It’s spring time, and you’ve decided to start your own garden. However, you might be on a budget and the idea of spending a few hundred dollars on materials (wood for raised beds, soil for the beds, transplants, seeds, tools, etc.) is rather daunting. So how can we garden on the cheap without too much trouble and get plants growing as quickly as possible?
The best place to seek God is in a garden. You can dig for him there.George Bernard Shaw
What are the minimum materials we need to start growing? For suburban/urban gardens, probably the minimum we need are a container or edging, good healthy soil, and seeds to grow. In the following paragraphs I’ll give you some tips and loads of links for each of these categories.
First to consider are containers; when I first started getting interested in doing some square foot gardening, I looked around for untreated wooden raised bed kits and was amazed at the high price for cedar raised bed kits. Even though I built our first raised beds out of cedar myself, I think containers can be set up with much cheaper materials that can be just as attractive as wooden planks.
If your garden area is small, you have a number of creative alternatives. Repurposing old junk in your house into containers is a great way to spring clean and make the junk useful at the same time. Here are some ideas to get your imagination flowing (http://themicrogardener.com/clever-plant-container-ideas/ and http://hubpages.com/living/-recycled-container-gardening-ideas). Just make sure you provide enough drainage for the containers and check that there are no toxic elements that might leach into the soil.
Reused pallets (preferably heat or untreated instead of chemical or pressure treated) are a great way to get a free container. You can either stack them vertically and line the spaces with landscape fabric to make pockets for soil (good tutorial here) or simply lie the pallets on the ground and mound the soil in and around it. Another very interesting choice is to have your container and soil in one package and plant a straw-bale garden (http://strawbalegardens.com). Straw bales tied with some string cost about $5-$10 each and spiked with some nitrogen source (kitchen scraps or manure) can provide you with all the nutrition you need for many annual crops.
If you are building out garden beds for a larger area, you’ll need a way to create edging to delineate the boundaries of the garden and prevent soil from being washed out of your beds. The most common choice is wood, preferably untreated, but this can easily set you back $20-$100/bed. You can use branches weaved together (http://www.inspirationgreen.com/wattle-edging.html and https://www.growveg.com/guides/weaving-wood-twig-towers-and-wattle-fences/) or small diameter wooden logs from landscape construction sites (quite easily found on craigslist or freecycle) to form natural edging for free. Using stone, you can gradually collect large natural rocks and river stone (also quite easy to collect if your soil is rocky or has a high clay content). You can also use cinder block as a more expensive option at about $20/bed.
Once you have containers for your plants, you’ll really want some nice healthy soil with a high organic content. It’s really worth taking the time to gather what you’ll need to make good soil, because it will literally be the fuel for your plants as well as providing the ecosystem that will nuture future crops in years to come. If you go to one of the big-box stores, you’ll pay around $6/bag for 1-1.5 cubic feet of organic soil or compost or $90-$100 for 1 cubic yard of mushroom compost delivered to your house. There will be also be little to no microbial life in the soil because it will have been sitting in plastic bags for weeks or months. The average set of raised beds can need 30-40 cubic feet of soil to get started, so you can see how soil costs can quickly add up. Luckily, with a bit of labor, we can produce much higher quality soil for free by making our own compost.
In a normal cold composting cycle, organic waste slowly decays over the course of 4-6 months. This isn’t fast enough to make soil if we’d like to plant in a timely fashion. Luckily there is a technique for “hot” composting called the Berkeley method (http://vric.ucdavis.edu/pdf/compost_rapidcompost.pdf), which can produce soil in about 2-3 weeks. This method uses microbial activity to heat up the compost pile to about 120-140 degrees fahrenheit, which greatly accelerates the creation of soil and also kills any weed seeds that might be in the pile.
In order to make our hot compost mix, we need a ratio of 30-to-1 carbon (browns) to nitrogen (greens). In the fall, the best source for free browns are leaves, but these can be a bit hard to locate in the spring (especially if there are overzealous landscape crews bagging the leaves). Straw bales or shredded newspaper or cardboard can be an effective replacement for leaves, especially if you can get waste paper products from an office building. For greens, we can use leftover kitchen veggie scraps or coffee grounds from your local Starbucks or coffee shop (they will be more than happy to give you their grounds). Some horse farms or dairy operations also have cured manure (you’ll want manure that’s been cured at least 2 years) for free.
Once we have great soil and place to put it, we need seeds to grow our thriving crops. Seed packets can easily run $2-$3/packet, so if we want to plant 20-30 different plants it could easily run another $50-$100 for seeds. Seed saving annual seeds or planting perennial vegetables are great ways to cut your costs down but unfortunately they take at least one year to start the cycle. There are a few organizations willing to share seeds for free (http://healthyshasta.org/downloads/gardening/Free-Seeds.pdf and the UK seed bank http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/collections/millennium-seed-bank). Please note that if you search for “seed bank” online, 99% of your search results will return marijuana seed banks, of little to no usage in feeding ourselves. There are also some good community seed swaps, where people will share their seeds with you (the largest one is on Facebook – Great American Seed Swap).
The easiest and cheapest way to get seeds immediately is to plant your pantry. You can save organic seeds from many of your fruits (tomatoes, melons, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers), use some of your dried legumes or grains to sprout, and plant leftover or old produce (celery roots, spring onions, potatoes and sweet potatoes). For herbs like basil and rosemary, you can take larger cuttings and place them in water to encourage rooting. Although you might not get all the varieties of food you might want to grow, it can definitely get you started for pennies instead of dollars.
Hopefully these tips can help you this spring to be bold and not worry about breaking the bank when you start your garden.