Want to start a garden on a budget while growing organically? These tips provide a smart, long-term approach to gardening with frugal yet sustainable practices. Whether you’re growing veggies, annuals, perennials, or some combination, there are basic ways to save money while growing a thriving garden.
Many garden problems can be solved without buying anything. See 24 Clever Garden Problem-Solvers Using Household Items for ideas.
12 Smart Tips for Starting a Budget-Friendly Organic Garden
First, what is an organic garden?
Here I’m using the term organic very broadly to represent these basic principles of gardening.
I’ve always approached gardening this way. I love it when budget-friendly and earth-friendly collide.
- Maintain a garden without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.
- Choose perennial plants suited to the local growing conditions and climate, neither tender or invasive, requiring little or no care or supplemental water, that provide food, pollen, or habitat for wild life.
- Accept the life cycles of pests and problems, allowing things to sort themselves out. Recognizing that ‘bad’ bugs are often food for ‘good’ ones. For me, procrastination solves most garden problems.
- Avoid digging, tilling, or otherwise disturbing soil as much as possible. Amend with compost and mulch as needed. .
- Low or no-maintenance lawn.
1Put Your Money Where Your Soil Is
Make the plan fit the ground and not twist the ground to fit the plan.Charles Sprague Sargeant
It’s not the sexiest topic (to some) but good soil really is the foundation of a thriving garden (and our survival).
Our job as gardeners is to be good stewards who ultimately leave the soil better than we found it.
For home gardeners, old-fashion practices like mechanical tilling are gradually being replaced with no-dig methods to protect soil infrastructure and the living organisms within it.
When starting a garden, the first step is to get acquainted with your soil.
- Is it safe for planting? Older urban gardens in particular may be contaminated.
- Do you need to get it tested either for contaminants and/or get a soil profile? A good soil test can tell you what is lacking and how to amend it—or adapt to what you have.
- Is the soil safe for food crops?
- Are there drainage issues that need to be corrected first?
- What is the quality or nature of the soil? Is it more sand, silt, or clay? Or, maybe you got lucky and have loam (a combination of all 3)? The composition helps determine what amendments may be needed and which plants will settle in nicely.
If the soil is not workable, consider using raised beds or other containers so you can invest in good soil and put it right where you need it. That’s far more economical than trying to improve a vast space.
With good soil and drainage, you’re ready to proceed.
2Right Plant, Right Place
Right plant, right place.Beth Chatto
The best plants for our gardens are suited to our growing conditions and climate. Neither invasive or fussy, ideally they provide food and shelter for animals and insects to support biodiversity and require minimal or no care or maintenance.
The number one concern when choosing plants is invasive or aggressive growing behavior.
Some gardeners interpret this to mean only growing native plants but it’s not that simple.
Native is a term used for plants that have co-evolved in your region in relationship with other living things for some period of time. But this does not necessarily mean the native plant is right for your specific garden and growing conditions. Most of our growing spaces have been completely altered during years of farming and then house construction and no longer provide the environment local plants evolved in.
Plus, native is also not a guarantee that the plant will not grow aggressively.
Save yourself a lot of future heartache and work and choose plants (native or introduced species or cultivars) based on how they will behave and contribute to biodiversity, providing habitat, pollen, or food for local species.
A local conservation authority or similar group should also have lists of plants to use and—very important—what to avoid. Local organic gardeners can also be a good resource.
If the topic of native, introduced, and invasive species interests you, you may enjoy What’s A Native Species? That’s More Complicated Than You Might Think and the thought-provoking book, Where Do Camels Belong?
The title comes from the fact that camels originated in North America some 45 million years ago.
If you’re interested in evolution, it’s a thought-provoking book.
3Make Your Own Compost—All Year-Round
Producing quality compost is the most important job on the organic farm. A lot of the problems I see on farms I visit could be solved by making better compost.Eliot Coleman
Food scraps from fruits and vegetables and other items like eggshells and coffee grounds are perfect for creating homemade compost. When combined with fallen leaves or other carbon-based materials and moisture, microbes set to work transforming everything into lovely garden soil. And this in turn can be used to replenish your garden.
If you are worried about attracting vermin like rats or other critters, use a tumbler composter like this one.
If you are new to the whole idea of composting, see the basic principles of composting here. While the science behind it can be daunting, the actual practice can be as simple as you like. Once you get a feel for the ratios of ‘greens‘ and ‘browns‘, you’re set.
Depending on the size of your garden and how many food scraps you can compost, this might be the only soil enricher you need.
And there is no reason to stop collecting food waste during the colder months. This shows how I continue composting in winter in Canada. That’s a lot of food waste diverted from landfills.
Also consider vermicomposting where worms are used to create worm castings: another rich soil improver.
Yard waste is also good for the garden, providing insect habitat as it gradually decomposes into compost. A DIY yard waste bin like this one can keep things in one place.
4Use Water Wisely
We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.Thomas Fuller
Most plants need sun, soil, air, and water.
If we have made the right plant choices, unless there are unusual weather events, our perennial garden plants should do fine with little or no watering.
If you live in an area affected by droughts, you may already be doing these things to conserve water.
- If legal, collect rain water in a reservoir or make a rain barrel.
- If you’re renovating or having a new house built, look into redirecting household gray water to a storage drum. It really adds up.
- When watering plants, water the soil, not the foliage. This can also reduce the chance of fungal rusts and mildew.
- If your garden tends to dry out, go back to basics with the soil, add compost and mulch as needed, and consider using drip irrigation hoses from your rain barrel to maintain moisture.
