Are you tight on money? Not sure you can “afford” to grow your own food at home? Get started with vegetable gardening on a budget with these 21 ways to save money.
From what I have observed, money seems to rank as high and sometimes higher than space and time for the main excuse as to why you might not be growing your own food. Everyone has a budget they have to follow and while vegetable gardening hopefully has it’s place in your budget it likely has some constraints.
It is easy to get carried away with spending lots of money on growing food. I know, I’ve been there myself.
Garden centres, tool catalogues, seed catalogues and your local home centre all tempt you with the must-have tools, supplies and seeds; without these it seems you can’t have a successful garden. And then you buy some tool that promises success, only to have it collect dust in your garden shed. I have quite a few of those types of tools!
You can however find ways to do vegetable gardening on a budget and avoid buying a car or truckload full of garden supplies.
Here are my top 21 ways to save money when growing food.
Start From Seeds Instead Of Buying Seedlings/Transplants
A pack of 6 seedlings or transplants at a nursery probably will run you $5 or so. You could easily leave with $100 worth of plants if you have ambitious plans to grow most of your food.
A packet of seeds will run you $2-3 and probably grow at least 10 to 100 times as many plants.
Yes, seeding your own transplants requires a few supplies but even those can be had cheaply as you’ll see below.
And if money reasons are not enough, I’ve covered other reasons for seeding over buying seedlings in this post.
Save On Buying Seeds
Seed catalogues tempt the gardener with the newest varieties of vegetables and flowers. It’s not enough for instance to buy just one seed packet of lettuce when there are so may kinds out there that you want to try growing.
So how can you save on your seed purchases?
- buy a seed blend – this usually then gives you a few varieties. The only downside is you won’t know which seed is which variety.
- share seeds with friends/family/colleagues. Each person buys one packet and then each of you can get a small number of seeds from each variety.
- focus on buying seeds of vegetables that you and your family like to eat. But don’t let that stop you from buying and planting seeds of vegetables that are not your favourites or that you have never eaten. With the right recipe or sauce, you can make almost any vegetable taste great!
- keep your seeds in a cool, dry place (I keep mine in the fridge in a box) and they will last several years. You don’t need to buy new seeds every year. Some seeds though are better to buy fresh every year.
- go to a local Seedy Saturday or seed swap. Most larger cities have these once a year, often in late winter where you can bring your own seeds and then swap for other seeds.
- save your own seeds by harvesting seeds from your plants and keep them to reseed the following year
- get extra seedlings from gardeners like me that always seem to overseed. We end up having way too many “baby” plants and no room to transplant all of them. Rarely will you find a gardener that has the nerve to just throw the extra seedlings away. Join local Facebook groups on gardening – there are usually some people every spring that are giving away extra plants or sell them for just a few pennies per plant.
- make your own seed tape and sheets – don’t buy them pre-made
Reuse Containers For Seeding
You don’t need to go and purchase special flats, pots and especially not peat or Jiffy pots in order to seed your vegetables and flowers.
Instead use these household recyclables for a free alternative:
- clamshell containers such as you might get takeout salads in or other convenience foods. It helps to choose ones that are square or rectangular instead of round or other funny shapes (I have some octagonal ones for instance) as the former takes up less room. The advantage of a clamshell is that you can close the transparent top and it serves to keep the soil warmer (especially if you use a heat mat) and keeps it from drying out
- yoghurt containers work well, the one-serving size for starting seeds and the larger size for repotting seedlings to allow them to grow larger before they get transplanted outdoors
- styrofoam meat trays can be used as trays to put my pots and containers on to keep water from dripping on the ground
- newspapers can be made into pots by rolling them up and crimping the bottoms and then placing them in a plastic container
- egg cartons can be used with each egg compartment holding one seed but there is some concern about salmonella and I found the egg compartments were a bit too small – I might try this again
Just make sure you clean the containers well with hot, soapy water. And punch some drainage holes in the bottom if using as pots.
Create a Cheap Grow Light Setup
If you’re starting your own seeds indoors, you need to have some kind of grow lighting to grow strong seedlings.
Have you seen the prices of grow light setups you can buy? Often these are in the hundreds of dollars!
But you can save some money with a DIY setup that works just as well. What you’ll need:
- A cheap shelving unit which you may already have or pick one up at a garage sale for a few bucks.
- A few cheap lights. These could be desk lamps, small fluorescent fixtures or simple bulb holders. Add some LED bulbs that will last almost forever. They don’t need to be special grow light bulbs.
- A timer to control how long the lights stay on. Doesn’t need to be fancy; one of the analog ones you set by turning a dial work just as well as a digital one.
Places to Grow
Do the prices of containers for growing vegetables shock you? Here are some ideas for free containers you can use to grow vegetables in.
Remember drainage: if the container doesn’t already have a hole, you will need to drill some in the bottom or at the very bottom of the sides.
Use Buckets For Growing
You can get 5 gallon (18l) buckets from a bakery or restaurant for free – just ask them. These are food grade and just need a good cleaning. They even come with handles and the lid can double as a shallow tray.
