26 Tips for Growing a Great Garden On a Small Budget
These cheap (inexpensive) and creative garden ideas are offered for anyone starting a new garden on a very low budget. It may take some patience and hard work, but it’s amazing what a thrifty, but determined new gardener can achieve.
This article first appeared on Empress of Dirt several years ago. I’m republishing it to offer inspiration to any new gardeners who may be struggling with a low budget. With some patience, ingenuity, hard word, and persistence, you’ll be amazed at what you can do.
Creativity & Resourcefulness on a Low Budget
Like most people, when I started out, I wanted the dream garden as soon as possible. But the reality was, I could only afford to spend $100 per year and that amount of money does not go far in any garden center!
This restricted budget ended up being my best teacher, forcing me to be resourceful and creative to achieve the results I wanted. And yes, after a few years, my dream garden began to blossom.
Here you will see all of the ways I saved money while filling my garden with perennials (mostly flowering ones), fruit trees and berries, vegetables, and a few annuals (you’ll see why below).
Please know that when it comes to saving money, I endorse any frugal approaches that are legal, ethical, beneficial to the environment, and cause no harm to others. While we’re all impatient for quick results, the greatest pay-off is letting nature take its sweet time, with some creative nudges along the way.
I hope you will find some useful ideas and encouragement to start your garden, no matter how small or what your location is.
Getting Started In Gardening
When I started my first garden, I set a budget of $100 a year simply because that’s about all we could afford. While figuring out cheap garden ideas started out as a necessity, as time went on, it turned into a fun challenge.
Even when I could spend more, I wanted to see what I could accomplish while staying within that initial budget. And living debt-free has its own rewards.
Creating a garden you love without spending a lot of money doesn’t really have a magical formula. It’s really just takes patience and effort.
You have to be willing to spend some time finding the right items at the best price, accept that there will probably be some extra physical labour involved hauling your finds and fixing them up, and non-conformist creativity always helps.
I had to let go of fixed ideas about how things ‘should’ be, and open up to new and unique ways of making a beautiful garden.
Sorry, No Gazebo for You!
The one thing the $100 budget can’t bring you is good professional landscaping, hardscaping with fences, arbours, and other structures, or major structural changes to improve the grade of the property or other shortcomings.
If you have these building skills-great, but even salvaged materials will probably go way beyond the frugal budget I’m talking about here. So put all that aside and look at what you can do with a small budget and determination. The bigger ticket items like fences, sheds, arbours, and decks can come later.
Ways I Save Money In the Garden
Many of these ideas are not only good for the wallet and benefit the plants, but are good for the environment as well. Triple play!
1. Go On Local Garden Tours
- Local home garden tours are one of the best ways to find out what you can grow in your area, meet experienced gardeners, get advice, and get creative ideas for your garden.
2. Collect Rain Water
- Use rain barrels or other containers to collect rain water. Collecting rain water is illegal in some drought-affected areas, but, if it’s allowed where you are, it can not only save money but also makes watering plants easier. $Free water
3. Minimal Watering
- Do not grow plants that need coddling. If your plants require too much care, they probably should not be in your garden. To me, all perennials, once established, should be able to tolerate normal seasonal droughts.
- I do not water my grass lawn or garden beds. The only exception is newly planted plants and containers. $Free
4. Do Not Water or Fertilize Grass Lawn
- I never water or fertilize (or chemically treat) my grass lawn and I do not cut it anymore than necessary (using a push mower).
- During summer droughts, it goes dormant and dry-looking but that’s the nature of the beast. And the good news is, dormant grass doesn’t grow or need cutting. $Free
5. No Harmful Chemicals
- Yes, a home garden is an investment, but when your livelihood does not depend on it, is there really any justification for poisoning the environment to deal with a pest problem?
- Avoid fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides.
- To enrich the soil, I rely on compost and mulch created from my own food scraps, fallen leaves, and branches.
- Pest control is done on an individual basis, often relying on hand-picking to get rid of the beasts.
- I also have this list of natural pest remedies for many common garden pests.
- If pest problems reoccur, look at the cause. Sometimes rearranging plants, avoiding broad patches of one type of plant is enough to confuse the bug(gers). $Free
6. Budget for Good Compost & Soil
- How does a new gardener know if their soil is good for growing? Look for clues. Ask neighbours. See what’s growing around your home. Is it thriving?
- My first garden was solid clay soil. So solid I could not get a shovel into the ground with standing on the shovel and jumping up and down with all my might/weight. That’s not good soil!
- The biggest mistake I made when starting out as a gardener was to avoid buying good compost before I could produce enough of my own.
- I could write a novel on the value of good soil, particularly the top 6 inches or so. It’s precious, essential, and the key to healthy plants.