- Container plants can be moved out of direct sun and mulched as well.
I add sun shades to my raised beds during heat waves and it really helps decrease the need for watering.
5Use Mulch for All Its Benefits
Bare soil is a garden problem waiting to happen.Empress of Dirt
Have you ever noticed how natures moves in quickly to fill bare spaces in the garden? If you don’t add plants to a new garden bed, the weeds move in. And that’s where mulch comes to the rescue.
I have a detailed guide to using mulch in the garden here.
What is mulch? For this purpose it is a natural material used to protect and feed the soil, suppress weeds and retain moisture.
Mulch can be a layer of things like shredded leaves, grass, or tree trimmings or a combination of them. You want once-living materials that will gradually decompose.
Apply mulch up to 3-inches deep on your garden beds and let it do its work. So long as the rain can still make its way through, you’re set.
You can also use deeper layers of mulch in the winter to insulate plants and bulbs and protect winter vegetables but be sure to remove the excess when growth resumes.
6Learn How to Propagate
Teach a person to sow and they grow for a lifetime.Empress of Dirt
To propagate plants means to grow more from the ones you have. This could be by sowing seeds, dividing plants, taking cuttings, layering, or grafting.
Which method is most efficient depends on the plant species and the time of year.
Sowing seeds is a logical place to start. Once you master this, you can grow a huge variety of annuals and perennials at any time of year with far more options than you’d ever find at a plant nursery.
If you become a seed saver, there are exchange networks all over the world for giving and receiving seeds.
Also look into seed banks and libraries.
From there, give plant cuttings a try. Softwood cuttings are taken in spring and early summer. Hardwood cuttings are taken in fall.
7Choose Good Tools and Help Them Outlast You
Quality is not an act. It is a habit.Aristotle
Cheap is not frugal. Even when your budget is small, choose quality where you can. It just takes a little effort. Check for good quality tools at yard sales, auctions, and thrift shops.
Every long-term gardener I know has just a few favorite tools. There are so many gizmos available, but we gravitate back to the same essentials for a majority of garden tasks. What these are depends on what you’re growing.
While older tools can be long-lasting, repairable, and inexpensive, they also tend to be quite heavy and hard on the arms and hands. In recent years I’ve come to prefer newer tools.
When getting newer tools, look for brands that guarantee the tool for life. From there, it’s all about function and comfort. If I had to limit my options, a good shovel, pruners, small saw, and garden knife are all I’d choose.
8Extend the Growing Seasons
With some simple weather protection, you can grow cold-tolerant food crops like leafy salad greens, carrots, and broccoli all winter long.Empress of Dirt
With the right protection, you can grow cold-tolerant crops from fall to spring.
Is this a money-saver? Hard to say. But it’s certainly a step up in quality compared to what’s available at a grocery store in winter.
Protective covers like cold frames, polytunnels, and frost cloths are all options for preventing your plants from freezing.
See How to Grow Vegetables in Winter for tips and recommended resources.
9Give Old Stuff New Life
Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.Oscar Wilde
While plants are the heart of my garden, garden art and architecture make it unique.
As a lifelong frugalista, I always challenge myself to reuse things as much as possible and shop in my storage shed for materials before buying anything (used or new).
Any household items made from metal, wood, glass, or stone that are no longer useful indoors are fodder for outdoor garden projects.
Not only can you save money (instead of buying new garden art or trellises) but repurposing will give your garden one-of-a-kind character.
I also scour curbside finds, yard sales, and thrift shops for containers that would make good planters. Sometimes all they need is drainage holes drilled in the bottom.
10Follow Facts and Science Not Folklore
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.Carl Sagan
When I browse Facebook garden groups and other online forums, it appears garden folklore is shared far more often than proven, fact-based tips.
Perhaps it’s because we want quick, easy answers and to somehow skip the learning curve.
Basics like good soil, sun, water, and air seem so, well, basic. But adding some household concoction to get (purportedly) stellar results seems so fast and easy.
But, as in life, skepticism can serve you well. Dig into the science. Read research. Discover credible sources. Question everything. At minimum ask, does this advice even make sense? Could this remedy do harm? Does this align with what we know plants need?
And watch out for the assumption that correlation is cause. It is not. Just because you add Epsom salt to your soil does not mean they caused the plant to do well. In fact, with all we know about plants and soil science, this is clearly not the case. You can read more about popular garden myths here.
11Clean Your House Not Your Garden
Trees are an incredible natural resource both in life and their gradual decomposition.Empress of Dirt
Gardening is an ever-changing compromise between nature and us.
Resist the urge to keep a garden clean and tidy. Nature replenishes itself both in life and death: growth and decay.
Leaves, branches, old plant growth: everything is potential food and shelter for all living things.
While you may have to remove a rotting old tree for safety purposes, keep the stump for the birds and insects. There are many more years of nourishment and habitat in there.
Save leaves, grass clippings, and plant trimmings for composting, mulch, plant supports and creative projects.
Gardening organically often means doing less—letting things be.
It saves time, money, and gives nature what it needs.
12Garden For Tomorrow
The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all, our most pleasing responsibility.Wendell Berry
The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.
Garden with the future in mind. What does your environment need? What can we do to make it better decades from now? A young tree is affordable. A beautiful mature tree is priceless.
Use some of your garden budget each year to invest in long-lasting trees and shrubs. Time flies and suddenly the garden goes from bare to beautiful.
Be sure to sign up for the free Empress of Dirt Creative Gardening Newsletter for more tips like these ones.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