You could always paint the outside if you want it to look a bit nicer.
Use Free Grow Bags
How many of us have too many of those recycled plastic woven shopping bags that we may have received for free when buying $100 worth of groceries?
These can be used for growing too! Even the smaller sizes could be used for growing a head or two of lettuce or some herbs.
Build A Strawberry Crate Tower
Have you seen the prices for terracotta strawberry planters or urns? Expensive!
Instead you can build a strawberry crate tower from inexpensive “milk” crates you can find in department stores or home centres. Even better if you can find them on special. All you need to add is a roll of landscape cloth and a drilled out PVC pipe (mine is a remnant from a plumbing job).
Use Free Or Cheap Raised Bed Materials
While I’m not a big fan of pallet wood, in a pinch if that is all you can afford (pallets usually are free) you can build a raised bed or planter out of a pallet.
Or you may be able to get some cheap seconds at the lumberyard to build your beds with.
Or some frugal gardeners will use logs from felled trees to border their raised beds.
Use Free Material for Staking Up Plants
Got long prunings from your fruit trees? You can use these for staking up peas or beans.
Switching out your curtain rods or towel bars? You could use the old ones to tie up tomatoes.
Or if you have an overhead structure, just tie a string to it and let your vining plants climb up the string.
Use Household Items For Plant Ties
No need to buy the expensive plant ties at the nursery or garden centre. They may look cute (we have some that are flexible frogs) but are pricy if you need a lot of them.
Keep your twist ties from bags of food. These can be used as plant ties to keep plants from flopping over.
String or yard works as well. Or fine wire like what you’d find in an old broken telephone or network cable.
Some people even use old pantyhose cut in strips – the advantage is that they are stretchy so will stretch as the plant grows.
Build Your Soil And Feed Your Plants
Make your own compost…
Bagged compost is very expensive!
Instead make your own. It doesn’t have to be as elaborate as my three-bin cedar compost. You just need a small 3×3 area and some cheap chicken wire or deer fencing and a few stakes (see above for free sources).
Pound the stakes into the ground, wrap the chicken wire or net around the stakes and secure with some string. Fill it with spent plant material, leaves, manure (see below for free sources), etc.
Obviously this saves you money of not having to buy bagged compost. But it also helps as you don’t have to pay to get rid of the waste (even if you have free municipal drop-off locations you still need to drive there which costs money).
…and compost tea
Once you have your own compost, you can also make your own compost tea. Grab one of those meshed bags that onions usually come in, fill it with compost, tie it off and soak it in a bucket of water for a few days.
Dilute this mixture (10:1 is what is usually recommended) with water and use it to fertilize your plants.
Get Free Manure
Manure is a by-product of having any kind of livestock. You might be able to get free manure from someone that doesn’t have a garden or has too much manure to use.
Make sure to compost the fresh manure first otherwise it can burn your plants.
Just one caution: be very careful to find out the source of the feed that the animals were eating to produce the manure. If grass or hay had a persistent herbicide applied such as Grazon, this will go through the animals digestive system unharmed. And if you spread it over your garden, you could kill all the plants! More info in this blog post on The Grow Network.
Switch to No-Till Gardening
No need to rent or buy a tiller. The new way to garden is to never till the soil.
Instead of tilling or double-digging each year, amendments and especially deep mulch are used to protect the soil from compacting and erosion. You end up with a friable, nicely textured soil that doesn’t require deep tilling. Just a quick forking in spring will have the beds ready to plant.
Protect The Soil
Get Free Wood Chips or Make Your Own
Deep mulching is a great way to suppress weeds, build up soil health and conserve moisture along with some other benefits I talk about in this post.
But you’re probably thinking: “mulch is expensive. I’ve seen the bags in the garden centre or home centre and I’d have to buy a lot of them to mulch everything.”
There is a cheaper alternative though.
Most arborists and tree service companies have to pay to get rid of the wood chips created when they cut down a tree. Ask them if you see them in your neighbourhood if they can dump their truckload in your front yard or driveway.
Keep in mind that the mulch will not be as pristine as what you get in bags or if you order it delivered from a landscape supplier. But your vegetables won’t care.
Or make your own.
If you have lots of fruit trees like I have, you will generate piles of pruned branches every year, everything from whip-thin watershoots to dead branches that might be as thick as your thumb. These can all be easily shredded.
Yes, this requires the investment of a shredder or wood chipper. The electric ones are cheaper than gas-powered and are just as capable for thin branches. The cost of the shredder pays itself back in a short period of time. Or you could rent one or borrow one from a neighbour or friend if you only use it once a year.
Shredding the branches gives you a coarse but very useful mulch that you can use on flower beds, vegetable beds and on pathways. And again you save money not having to get rid of the branches.
Bonus is if you have a wood stove like we have or a wood-burning fireplace or outdoor oven. Any branches that are too big to fit in the shredder you should saw into lengths that fit in the wood stove and stack for seasoning until winter. These are great to start a fire.
Make Your Own Leaf Mulch
Got trees? Do you painstakingly rake up all the leaves, bag them and then leave them at the curb for the city to pick them up?