- Recently we moved to a new home and I started my current garden from scratch. Knowing better, I put a bulk of my current budget into improving the soil. Think of it as plant insurance. $Good Investment with long term returns
7. Use Your Leaves
- It’s common practice in many areas to rake up leaves and send them away each fall. Unless they are diseased, this is a big waste of a valuable resource for the garden.
- Leaves are an incredibly rich source of nutrients for your garden.
- I save all the leaves I can get (and ask the neighbours for theirs as well). I break them down with the weed whacker and spread them over the garden beds.
- Think of how a forest thrives: those fallen leaves are not just protection for the soil below but breakdown into a big dose of nutrients. $Free
8. Watch For Good Yard Waste
- Not only do people throw away all sorts of useful household items, but they also dispose of a lot of garden items such as plants, pots, and tools that may just need a little TLC to be in good working order once again (or repurposed into garden art).
- Another favourite find is branches and tree stumps. If there is no sign of disease, I take them home and use them. I’ve made fences, trellis, plant supports, chairs. $Free
9. Find Plants – Cheap or Free
- Paying full price at the start of the gardening season is expensive and unnecessary.
- You can find plants free, barter, trade, or buy at a deep discount instead.
- This can work if you don’t get completely fixated on having a particular plant NOW.
Here’s some alternate suggestions:
- Tell everyone you know what you are wanting. It’s amazing how much stuff (including plants) is just sitting around waiting for you to say you need it.
- Check yard sales, horticultural society and garden club plant sales.
- Watch for ads in Kijiji for plants and other outdoor stuff like garden pots, furniture, trellises, bricks, stones– some even say you can take them free of charge if you dig them up.
- Place your own ads asking for free plants (or barter).
- Watch for deep discount days at garden nurseries and end of season sales.
- Find out about member’s discounts and discounts for store clubs and horticultural society members. $Free or $Cheap
10. Share Resources
This idea will work as well as your neighbours are good!
- Share any garden equipment you use only occasionally. Take good care of it. Return it on time as promised.
11. Learn About Invasive and Non-Native Plants
- You will spare yourself a lot of trouble in the future if you take the time to learn which plants are considered invasive in your area (google it). What is considered native in one area can cause horrific problems in other areas, sometimes not so very far apart.
- Native plants are adapted to your climate and habitat. There are many good books on the subject.
- Many favourite plants we have in our gardens today are not considered native but neither are they invasive. Basically, if it grows really fast, it’s probably trouble.
- One of my worst early garden blunders was trusting people I thought were experienced gardeners to give me free plants. Much of what I was given ended up being the most pernicious, hard to control invasive plants in my garden (mint, lemon balm, periwinkle…).
- Do your homework first! $Free Prevention
12. Try Seed Saving and Starting
- Once you have some plants, let your favourites go to seed at the end of the blooming season. Not only will the birds benefit form this, but you can collect and save the seeds and grow more of your own, starting the seeds next year.
- Also, consider buying seeds with friends and split the packs up so you have just what you need. $Free or Cheap
13. Easy On the Annuals
- When I was starting out, I kept my budget for annuals at just $10 per year. They’re very tempting for the flower lover (like me) but they really can’t be justified on a low budget in the long run when you are trying to get a garden established.
- However, saving the seeds can help justify the expense and you can grow your own next year.
- Once you’ve spent a couple of seasons getting the perennials going (especially fruits and berries which take a few years to provide fruit), there will be more money available for eye-popping displays of annuals. $10/year
14. When It Comes to Planting- Be Dense!
- Placing plants close together in garden beds prevent weeds from spreading and helps retain moisture (because the sun is not soaking it up. Eventually, they grow big enough to divide them and fill other spots in the garden. $Free
- Also, instead of spreading out plants over a large area, consider making one great garden bed at a time. Go for big impact rather than trying to cover too much space with too few plants. $Free
15. Plant Diversely but Not Exotically
- Pests get confused when you have a wide variety of plants planted together. My veggies are untouched by common pests when planted amongst the flowering perennials. $Free
16. Grow Veggies, Fruits, Nuts, And Berries
- Growing food is a great way to justify the cost of a garden. Healthy, local, fresh food daily. Nom nom.
- I avoid growing anything I can buy cheaply (and in bulk for canning and preserving) from my local farmer’s market. If they’re already doing it right, I’m happy to buy there.
- I use my garden for growing the things that aren’t widely available or taste absolutely divine when served fresh. The best example of this is salad greens. You will not believe me unless you’ve tried them: greens cut fresh from the garden are absolutely delicious and have no resemblance to the precut and washed stuff at the supermarket or farmer’s market.
