How To Start A Garden For Cheap
Try these easy tips about how to start a garden! Whether you want to save money on food or you just like the idea of having a garden, this post is for you!
How To Start A Garden – Gardening Basics
Most people don’t know this but I went to school for Greenhouse Management and Landscape design. Gardening is my passion and I hate to cook so it’s crazy that I run a website on saving money and that I wrote a frugal cookbook!
A lot of readers ask us how to start a garden so today I’m going to give you a few basic pointers.
You can see how I start my garden seeds here.
- Put some soil in a cup or container with a clear lid (like a deli container). Then plant seeds in it and water them. If you are using cups, set them in a large clear container like the kind birthday cakes come in. Use potting soil from the store, NOT top soil, to start them.
- Place in a warm spot, like on top of the fridge, for a week or two. You don’t need to take the lid off and you don’t need to water them.
- When you see the seeds have sprouted, take off the lid and put it in a sunny spot. If you don’t have a sunny window, you can put them about 10 inches under fluorescent lights.
Design or Plan Your Garden Space
Even if you are starting with a container garden, think about how much room and what kind of space you have for a garden. The best book I have read on gardening is Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. If you are new to gardening I would start with just that one book.
Square Foot Gardening tells you how to start a garden in a small area. You can grow a lot of things in just a few square feet of garden area without having to do all the weeding and watering that comes with a normal garden plot. As a side note, he does suggest a specific soil mix he puts in his raised beds when he starts a garden. I just use regular dirt and compost.
Here’s a photo of our square foot garden beds.
For the first year, start small. Plant no more than two or three 4×4 ft. plots.
Be sure to clean used pots with soapy Clorox water to make sure any bacteria and disease are killed.
What to Plant And Where
Most vegetables and herbs need to be planted in full sun. That means the area needs at least 6 hours of sun or more day.
Of course you must always have a gnome in your garden! :-)
To start, you may want to buy plants in flats from your garden centers which is perfectly fine. Here are some things to think about when buying your plants and when you’re deciding what you want and need:
- Start with easy plants. Herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, carrots, radishes, spinach are all very easy to grow.
- Read the information on the tags of the plants. Do they need to be planted twelve inches apart. If so and you have a ten foot row available to plant them, that means you can only put ten plants on that row.
- When buying flowers, remember to check and see if they need full shade, full sun, etc. and plant them in those areas. One of the biggest mistakes first time gardeners make is buying a plant because they like it and know where they want it, not realizing that, no matter what they do, a shade plant will die when planted in full sun and a full sun plant won’t grow in the shade.
- Make sure you plant the plants that need the same amount of water together. Different types of plants need different amounts of watering, so take that into consideration. It helps to locate the plants that need the most water closest to the water faucet so you don’t have to drag a hose a long way if you have a large yard.
- Less is best when you’re considering how to start a garden. Another mistake people make is buying and planting way more plants than they need. That cute little four inch tomato plant is going to produce more than a couple of tomatoes. I usually plant one plant for each person who eats tomatoes, plus two extra in case some of them die. I don’t can my extra produce. If you want to do that, you will need to plant more.
- Keep in mind as you are planning your garden, buying plants and plotting your garden spot that some plants need trellises to grow. Fences make great trellises for cucumbers and peas.
- Start with simple things at first. Cucumbers, radishes, lettuce and squash are some good ones to plant first. I started my first garden with corn. It was a mess and I got almost nothing for all of my work.
Prepare The Soil
- Rototill or dig soil, getting rid of rocks, and remove sod and weeds. If you try Square Foot Gardening, you won’t need to rototill– just dig. If you are digging up grass, put it in another area of the yard that you need to patch.
- Add compost. This will help with drainage and give the plants a boost of nutrients.
- Lay down newspaper or black fabric garden cloth to help control weeds. I put my weed barrier down and put mulch on top before planting the plants. Then I just put a small hole in it and put my plant in. It’s much easier than trying to mulch around all the little plants. (Note from Mike: Don’t use plastic for weed control. If you do, the plants won’t get enough water.)