You’re getting rid of a priceless resource for your garden. Pile up the leaves in a corner of your garden where they are not in the way and out of sight and wait one year.
What you will get is a rich, earthy leaf mulch or mould that you can use on your vegetable beds just like wood chips or other mulch. The leaves will break down more and help build healthy soil.
Caution: some jurisdictions have strict laws about collecting rainwater and actually ban this practice. So before starting to collect rainwater make sure you are not breaking any laws.
Watering your vegetable garden during a drought is expensive! And with watering restrictions you might actually not be allowed to water or water enough.
Rainwater is much better for your plants than regular tap water. It has no water treatment chemicals in it and tends to be warmer than tap water, especially if it has been sitting in water barrels in the sun. You can have water barrels in various corners of your house close to where you need to water so you save time and effort not having to lug watering cans or hoses all over your property.
Plus the frugal gardener loves that it saves you money on purchasing water from your local utility. Some utilities also charge not only for the water coming out of the tap but also a sewage fee for getting rid of the water once it is used. So you are paying sewage fees for water that never reaches the sewer/storm drains (unless you overwater).
Setting up rainwater barrels doesn’t have to be expensive. I did at first buy some expensive barrels through my feed supplier as you can see in the photo of the barrel in my greenhouse. But then I scored some used plastic barrels that contained food and that were properly sanitized and only cost me a few bucks for each one. It was just a matter of hooking them together with some ABS pipe.
Buy Used Tools Or Make Do Without
There are always people who are downsizing from a house to a condo or apartment, especially retirees and empty nesters.
They will likely have good quality tools you can buy for cheap or even for free. Check your local newspaper for garage and yard sales.
You can also find free tools on sites like freecycle.org
For tools such as shovels, rakes, hoes, even pruners you may be able to find some good deals at the following:
- garage sales
- swap meets
- flea markets
- store closing sales
- estate sales
- end of season sales and promotions
- neighbours or friends who have spares that they don’t need
- online classified ad services such as Craigslist, Kijiji, etc.
But still look for good quality tools even if they are used. Check for damage that can’t easily be fixed but even if the tool is very dirty and rusty, you may be able to bring it back to its former glory with a bit of elbow grease.
Power tools are a bit more of a gamble as these are generally more expensive to purchase even when used and have the potential of having serious issues that may cost quite a bit to repair. So “buyer beware” but sometimes you can pick up some great deals on gently used equipment. Do the environment a favour though and avoid buying gas-powered equipment – they are also more expensive to fuel and maintain. There are now very good electric and battery-powered alternatives which are in most cases cheaper than their gas-powered versions.
And you really don’t need half the tools that tool suppliers and specialty stores sell. Especially if you’ll use the tool only once a year. You can usually make do without and use another tool or even make your own tool.
Don’t Buy Beneficial Insects, Attract Them Instead
I cringe when I see mason bees or ladybug cocoons advertised for sale. I’ve heard stories where the bees or ladybugs fly off immediately to a neighbours yard. Money literally goes flying out of your yard and there is not much you can do about it once it happens.
Instead of buying beneficials, you need to make your garden attractive to them and they will come and make their home amongst your vegetables and keep those nasty pests at bay.
All you need to do is plant the right flowers and other attractants, provide fresh water and in the case of mason bees provide a house they can lay their eggs in. And they will come.
Just be sure not to use any synthetic chemicals such as pesticides or herbicides so you don’t kill the beneficials that are helping you.
Get Free Garden Shoes And Clothes
You could probably go out and spend a few hundred collars on swanky garden clothes and shoes. Always amazes me how much more expensive these are compared to regular work clothes!
All you need to do is hold onto that faded or ripped sweatshirt or those jeans that have seen better days. Or maybe you’ve almost worn through your favourite pair of sneakers or slip-on shoes. Instead of tossing them in the garbage, give them another gardening season’s worth of use.
Reuse Old Windows For Your Greenhouse
If you are planning on building a greenhouse, they don’t come cheap. The better quality kits are really expensive and even if you build it yourself out of all new materials, windows especially can be pricy.
Instead source some used windows locally. Try ideally to find double-pane windows. Often these are being replaced as the seal between the two panes has failed and there is some condensation inside the panes. These windows could still be used in a greenhouse as that condensation shouldn’t make too much of a difference.
If possible get a set of windows that are all the same size as that will make framing your greenhouse easier. But if not, then you may need to be a bit more creative with the design. You can always use some filler pieces of wood to make up for windows that are slightly different sizes.
Now of course I haven’t addressed the financial benefits of growing your own vegetables. I’ve covered those in this post along with some other benefits of having your own garden.
You are very likely going to save money on your grocery bill. Especially if you grow vegetables that are harder to find and more expensive to buy. And if you are as dedicated as I am about eating mostly organic, you will save there too.
So combining these 21 tips with the abundance of food you could grow at home, you can see that all those money excuses for not growing your own food just don’t make sense anymore.
If you enjoyed this article, have something to add or have any questions, please leave a comment below.
Wishing you all the best!
Tranquil Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC