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.
If you want more frugal ideas see How to Improve Your Garden Instantly Without Spending a Dime.
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.
Get Creative and Resourceful 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.
I’ll show you 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.
Gardening organically and frugally are a natural fit.
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.
1Play the Waiting Game
When you’re thrifty but stubbornly determined to get what you want, your secret weapons are time and effort.
I keep a running wish list for my garden, including some items that would be way over budget if acquired new, and I wait it out.
At some point those magical words appear in the online classified ads:
Rose Arbor – free if you come and remove it.
Flagstone Path – free to good home
Gazebo – come dismantle it and it’s yours
Yes, it will take time, work, and a borrowed vehicle to haul it, but it is amazing what shows up over time. Check those ads and place your own.
2Go On Local Garden Tours
Local home garden tours are one of the best ways to learn what’s possible in your region, meet experienced gardeners, get advice, and nab creative ideas for your garden.
3Collect 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. Plus, the water is often much warmer than tap water which is gentler for plants. Dip the watering can in and go!
4Choose Low Maintenance Plants
I’m a tough love gardener: any plants that come into my garden must be able to fend for themselves. This means they are well-adapted to my specific growing conditions and our climate and, once established, do fine without anything more than replenishing the soil with compost and mulch. Life is too short to coddle a garden full of plants. No sense spending money on plants that will struggle or die.
5Give Up Manicured Lawns
Manicured lawns are so last decade and have no place in a sustainable environment. Gas mowers, synthetic fertilizers, and watering all contribute to the waste, pollution, and contaminated water ways.
It’s not always possible to give up lawn, either because of local bylaws or the costs involved, but it’s easy to go low maintenance.
I never water or fertilize my lawn. I use an electric mower (not gas) and trim as little as possible. During times of drought, it goes brown. When rain returns, it greens up again.
We’re not winning any beauty contests but I would much rather put my time and money into the rest of the garden.
Low maintenance lawn alternatives are also gaining popularity. There are flowering and non-flowering options including clover, hard fescue, English daisies, perennial rye grass, white yarrow, and more. Be sure to pick non-invasive options.
6Avoid Quick Fixes and Pesticides
If you start your life as a gardener with the resolve to never buy any pesticides, herbicides, or any other potentially harmful ‘solutions’ and avoid folklore potions, it makes gardening simple and you’ll save money.
When problems arise, like cabbage worms or powdery mildew, the reflex is to fight them with some commercial product no matter what the side effects. But consider taking a step back, look at the bigger picture and possible causes of the imbalance.
Each growing season will have highs and lows. Some plants like the growing conditions one year while others do not. And it changes year after year.
Unless your livelihood depends on resolving the problem, choose harmless actions (like hand-picking cabbage worms or covering crops early on) or just accept that this year, they win.
The point is to not choose solutions that are costly, ineffective, or cause collateral damage.
7Budget for Good Compost and Soil
If you make soil improvement your number one priority, you will save a fortune in plants. There is no sense in putting good plants in bad soil. They won’t have a chance.
Look into bulk orders to save money and avoid all those plastic bags heading to landfill. It will take some research to find sources you trust.
8Use Your Leaves
It’s common practice in a lot of places to rake up leaves and send them away in fall. And then buy compost and fertilizers in spring.
But wait! Those leaves will decompose into a rich food for your garden. They decompose fastest if chopped up by running the lawn mower over them. Then, make a pile and let the magic happen. I use leaves as mulch, winter protection, and a slow-release source of nutrition for the soil.
9Watch for Curbside Finds
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).
During spring cleaning season or when someone is getting ready to list their house for sale are prime times to find useful items.
Another favourite find is branches and tree stumps. If there is no sign of disease, I take them home and use them. I’ve scored wood slices, trellis, patio chairs, an arbor, countless flower pots, and more this way.
Plus, decomposing wood is a vital resource for insects providing food and habitat, which in turn feeds others animals.
10Find 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 online ads 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 will haul them away.
- Place your own ads asking for free plants (or barter). I use Facebook Marketplace.
- 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.
There are so many tools like extension ladders and pole trimmers that we use only occasionally and otherwise sit unused in storage. It seems like such as waste.
But what if we shared them?
Would your neighbors be interested in sharing resources? Local libraries and community centers could also facilitate lending programs. Some also have seed banks.
12Learn What’s Invasive & Beware of Fast-Growing
Even when a plant has been deemed invasive in a particular region, it may still be found in local garden nurseries so do not rely on their inventory to guide your plant choices.
Find your local conservation resource and keep up with invasive plant news. Put the Do Not Buy List on your phone for reference.
When I first started gardening, other gardeners would offer me divisions of their invasive plants—stuff that spreads easily and they wanted to thin out. Careful what gifts you accept! I had a lemon balm and bishop’s weed problem for years because of these acts of kindness.
Another tip is to beware of any fast-growing perennial plants or trees. We often look for something fast-growing to fill a space, but this too can indicate either invasiveness or a short lifespan. If a tree grows rapidly but dies in 10-15 years, you’re back to the drawing board before long.
13Sow Seeds & Grow From Cuttings
Once you get into seed sowing, your growing options open right up. Consider seed starting for any plants that are expensive or impossible to find at local garden nurseries.
To keep costs down, consider splitting seed packs with a friend. That way you’ll have fresh seeds in the quantity you need.
Rooting plant cuttings and dividing plants are two other ways to get more plants without spending money.
