Home-Gardenbook team member and contributor F. Anderson from the UK is participating in the “Break-Even’ Gardening project and has written a tremendous overview of her journey ‘Gardening On The Cheap’. The hyperlinks to the books mentioned were added by the editor. Home-Gardenbook does not have any commercial affiliations and those books may be ordered numerous places online in digital format or in paper or hardback. We have included just one link to the Kindle Book edition but if you prefer to purchase the book elsewhere or better yet check and see if your local library has it on shelf then we encourage you to do so
Gardening is a process, not an end-product, so forget all ideas of having to do it perfectly or to a deadline and just do one little task at a time. That way, you will look up one day and notice how far you’ve come, instead of beating yourself up about not having achieved perfection swiftly.
Gardening on the cheap has been something I’ve been interested in for a while, because in my youth I lived on peanut butter sandwiches for six months, as that was all I could afford. Quite apart from the monotony, I have suffered terrible teeth all my life, which I attribute to poor diet. People who are poor don’t make good food choices, they make affordable food choices. However, that sets them up for later health problems. So gardening on the cheap should aim to help people grow things that are easy to grow, that are cheap to start, that are in different food groups.
There’s a lot of information on the web on different methods of gardening and far too much info to digest on the other things needed to be successful at it, so first thing is to cut down sources of confusion, to make starting easier. My first ever veg I grew were potatoes, tomatoes and runner beans, because these are easy to grow and hard not to be successful at. Having success at whatever you try first is vital, to encourage you that it works! After that you can investigate various methods, to see what suits you:
- Normal digging allotment style
- Square Foot Gardening
- No Dig Gardening
- Raised Bed Gardening
- Companion Planting
- Winter Vegetable growing
- Winter Sowing
- Watering systems
- Container Gardening
- Polytunnel Gardening
- Crop Rotation
- Cheap or Free Stuff
- Gardening tools and what you don’t need to spend money on
- Helpful wildlife
- Edible flowers
Some of these methods are cheaper than others, some are less work physically than others, all have people who love them, so you can read up on them and choose what you like. Personally, I do No Dig gardening, with raised beds, because it’s work to set up, but then after that it’s far less work than conventional digging. Then I looked into companion plants and now I’m trying some containers. Next year, I will be trying out both Winter vegetable growing and Winter Sowing – two completely different methods – because I like to experiment. The main thing is to try one or two new things at a time, to avoid being overwhelmed.
So an introduction to each of these:
Normal Digging Allotment Style
I don’t fancy hard work, so I don’t do this, but I do read books and articles where people have done it, because I might learn something.
Square Foot Gardening
The idea as I understand it is to plan out your garden, by dividing each bed into squares and planting one or two if small plants, to keep a good spacing. I don’t do it, because companion planting means I need to plant stuff together, but others have had success with it.
No Dig Gardening (also called No Till Gardening in the US)
The best site for this is Charles Dowding’s website https://charlesdowding.co.uk/
You start by cardboarding over the ground, to suppress weeds, then put soil and compost on top, to plant into. For people who are put off by loads of digging, or who are physically less able, it makes a lot of sense to cut down on digging. In subsequent years, you keep adding more compost on top, for the worms to mix in for you. The worms do the work, so you don’t have to. It also means with less soil disturbance, over time you get less weeds than with conventional digging.
Raised Bed Gardening
Some people just build up more soil on top of the ground, others use some kind of frame to put the soil into. With the cost of wooden frames commercially being a factor, I used bookcases being thrown out by a friend to make the frames, as well as square cube like pallets being tossed by local builders (used for paving stones, so very sturdy) to make even better frames, that I can tie sticks to as supports for runner beans or climbing veg. Other people have made brick frames, deep enough to stand up to grow stuff. However, breeze blocks (also called ‘cinder blocks’ in the US) shouldn’t be used for this, as some types have the potential to have chemicals included in them.
Raised beds have several advantages, in that in wet weather, they drain much faster than normal soil, so your veg doesn’t drown. Then they are a lot less bending down to reach, saving your back as you pick out occasional weeds. To frame or not to frame? Well, I like frames, because they make the sides defined and I can build up each year adding more compost and/or manure on top. However, people do think that wood frames encourage snails, so that’s something to consider. I do have a couple of really tall brick raised beds, that I love. They were here when I got here, but the soil was dead – no worms, no snails, so I dug it all out and started over with filling it and now stuff grows there and I can sit on the edges to garden, which is great!
