5 Budget-Friendly Tips to Help You Start a Vegetable Garden from Scratch

Starting a garden
People help harvest vegetables during a Fleet Farming swarm ride in Orlando, Fla. Tina Russell / The Penny Hoarder

I love free food. It makes me excited, probably more than it should.

So the concept of gardening seems fabulous to me.

I say “concept,” because I realize actual gardening includes exposure to bugs, which kinda-sorta freaks me out. But being able to just go to my backyard and pick out fruit for a snack or veggies for lunch — without swiping my debit card — would be awesome.

I’m all for fresh food, reducing my carbon footprint and getting fresh air and exercise, not to mention having loads of extra produce to help lower my grocery bill.

The thing is… most gardens still require a monetary investment: for tools, supplies, seeds and related expenses. There goes the concept of “free” food.

Fleet Farming, a nonprofit initiative that started in Orlando in 2014, turns neighbors’ lawns into gardens, but it comes with a price: the group asks for a $500 donation to cover the costs of installing and maintaining the plot for a minimum of two years.

How to Start a Vegetable Garden from Scratch

Despite having to fork over some money, the benefits of growing your own garden are still pretty great.

There are lots of creative ways to cut down the costs of growing your own food. Fleet Farming Program Manager Caroline Chomanics offers the following five tips on to help you start a garden on a small budget.

1. Pick Up Leaves

Ever notice your neighbors raking their leaves into big piles and leaving them at the edge of their front lawns to be thrown away? Ask them if you can take those leaves off their hands!

“People throw away leaves on the side of the road all of the time that can be used as a great mulch,” Chomanics said.

Mulch acts as a barrier to block sunlight from the ground’s surface, keeping soil cooler so plants’ roots won’t overheat, according to Better Homes and Gardens.

2. Go Dumpster Diving

Raised garden beds offer a prime environment for a new garden.

They provide good drainage and also help prevent soil compaction, invasion from pathway weeds and pests such as slugs and snails, according to Eartheasy.

But purchasing wood to build one or buying one already built could be costly.

Chomanics recommends upcycling trash to be used for raised beds. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, right?

“Old wood, cement blocks, bookcases and other discarded items can make great structures for raised bed gardening,” she said.

3. Compost at Home

The soil in your backyard may not always be the rich, earthy stuff that’s prime for growing.

Here in Florida, what makes up the ground is mostly dusty sand — but that doesn’t stop the Fleet Farming group in Orlando.

Fleet Farming Director Lee Perry said they use compose from a nearby mushroom farm to help convert sandy dirt to dark, lush, nutrient-rich soil.

“You can compost at home by storing food scraps in a container in the freezer,” Chomanics said. “Then, when it is full, turn it in a pile in your yard.”.

“Leaves and grass clippings [as long as it’s unfertilized grass] are great additions,” she said.

Chomanics also advised contacting your local compost provider to find affordable compost. Some cities offer free compost pick-up, she said.

4. Save Seeds

While you might need to buy seeds at your local garden nursery or home improvement store to start out, save money on future planting seasons by holding onto the seeds from the plants you grow.

“Have an endless supply of seeds by harvesting seeds from your harvest,” Chomanics said. “Plants like dill, sunflower and basil offer tons of seeds that you can use every year.”

5. Use Drip Irrigation

Plants are pretty simple. They only need a few things to grow, like sunlight, soil and water. And unless your home is right on a river or creek, that water is not going to come free.

Using a sprinkler to water your garden could have you ending up with a hefty water bill if you don’t do things right.

A drip irrigation system makes sure water is not wasted by targeting exactly where the plants need it.

“Every day, water will drip to the plants,” Chomanics said. “That saves you time watering and is water friendly.”

She recommends installing a water timer hooked up to a hose with a sprinkler. Timers control how much and when your garden is watered.  

A simple garden hose timer costs about $25 through Amazon.

Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links. We’re letting you know because it’s what Honest Abe would do. After all, he is on our favorite coin.

Nicole Dow is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She loves the idea of having a garden, except for dealing with bugs.