14Go Easy On The Ornamental 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 when you are trying to get a garden established.
Put resources toward improving your soil, hardscaping, structures, trees, and perennials first.
A good test of the value of an annual is to ask yourself at the end of the growing season if it was worth the cost.
15Avoid Bare Spaces
When soil is bare, weeds and invasive plants move in. Plant densely (if it suits the plants) or cover bare soil with mulch. This can keep moisture in, suppress weeds, and gradually enrich the soil.
There is a temptation to place plants throughout the garden, but this tends to look blah in a large space.
Instead of a few plants here and there, consider creating one bed at a time or keeping containers in a big, happy group close to your house or sitting area.
It makes a far bigger visual impact and it’s much easier to maintain.
As the original plants mature, divide them for planting in new garden beds.
I’m not sure where research stands on this but my own anecdotal evidence is that it pays to grow a variety of species together. I never use pesticides or other sprays and always pack a bunch of different plants together. Annual vegetables, flowers, and perennials all make good bed fellows. Whether I’m just lucky or does help confuse pests, I do not know, but it has worked for me so I continue growing this way.
Growing food is an excellent way to justify the cost of gardening. Be strategic by growing what you love to eat and are not dirt cheap at the market and explore new varieties you would never find at shops.
Start from seed if nursery stock is limited or pricey.
And consider year-round growing. There is no describing how cool it is to be harvesting leafy greens and brassicas in the middle of winter when grocery store produce is limp, over-travelled, and expensive.
by Niki Jabbour
Niki lives in Nova Scotia, Canada and grows vegetables year-round.
Find out how to plant, what to use to keep your crops protected, and how to keep harvesting veggies even in a cold climate all year long.
19Carry a Wish List
I mentioned making your garden dreams known to friends and family who may have just what you need or be on the lookout for you. The other part of the equation is to keep a running list to jog your memory.
I keep a garden wish list for short-term and long-term items in my phone so any time I’m at a plant nursery, yard sale, or thrift shop, I can review the ideas. Unless you have an excellent memory, I highly recommend this. It’s crazy how many times this has paid off for me.
20Make Garden Art
There are all sorts of wonderful garden art pieces for sale but they can also gobble up a huge chunk of the budget.
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.
I continue making garden art because it’s such an enjoyable, stress-free way to spend time outside.
I have not raised hens myself but neighbors do. Looking at the costs, it seems that for most people if you compare the cost of feed and upkeep versus the eggs provided (by younger hens), you should come out about even. The added value is found in the manure: that’s a lot of soil enrichment.
I’m obviously not advocating attracting bears or deer or other dangerous or destructive creatures to your garden, but an overall natural approach to gardening can really pay off.
We’ve already discussed refusing to use any poisons, toxins, or polluting substances in the garden, and this is step one to give insects, birds, frogs, and more a fighting chance. They all play a role in maintaining a healthy garden. And that’s where I’m hands-off: the plants and animals do their thing and I get a beautiful, food-producing garden.
21Add a Pond or Water Feature
If suited to your climate, consider having some sort of fresh water available. It will become the heart of the garden. It’s amazing how many creatures great and small make use of my ponds on any given day. From the tiniest water spiders to fish, frogs, birds, small mammals, dragonflies, bees, and more. Water really is life. And cost-wise, a small pond is the gift that keeps on giving.
22Be Willing to Work
Sometimes the only thing standing between you and getting what you want is work.
When new houses were being built in our neighborhood, I went to the developer and asked if I could have the rocks they were setting aside while digging the foundations. Yes! He said to come by each evening after hours and take as many as I wanted. I filled my car each night for weeks and ended up with over 2000 rocks to line the paths and garden beds throughout the yard.
I realize some are not physically able to do this or the opportunity may not arise but keep stuff like this in mind if it’s a possibility. There’s no way I could have afforded those rocks otherwise and they really improved the garden.
23Borrow or Hire a Truck
If the only thing standing between you and great deals for garden stuff is transportation, find someone local with a truck who likes to earn some cash to haul stuff. Local Facebook groups are a good place to ask.
24Think Outside the Pot
It’s easy to get fixated on an idea and obsess over it, but sometimes a better option comes along when we adapt to what’s available.
While I advocate be patient when looking for deals, sometimes giving up and making do can be even more creative. I’ve had this happen many times with plant containers and garden art: by opening up to other possibilities, I ended up with quirky stuff I treasure.
25Turn Flaws Into Features
While we need the basic landscape in our gardens to be functional, without drainage problems or other issues, there is much to be said about working with unusual features or flaws instead of trying to drastically (expensively) change them.
- Old tree stumps can become plant hangers and works of art.
- Sloped lawn can become tiered layers of growing space.
- And plants will tell you how they like to grow: sometimes it’s much different than we imagined at planting time.
26Learn As You go
The garden really is your best teacher. Combined with reliable growing tips, it’s experience over time that improves the gardener.
I made so many mistakes early on. In particular, I did not realize how important soil is and I lost a lot of plants until the soil improved. You can see my first garden here.
I’m sure I’m making new mistakes now too but it’s a small price to pay for the contentment I get from working in the garden. And there’s always more to know about plants and gardening.
We will probably all wish we had more money and resources to pour into the garden, but it is also so satisfying to see what’s possible while sticking to a budgets. And ingenuity has its own rewards.
I hope I’ve encouraged you to go for your garden dreams on a budget and create your own one-of-kind growing space.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