I had no idea about this when I started, because all I’d seen was those pictures of crops on farms being grown in straight lines of just one crop. But that’s not how nature works and companion plants can make the hobby gardener’s life a lot easier. These days I grow borage with tomatoes, to repel tomato hornworm, French marigolds with runner beans to repel aphids, nasturtiums with cabbage as a sacrifice crop for butterflies to munch on instead of munching my cabbages, coriander with carrots, to repel carrot fly and I’ll be experimenting with more companion plants as I read more about them.
Winter Vegetable Growing
I’ve only just started planning for this and the books I’m using to help me are:
The best Facebook site for this is “Winter Sowing (Vegetable Gardening with Sheryl Mann)”, which has a lot of information in her files and videos.
I’ve had my family collecting plastic milk containers and the like for me, as what you do is make some drainage holes in the containers, cut almost in half leaving a hinge, add several inches of soil, add seeds, sprinkle on soil to cover, water, then seal the cut part with gaffer tape and put outside once it gets consistently cold. Saves you having a greenhouse or polytunnel and I’m hoping it makes life a lot easier, Certainly the people on that group are very friendly and helpful and the information there is amazing.
I confess my ignorance and maybe in the future will get into this, but just now I have enough on my plate already.
A few years ago, I read about Mexican farmers using terracotta ollam(?) pots to put into the soil, so water could seep through to their plants, which used less water in the hot climate. In this country, the price of that type of pot is 18 pounds each, so instead I use terracotta flower pots, with lids and with blu tack in the hole on the bottom. I tried rubber bungs, but getting the right size isn’t easy, so I’m hoping the blutack works ok, Also I’m trying used plastic bottles with plastic spike watering attachments and used wine bottles with terracotta spike watering attachments. When I see which works best of the three, then I’ll invest in more of whichever. Quite apart from the water savings, it also means I can go away without worrying about my plants dying of thirst.
I saw a video on watering using cattle feed buckets, though I decided not to go ahead with that watering method*, the cattle feed buckets looked interesting, so I bought some, cut some drainage holes in the bottoms and I’ve planted fruit bushes in them, which I’ll add herbs around the bushes.
The point is all knowledge can be useful, even if you don’t use it in the way envisaged by the person passing it on. *I didn’t go through with it because the 30 year fabric they recommended was expensive, but then again, you’d only be buying it once?
There’s all sorts of polytunnels on the markets, at prices from fairly reasonable to eyewatering, so I’ve bought a really cheap one at 50 pounds to start with. No idea if it will work or not, though other people swear by their polytunnels for extending their growing season by several weeks later in the year. Worth doing your research before splashing out and best to get recommendations from people you know, if you can.
There’s vast amounts of information on this, so best to start cheap, indeed free if you can. Here, I asked local builders to give me pallets – there’s always someone having something built and stuff delivered to build it comes on pallets. Most of the builders were very happy to give me their leftover pallets and some even delivered them right to my house for free. Pallets are your friend for composting! What I did was start with five, one on the bottom, four upright around the bottom one, tied to each other, then toss in plant waste and scrunched up paper. You can also chuck in food waste, but I have little to none of that, banana skins is about all that gets thrown out here.
You can either go in for hot composting or cold composting, they both produce the same end result, it’s just that hot composting is faster. Don’t site your compost heap anywhere near anything that might catch fire – like a wooden wall – compost fires are rare but not unknown. Hot composting occurs when you’ve got a sufficient mass of stuff in your compost cage, I’m told. So far, I’ve never achieved it. Other people swear by turning compost every so often, to speed up the process, but I just put in a mixture of layers of paper, layers of plant waste and leave it all, just starting on another compost cage every time one is filled up. I will be getting plant waste from my family, who have other houses and don’t garden except to mow the lawn, so it’s no hardship for them to give that grass waste to me and you can never have too much compost.
In your first year, don’t worry about this! The most important thing is to get something growing that first year. After that, you will have time to sit down and think about it. Easy things to grow are potatoes, tomatoes and runner beans.
There are all sorts of different groups of plants and the idea is to put them somewhere different each year in turn, so as to prevent build up in the soil of bacteria or pests harmful to that particular plant family.
The basic crop rotation is beans followed by brassicas, followed by potato family, followed by root veg. My own preference is Runner beans followed by tomatoes, followed by leeks, followed by Scorzonera, followed by squash. You will notice that I have more than the basic four crop rotation, that’s because there are many more than four veg families and you have more options open to you, as you get to grips with what you personally like to grow, but starting with the basic four is good, because it gets you to understand what you’re doing, by doing it.
Cheap or Free Stuff
Pallets, pallets, and more pallets. Local builders have given me loads of these for free and sometimes even delivered them to my house for free too.
