a mission to find as many as I could. I scavenged for leaves, woodchips, grass clippings, used coffee grounds, brewery grains, and horse manure. You may have different free resources where you live, but if you look hard enough you can usually find more than enough to make all the compost you’ll need.
The third strategy is to mulch garden beds using free local organic resources. Mulching has numerous benefits including saving water, feeding the soil, food web, controlling weeds, and reducing erosion, and all of these benefits can be achieved without spending a penny on products. Some of our favorite free local mulch ingredients are autumn leaves, wood chips, grass clippings, chop and drop garden waste, ground eggshells, and small amounts of used coffee grounds. Free straw isn’t available where we live, but we would definitely use it if it was. Now let’s look at four specific ways that mulch saves you money. First, it covers the soil which reduces evaporation and holds moisture in. As a result, you’re gonna have a lower water bill. Secondly, it slowly releases nutrients into the soil which means you can use less fertilizer. Third, you may have heard about how great worm castings are for your soil, but fortunately, you don’t have to buy them. A better approach is to mulch your garden beds. Mulch feeds worms and gives them an excellent habitat, and protects them from temperature extremes. Mulching will significantly increase your native earthworm population and the number of worm castings in your garden. Fourth, fungi will form and benefit symbiotic relationships with a number of plants. The plants provide the fungi with carbohydrates and B vitamins and the fungi provide the plans with an increased uptake of water and nutrients. However, the best way to promote mycorrhizae in your garden isn’t to buy mycorrhizae products, instead, it’s simply to grow a broad diversity of plants that form mycorrhizal associations and to use course mulch like wood chips and leaves which create an environment in which native mycorrhizal fungi flourish.
The fourth money-saving strategy is to grow nitrogen-fixing cover crops. We haven’t used any nitrogen fertilizer for many years, thanks in part to these crops. Late every summer we plant about five dollars worth of covers crop seeds. The plants grow, fix nitrogen in the soil, and then they’re killed by the winter cold. If your winters aren’t cold enough to kill your cover crops you’ll need to chop and drop them before they go to seed. In addition to fixing nitrogen, cover crops prevent erosion and increase organic matter in the soil.
Our fifth money-saving strategy is to grow in polycultures to reduce pests and disease problems and therefore reduce pesticide costs. We choose not to use any conventional pesticides and we also rarely use organic ones. Yet our plants have very few pests and disease problems. Polycultures help make this possible, it is more difficult for pests to find their preferred plans and wreak havoc. If we planted all of our squash plants in the same location you can imagine how much easier would be for powdery mildew to spread from plant to plant then it would be if the plants were scattered around the garden in a variety of locations. Simply put, monocultures create the perfect environment for pests to find their food source, lay eggs and, reproduce while polycultures make their work of destruction much more difficult.
My sixth money-saving tip is to grow plenty of edible perennials and self-sowing annuals. Perennial crops are ones that you plant once and they come back year after year on their own. Whereas self-sowing annuals only live one season, but they produce and drop enough seed that they effectively sell so another crop for the next season. These plants save us money because they only have to be planted once and they come back year after year with minimal care and no additional cost. Some very popular perennials were growing include asparagus, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and Asian pears.
Our seventh money-saving tip is to save seeds. We keep our seed costs down by saving seeds for a wide variety of crops including tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, kale, collard greens, and mustard greens. These are not only some of our favorite crops but the seeds are very easy to save. We store the seeds in small plastic bags and airtight containers to improve their longevity and store the containers in a cool dark cabinet.
The eighth tip is to grow most crops from seed rather than buying plant starts. You can often buy about a hundred seeds for the price of a plant start. So the savings are significant. The savings are even greater if you use saved seeds. Direct sowing brings even greater savings, although we start tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants in the grow room we start most of our plants directly in the soil. As a result, we don’t have to add more lights and shelves to our grow room. We save on electricity and we don’t have to buy seed starting trays and potting soil for crops that are directly sown in.
The ninth money-saving tip is to reuse, repurpose, and upcycle. Over the years we’ve used fallen trees as garden bed borders, built a compost bin from discarded pallets and another from tree branches, built cold frames from old storm windows and scrap wood, and started plants in repurposed cottage cheese and yogurt containers. The possibilities for repurposing reusing and upcycling are endless.
Our tenth money-saving strategy is to conserve water. We usually get plenty of rain here in the Chicago area but we still take measures to reduce our use of tap water. In the garden as just discussed we mulch our garden beds. Mulching is the easiest way to significantly reduce water use in the garden and it doesn’t cost a thing if you use free local resources. Second, we harvest rainwater from the roof with a rain barrel and use it to water the garden. Third, we reuse water whenever possible. For example, we save the water that we used to rinse our produce and we water our plants with it. We also reuse the water that’s collected by the dehumidifier that we sometimes run in our basement. If we lived in a more drought-prone area we could take even more measures. For example, I would consider installing a greywater system that safely diverts some wastewater from the house into the garden. I’d also build wicking beds instead of traditional raised beds, wicking beds hold a reservoir of water under the soil and the water is wicked up from the bottom resulting in much less water loss to evaporation.