These cheap (inexpensive) and smart garden ideas are for anyone starting an eco-friendly 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.
Sustainable Low-Budget Garden Tips
There are secrets to getting the garden you want on a limited budget and it goes way beyond waiting for deep discount plant sales—although that helps too.
Most of us start out with big garden dreams and little money or know-how. We just know we want a beautiful, thriving space filled with plants and pollinators—and we want it now.
I started my first garden with a budget of just $100 per year ($170 in today’s dollars).
I was impatient and starry-eyed, so determined to create something wonderful on next to nothing.
Some traits like thriftiness and a disdain for pesticides turned out to be incredibly helpful
Other qualities like craving instant gratification nearly ruined my efforts.
But, now all these years later, I’m still a frugal gardener and my approach has paid off.
You’ll see what I mean as you read the tips.
Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.~Rudyard Kipling
1Gather Local Inspiration
One of the best investments you can make in your garden is not in the garden at all.
Local home garden tours are a wonderful way to see what’s possible in your zone and growing conditions. These tours are often run as fundraisers and offer a glimpse into local gardens you would never otherwise see.
Take pictures, ask questions (specifically about beginner mistakes), and gather ideas for your growing space.
Having a realistic sense of what’s possible can prevent so many costly mistakes.
2Look at the Big Picture
Beware of quick fixes and debunked tips and remedies.
Nature is slow. A great garden evolves over time.
Forget pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, lawn fertilizers, and all the other concoctions at plant nurseries that empty your wallet and often do more harm than good.
It’s not just a waste of money to react to every plant-munching caterpillar (or whatever) but most are harmless and essential! This explains why caterpillars are so important.
Instead, focus on improving your soil with organic amendments and grow a diverse selection of plants to attract and support all the living things we need in the food web.
The health of the garden comes from that biodiversity and so many “problems” are temporary and sort themselves out without our interference.
3Make Smart Plant Choices
A simple (lifelong) tip for smart plant choices is to stick with native and well-adapted plants that benefit (local) native animal species. These are plants that play a supporting role in the eco-system.
New gardeners often ask, what’s a fast-growing tree I can use to fill in this space?
But often ‘fast-growing’ is often a euphemism for either invasive and or short-lived.
If invasive, you’ll never see the end of it, to the detriment of other living things in your garden.
If short-lived, you’ll regret ever planting it when you could have chosen something beneficial that last decades or more.
Also avoid impulse buys like decorative annuals. They are so alluring at the store! As much as they add color and cheer in the moment, when your funds are limited, those dollars will stretch much further on perennials that grow for years.
And, finally, learn to grow from seed for any plants that are easy to grow this way. Yes, it will take a while to grow to the size of store-bought plants but, wow, you get a lot more for your money, can grow what you like, and avoid the plastic waste.
4Be Willing to Wait or Work
This was the last thing I wanted to hear when I was starting out, but it has the greatest return: be willing to wait.
Set that impatience aside and stick with the dream. Be willing to wait until you find the right plants and décor at the right price. Even if it takes many growing seasons.
I always carry a garden wish list on my phone and refer to it when visiting shops including thrift shops and yard sales. This also cuts way down on impulse shopping. It’s crazy how many items seem silly just weeks after jotting them down.
If there is a particular item I’m certain about, I put a wanted ad in Facebook marketplace (and other local buy/sell/swap sites) and watch ads as well.
It also helps to let friends and family know what you’re looking for. So many people like to help move the dream along!
Sometimes stuff is readily available at zero cost—if you’re willing to work for it.
I once noticed the builder at a local housing development was dumping hundreds (and hundreds) of rocks out on the new cul-de-sac, clearly not wanting them in the new gardens. I asked if I could have them and they said sure!
For the next month, every evening after dinner, I’d drive over in my rickety old car and load up the trunk and seats with as many as it could hold. If I had purchased them, it would have cost about 10 years of garden budget!
You may also find items like ponds, arbors, and greenhouses free for the taking—if you’re willing to dismantle and haul them away. Or hire someone to do it at a fraction of what it would cost to buy them new.
Thrifty Shopping Tips
Ways to find cheap or free items for crafts, repurposing, & upcycling:
- Check Your Own Stuff
Got stuff in storage? Shop your own home first.
- Family & Friends
Let people know what you’re needing. Make it clear whether you are willing to pay for items.
- Online Ads & Groups
Don’t just watch the ads but place your own stating what you’re looking for.
- Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, Kijiji
- Buy, Sell, Barter, Trade Groups
- Auction Sales | In-person or online
- Yard Sales
- Thrift Shops & ReStores (used goods including building materials)
Depending on the deal, it may be worthwhile to pay the shipping.
- Etsy | Still a good source for one-of-a-kind items.
- Ebay | The original online auction.
5Put Your Money Where It Matters
Here’s the hard truth: there is no sense putting good plants in bad soil.
Few of us start with good quality soil yet who wants to turn the budget over to improving that soil when we could be buying plants instead?
It took me several years to learn this lesson and it’s awful to think of how much money (and time) I wasted by letting my plant-itis get the better of me.
Learn about your soil (through proper soil tests), find out what it needs, provide it, and amend it on an ongoing basis. It’s insurance for your plants and absolutely key to a thriving garden.
6Use What You Have
Our gardens need organic matter and sometimes it’s literally falling from trees.
Also, work with what you have. Turn one-of-a-kind quirks into assets.
My first garden had terrible slopes. Soil amendments would wash away. Plant roots would not get enough water.
Then I switched to tiered raised beds and everything changed.
There are countless other examples like this. Old tree stumps have so many creative uses! The point is, unless harmful, work with the bones your garden has.
7Watch The Curb
This one is part luck and thrift. Watch for curbside finds! It’s amazing what people offer free-for-the-taking, especially after yard sales or spring cleaning. If you see something great, nab it!
- Go on local garden tours to get inspired and learn what’s possible in your zone and growing conditions.
- Avoid short-term solutions like pesticides and fertilizers that do more harm than good.
- Choose native or well-adapted plants that benefit local native animal species.
- Be patient and wait until you find the right stuff. It’s more economical in the long run. Some things are free if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.
- Good soil is everything. Never spend money on plants unless you have the right soil and conditions ready for planting.
- Work with what you have. Let the unique character of your yard guide your garden decisions. It’s far more cost effective to adapt than alter.
- Be on the lookout. You never know when someone might be throwing out the exact thing you’ve been pining for.
More Money-Saving Tips
- 12 Smart Tips For Starting A Budget-Friendly Organic Garden
- How to Improve Your Garden Instantly Without Spending a Dime
- How to Make a Fence Taller for Better Privacy
- How to Enclose a Porch or Covered Patio Cheaply
- Cheap Indoor Seed Starting Supplies
And there you go! I started this approach to gardening on a low budget began by necessity but has continued because it’s sustainable and gets what I want—all on a low budget.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