Bookcases and shelves, that aren’t painted or varnished, so you don’t get those chemicals in your veg – friends and family gave me these, instead of tossing them,
Seeds – I haven’t found a source for free seeds, but I am trying seed saving and some of the magazines here give away 10 packets of seeds with them, which more than pays for the magazine and does introduce me to seeds I might not otherwise have tried. Also, I’ve bought seeds from cheap chain stores here and been happy with them, only sending off for stuff I couldn’t get there.
Plastic containers – these would otherwise be thrown away, but I can use them for winter sowing.
Cardboard – anything that gets delivered, tends to come in cardboard boxes, so rip off any tape and use it either to start up No Dig beds, or for covering beds just after winter, to help the soil warm up quicker.
Free newspapers– can be used instead of cardboard and have the advantage you can use them by tearing up the pages for your compost heap too. Indeed free paper like all those annoying leaflets shoved through your door, or card food packaging can be used for compost too – just don’t use any paper that’s shiny, glossy, or strongly coloured and do rip off any plastic from card food packaging, as those won’t compost. Paper is also useful for making plant pots to grow seeds in, for free, rather than paying out for planting trays or pots. Toilet rolls inners are ideal for this too, as well as cut down kitchen roll inners. I bought cat litter trays without holes, to stand these in, for ease of watering and carrying around, but it’s not essential to buy stuff as just about any container you can stand them in will do.
Breeze blocks – a friend had a patio laid and 22 breeze blocks left over. I don’t use these for planting raised beds, because of the possibility of chemicals in them, but I have a square planter for a fig tree and put these round the outside of it, to stop any tree roots being able to push the planter walls apart and the planter is on concrete slabs, to prevent roots going downward. Constricting the roots of this tree will stop it getting too big and will help it produce fruits rather than growth. The usual way of planting a fig tree is by digging a deep hole and lining bottom and sides with paving slabs, but I don’t like digging.
I’m thinking of planting a hazel tree at some distance from my house, in order to cut sticks from it to support my beans and climbing plants, rather than spending out on commercial canes.
Gardening tools and what you don’t need to spend money on
I read lists of vast arrays of tools people use – but really don’t buy any tool until you have figured out what you need to do a particular job. I use a kid’s garden spade, not a regular spade, as this stops me doing too much hefting and I’ve not needed anything bigger. A hand shovel is essential, as are garden gloves and secateurs, but I’m hard pushed to think of anything much more. Twine is very useful and wooden twigs or cheap wood barbecue skewers can be used to plant standing up in soil to deter animals from walking through your growing areas. Netting for brassicas – but I got that cheap from a local cheap chain store, not a gardening department.
This is something I’m going to experiment with and there’s far too much info on the web, so I’ll just pick a few to start with (that I’m likely to use in cooking) and see what happens.
Why aren’t we all growing more of these? You plant it once and it keeps on producing for years. I’ve only tried the odd ones so far, but will be trying more. The book I’m reading is Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier
While some need got rid of, others can be useful. There are various sites that tell you about edible weeds, but my favourite weed is stinging nettles. I’m using them steeped in water as fertilizers and will be trying them as tea or in soups too.
Not all garden insects and wildlife should be discouraged, indeed some should be positively welcomed. I plant stuff that attracts bees, ladybirds and insects that eat pests. I also put out stuff to encourage toads and hedgehogs, as these eat snails and slugs.
I’m only recently even thinking about this, but why not have stuff that’s edible and decorative too?
REGARDING PLANNING AGAIN
Maybe I should have put this first, but I think it’s best to ask around to see what your friends are doing, to do research online, to read stuff – you can get cheap gardening books in charity shops – to think a bit first.
My planning is in several formats –
Diagram – For my garden, I draw a map of what I’m planting where and the date, so if I’m planting runner beans in one spot one year, I’ll know to plan planting something different in that spot next year. And I can figure out what I’m planting overall that way too.
Seed Chart – Then I have a chart on squared paper for what seeds I have and when I’m planting them, either outdoors or under cover.
***Seeds – what to buy – I avoid F1 hybrids, because I’m wanting to try seed saving and the point about the F1 Hybrids is I think that they can resemble either parent rather than breed true, so you can’t predict what the offspring will be like?***
Then I have pages of one bed with everything in it and a reason as to why those things are planted together, so I can keep track of what companion planting I’ve tried and what happened.
And right at the end, let me emphasise that I regard everything as an experiment, so I don’t stress about getting it right. I just have a go, hope for the best, if it works, I’ll do that again, if it doesn’t then no biggie, there’s always something else to try out.
Contact the author with direct questions or comment below.