- Other veggies I like to grow are rarer varieties of kale, broccoli, spinach, herbs, as well as various types of fruit.
- Try heritage seeds from varieties never found in grocery stores and discover all sorts of new foods. Modern agriculture has reduced our choices to very few compared to the vast numbers of tastes available. $Plant For Variety and Deliciousness
17. Carry A Wish List
- As you gather ideas, keep a wish list on your phone or in your wallet noting any particular plants or garden accessories or decorations you hope to find at a great price (or free).
- I always have a list handy to refer to whenever I find myself at a thrift shop or plant sale.
- Also, tell other people what’s on the list. A lot of people have old junk that they don’t know what do with. I’ve received all sorts of neat things simply by telling people I like to make garden art. $Communicate
18. Make Garden Art
- I started making garden art projects from recycled items because I wanted to make my garden interesting (and fill in space) while I was waiting for the young plants to grow.
- Check garden art blogs, Pinterest, and any gardens you visit for ideas. Take notes and make your own versions with found or cheap items.
- Sources for materials include yard sales, thrift shops, Kijiji, discount sales, or free from friends. $Collect Ideas and Adapt
19. Keep Hens
- If permitted (and you love them), keep hens for fresh eggs and manure.
- Many people find the cost of the feed and upkeep is the same or less than the benefits provided. $Cost Recovery
20. Attract Wildlife
- Yes, along with the beneficials come some problematic animals and insects, but that’s what a garden is: nature.
- Plant to attract the birds and pollinators and your garden will be rewarded in fruitfulness.
- The better your garden thrives naturally, the fewer resources it will require from you. $Work with Nature
21. Add a Pond or Water Feature
- Water is another key element for not only making a garden really enjoyable but also attracting all sorts of wildlife. The dragonflies and bees have to drink somewhere.
- I have had several different ponds and all of them were free- either dumpster dives or repurposed tubs.
- The pond you see above was built as a pond in a box in a raised garden bed. I would have liked an expensive stone pond but this alternative worked great and fit the budget.
- If you have fish (or prefer clear water) you will need two recirculating pumps: one to have in the pond and the other as a backup.
- Again, try to find them free first and work up from there. $Worth A Small Investment
22. Be Willing to Haul Free Rocks
- I found a new local housing development where they were tossing all the rocks from the work site in a pile, waiting to pay someone to haul them away.
- I arranged to come each night and take them. Win, win! This is where the willingness to work hard pays off.
- I gathered over 2000 rocks this way, one carload at a time—with my youngest baby in the car. I was one determined Mama. $Free
23. Borrow A Truck
- A lot of frugal gardening involves some elbow grease and a truck. I was lucky to have a truck nearby I could borrow every so often in exchange for some work or adding gas to the tank.
- Alternately, see if you can make a deal with someone to help you out as needed. I know several truck owners who are just waiting for some good hauling fun. Hemi pride. $At Cost
24. Think Outside the Pot
- Be flexible about how to get the garden looking the way you want it. Often by making clever substitutions for things we want but can’t afford, you can end up with something even better because it’s unique.
- I have a self-imposed rule that most obstacles or problems that come up both in the garden and in our home can be resolved with things we have on hand. Try it. You will soon learn how clever you can be!
- Joining several old garden forks together to form a bean climber or a sweet pea arch like this one.
- Use a heavy duty storage bin instead of buying a small pond.
- Decorate old light fixtures to use as wind chimes, potted plant holders, or simply add colour and sparkle to the garden.
- I used a bunch of old shutters to create a privacy wall on my deck. All it took was a new coat of paint and some screws and I finally had a private little dining area. $Free or Cheap
25. Turn Flaws into Features
- Every garden presents challenges and has less than desirable qualities. Wherever possible, take a flaw and make it a unique focal point. Let your garden take on its own character.
- For me, I had a tiny, deeply sloped yard. When I finally broke it into tiers and added more of the plants that seemed to enjoy the heavy rains swishing by, it finally began to take shape.
- Things like tree stumps, old sheds, or broken fences can become rather interesting with the right creative touches. $Adapt
26. Learn as You Go
- In gardening as in life, some stuff will go very well, and other things will not.
- I made a lot of mistakes early on (not paying enough attention to the value of good soil and compost), but I just kept going because the most enjoyable part of it was simply being outside, watching things unfold.
- Yes, sometimes I wished I had more money to spend, but overall, keeping within the budget also kept the growth of the garden manageable.
- And it’s quite a badge of honour to look back and see what I created with a little money, a lot of sweat, and some quirky ideas.
More on Debt-free Living and Financial Freedom
- How to lower bills and save money
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- How I earn money without working
- How to save money every time you shop
- Green and healthy tips that save money too