When To Plant
Two to Four weeks before last frost is when you can plant cool weather crops like spinach, onions, radishes and lettuce. After the last frost in your area is the best time to plant warm weather plants like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. You can find out when your last expected frost date is here.
You can set some of your plants out a week or two early if you put mini greenhouses on them, like an empty milk carton with the bottom cut off. Take the lid off during the day and put it back on at night to keep the heat in. Be careful– If you get a hot day, you can fry your plants so take off the mini greenhouses if you get a really warm day.
Transplant your plants in early evening so they have time to get over the shock before the hot sun the next day.
Watering Your Garden
One important thing when you start a garden is to be prepared to water it. Do it. Really! Some people (like mom) think that you can just put your plants out and that’s it. You have to water your plants and you have to water them correctly. If your plants start to wilt, that means you need to water. If you notice that your tomatoes aren’t wilting but your cucumbers are, then you could have bugs instead but, for the most part, if you see your plants wilting they need water.
A good indicator plant is tomatoes. Tomatoes need a lot of water. If you start to see them wilting, you will know that the garden needs some water.
Don’t over-water either. If you do, you will rot your plants. If you aren’t sure if you need to water, stick your finger in the soil next to the plants. If it is moist or feels cold then you probably don’t need to water.
Just a side note: One time, Mom planted a cherry tomato right under the faucet. She had cherry tomatoes coming out of everywhere! One year I might try this just to see what happens! :-)
Weeding (Weed killers, etc.)
If you put down a layer of newspaper or landscape fabric, you won’t need to weed as much. Mulch is the best way to keep weeds at bay because weed seeds need light to germinate and if they don’t have it you won’t have as many weeds.
I like to use wood chips for mulch. I can usually find them free from tree cutting companies or from the city or county. Cities and counties usually have a branch disposal center and will mulch them. Usually, you can take your truck or car and go load some up. When we didn’t have a truck we would load the wood chips in the back of our car in galvanized containers. When we didn’t have those we put a big tarp in the trunk and loaded it. We pulled the tarp up the sides so the wood chips wouldn’t end up all over the place.
You can also buy mulch at the store. Look for broken and torn open bags. A lot of times, the store will have those discounted for .50 or $1.00 a bag just to get rid of them. If some bags are torn open but not marked down, ask if you can get them for less. Often, they just haven’t gotten to marking them down yet.
If you call a tree cutting service to see if they have wood chips, be sure to ask if they are free. One time I just asked for wood chips. I was ecstatic when I got the most beautiful wood chips I’d ever seen and the company even delivered them! I cried a week later when I got a bill for $100. Augh!! Huge frugal flop!
Pests (natural and other pesticides)
I use regular good old pesticides on my gardens. Why? Because it kills the bugs. Pesticides wash off of your produce and, if mixed correctly, don’t harm the environment. A lot of times you will need to spray before the fruit or vegetable has set so you don’t even spray the actual produce, just the plant.
If you want to go organic, one of the best things to use is just plain dish soap. Mix with some water and spray it on your plants and it will kill a lot of the pests. Here are some other organic pesticides to use but be careful!! If you are using organic pesticides to save the environment you may actually be doing more harm than good.
Some plants will need to be staked or grown on a trellis. A fence is a good place to start. If you don’t have a fence, you can start by scouring yard sales for things like tomato cages. I find them all the time for less than a dollar and they last forever. You can also take small pieces of wire fence, make a circle and make your own a cage. Another idea is to just use a stick or rod. Put it in the ground next to your plant and then just tie with string, old panty hose, etc.
These are a few of the basics to help you get started. Feel free to ask questions about how to start a garden or anything about gardening and I will answer them as best as I can. If you need help with specific tips about how to start a garden for your specific area you can also call your local Cooperative Extension Service. You can find the extension office for your state here or look in the phone book under County Extension.
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Photos By: pdbreen, KoryeLogan, Apreche
I’ve tried for years to grow container vegetables with limited success. We live in the extreme southern US, and the sun gets so HOT here in the summertime, it seems no matter how much I water, my tomato & pepper plants (in large pots) just shrivel up and die. :( Suggestions?
