10 Ways to Garden for Less

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person holding multiple garden-raised vegetables in their hands

Gardeners pride themselves on their creative, thrifty ways that make a lot out of a little. If you’re a gardener or a gardener to-be, we have 10 tips to help you garden for less.

Reuse your Amazon boxes (and other cardboard)

cardboard laid out in a garden to help prevent weeds
Tina M | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Cardboard is a gardener’s best friend. And most gardeners have Amazon boxes or other cardboard sitting around somewhere. 

Here are a few uses for cardboard in your garden:

Before you put down mulch, put a single layer of flat cardboard boxes onto the ground to keep weeds at bay. Over time, some weeds will find their way through, but that is true with landscape fabric, as well. This is a free alternative that works just as well as store-bought products.

  • Homemade kneeling pad

Is the ground too hard for your aching knees? Fold up a small cardboard box to ease the strain as you garden.

  • Seed starters

Use small cardboard boxes, egg cartons, milk cartons, or cardboard tubes as seed starters. Poke holes in the bottom for drainage and put the seed starters in a plastic tray or tub to catch excess water.

Save your seeds

Why buy new seed packets year after year when you have a free supply at the end of each growing season? 

Here’s a quick how-to for saving string beans:

Step 1: Pick pods when they are dry and starting to turn brown.

Step 2: Place pods in a single layer to dry. (No direct sun.)

Step 3: When seeds start to “rattle,” leave them one more week.

Step 4: Break open pods.

Step 5: Store in a cool, dry place away from sunlight. 

For specific instructions on different plants, check out this handy chart from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. You’ll learn how to save wet seeds like eggplant and cucumbers, as well as other dry seeds like string beans, from your garden. See page two for how to save flower and herb seeds.

Note: Seed saving only works for heirloom or open-pollinated varieties. Hybrids won’t work. Also, make sure the seeds haven’t been cross-pollinated (squash is notorious for this).  

Seed saving suggestion: Some plants take two years to set seed, like carrots and kale. Others like tomatoes, peppers, or green beans set seed in just one season.

Swap pavers for crushed gravel

If you need to build a patio but don’t want to shell out serious dough, consider gravel or other crushed stone.

Gravel starts at or less than $1 per square foot while even the cheapest concrete pavers start around $2.50 per square foot. Flagstone pavers, which are among the most expensive, can be more than $20 per square foot on the high end.

DIY gardening tip: Put down cardboard or other landscaping fabric to keep the weeds at bay.

Visit the library (and other free content)

If you’re tempted to purchase that gardening bestseller, hold off. Check with your library first. If it’s a bestselling title, there’s a good chance you can get it from your local library. If your local library doesn’t carry it, ask them if it can be loaned from another library in your state. (This is called interlibrary loan.)

Through your library system, you’ll find books and e-resources that can answer all of your gardening questions, such as:

  • What is vertical gardening?
  • How can I attract more pollinators to my small garden?
  • Which ground covers work as grass alternatives?
  • Is companion planting effective?

…and many more.

The internet is another source for garden ideas. The internet is attractive to many on-the-cheap gardeners because of the many gardening videos. Home gardeners have a reputation for their bargains, tips, and tricks, and many of them have taken to YouTube and other social media sites to help their fellow gardeners.

Pro Tip: Looking for reliable information? Along with your search query, type in “.edu” to get information from trusted horticulture professionals. 

Ex. planting vegetables in Minnesota “.edu”

Clean and maintain 

It’s an annoying fact that our brand new garden tools don’t stay clean and sharp for long. Here are a few tips to make sure your tools can keep up with the chores from dawn to dusk:

After every use:

  • Wipe down cutting tools to remove dirt 
  • Use rubbing alcohol or diluted bleach to remove bacteria or diseases
  • Wipe down again to prevent rust

Once per year (or as needed):

  • Sharpen your hand tools with a hand file
  • Clean well (see above)
  • Oil: Use silicone spray, 3-in-1 oil, camellia oil, or mineral oil

Reuse for a second life

“Reduce, reuse, and recycle” is built into the DNA of most gardeners, but this advice bears repeating. If you don’t have something you need, how can you use something you already have as an alternative? 

If You’re Out of ThisTry This Instead
Planting potOld tire
Seed starting potEgg carton or toilet paper tube
Extra pot of flowersDivide one pot into two
Landscape fabricCardboard boxes
If all else fails…Look for supplies in free social media groups

Divide your plants

If your perennial plants are going gangbusters outside, take some of the new growth and re-pot it. Why? If you don’t need it, someone else may. 

Take it to your local plant swap and trade it for something you’d love to add to your collection. You’ll get rid of excess growth in your own yard and bring a new plant home to add to your growing family.

Different plants require different propagation methods, but many plants work the same way: Take a cutting, stick it in moist soil or potting mix, and keep it moist. 

If you’re unsure, check out a video online, and take several cuttings to increase your chances of success.

Connect

Gardening is more fun with friends. There are other gardeners in your community, so get to know them. You’ll open a new world of knowledge, opportunities, and probably savings as well.

See if there are any of these groups in your area:

  • Gardening clubs 

They have plant sales.

  • Local libraries

Sometimes they have a “seed library” where you can exchange seeds. In addition, many clubs (like gardening clubs) meet in local libraries.

  • Plant swaps

Ask your local gardening club, library, or go online.

  • Online free groups 

Use Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace to find free plants, gardening materials, or cast-offs for your gardening efforts.

  • Statewide Native Plant Societies

Many have local chapters.

Know your strengths

Let’s face it: Most of us have a limited set of skills (and time). Know what you can do, and outsource what you can’t.

Here are some examples:

  • Love to garden but can’t pick up a hammer?

Use an online “free” group to find planter boxes for raised beds.

  • Don’t have room to compost?

Do vermicomposting, bokashi composting, or find a free source online.

  • Hate growing your vegetable garden from seed?

Ask the local garden club where you can buy young plants on the cheap.

Compost

If you have the outdoor space to do backyard composting, it’s the best way to get on the road to healthy soil. Compost is the ideal soil amendment for flower beds and garden beds alike. The organic matter helps your soil retain water if it’s too sandy or helps water move better through clay soils. Not to mention you’ll save money and trips to the garden center.

You can create the standard open composting boxes with old pallets or use chicken wire for a small, round bin. If you start in the fall and turn the pile at least once per week, you may have good compost ready by early spring (depending on the condition of the pile and your climate).

What goes in your compost pile:

  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves
  • Veggie and fruit scraps
  • Eggshells
  • Peelings
  • Coffee grounds

Don’t compost these things:

  • Dairy
  • Meat
  • Fats and oils
  • Bones
infographic showing the materials used in composting. Including the most common brown and green options.

If you’re shorter on time than money, contact one of our landscaping experts. You’re a click or call away from a professional mow and edge to keep your lawn looking sharp with no effort on your part.

Main Photo Credit: jf-gabnor | Pixabay

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