Nancy, how often are you watering? You have to water everyday and morning is the best time to water. Here in KS it gets very hot too and I sometimes have to go out twice a day.
You may have to add some additives to the soil to hold water. There are little pellets and swell and hold the water when you water you plant and then it drinks it slowly over the day.
I cut open a diaper and shake the stuff into my soil. It’s the same thing but since I have a baby I can just use that.
Another idea is to make sure that you have the plants where they get shade in the hottest part of the day.
Also, for some places you may just not be able to container garden. If it dries out that fast you may just have to do regular gardening.
Tawra, I have another suggestion for your consideration. You can get the 3-5 gallon containers (the size that pickle slices come in with lids) from restaurants only to happy to give them to you so they don’t take up a lot of space in their garbage pick up bins. And, they come wity handles attached! Use the lid as a low profile water storage area just like small pots with bottoms. Place the lid upright (the part that was on the top identifying the contents, etc.) on the porch, stack the plastic pail (with drain holes made with a drill) on top. Add soil, plant and water. Use some grass clippings, dead leaves as additional protection from hot sun and water evaporation. If you plant tomatoes, you can also add stakes for support inside the pails and even might get 3 plants a pail. If you ever have to move them, just use the handle and save the back-breaking bending over to pick it up from the bottom. The larger amount of soil in the larger plastic pail should hold in more water for any hot summer days such as we have here in Texas along with Kansas and California!
You are right Judith this buckets do work great. Tawra had a green house in Idaho and we were needing some of these buckets. We went to the recycling center and they happened to have gotten about 50 buckets from the prison. Boy were we doing the happy dance with that find for our tomatoes. Of course it was a little of a challenge of getting all those back home. I like using one of those buckets too when I am pulling weeds. I toss the weeds in there as I pull and it is so easy to pick it up by the handle like you said and carry it to dump it. I keep another one with sand in it that I stick things like my trowel, clippers, small hand tools. The sand helps keep them in nice shape.
I live in Southern Calif–so I know all about the heat & dry weather. I bought from Home Depot Sun Screen Shade Cloth. I attach an extra long piece with pinch clothes pins to the top of my trellis. When it nears the peak heat of the day I cover the garden (kept in place with clothes pins on the bottom attached to my little fence border. When not in use I flip it over the trellis backwards. I water right before I cover the garden–so that less water is evaporated off. I suppose an old sheet could also be used
Thanks Tawra, this is just what I needed. I want to start a garden this year and I really had no idea where to start. Now I do. :-)
Keep watching April we have many more gardening things we will be posting over the next couple of weeks if you need even more help.
I was reading about the dish soap and water in the squirt bottle for killing pests in the garden, but I didn’t see what the soap/water ratio was. Does anyone possibly know?
Thanks so much!!
I just put about 1 Tbsp. in 2 cups of water. I’m not sure if that’s “right” or not but it’s about what I do.
Daughter of mine — don’t holler at me but since it is raining I decided to go out and seed my yard. Surely a big bag of grass dumped on a 6 ft. sq. area will do something and maybe grow a few blades of grass don’t you think? :) :) Are you having a heart attack yet. Thought it would be safer to announce what I did here then to call you. :) :) (Luv, Mum)
I still know where you live mother!
This is true but you must remember I am still your only babysitter so you need me alive. :) :)
Yes, but I am your “nursing home picker” so you better be nice to me! :-)
2 liter coke bottles with holes in the kids (i use a hot yarn needle) i bury from neck to twist top into the container. It works like a self watering bulb. Puts water to the roots not the leaves & the deeper i bury it the longer the roots,are because they are reaching for the water. This makes it great for tomatoes. Speaking of tomatoes I also put 1 Tbsp Epson in when planting them. It seems to make them healthier and more productive
I too love gardening! In high school, over 15 years ago, in horticulture class we used vermiculite, perlite and sand and potting soil for different things. I think the vermiculite is what you are talking about that absorbs water. I finally found some vermiculite at a farm store.
Should I add vermiculite to the potting soil when I’m starting seeds? I know you can root plants using vermiculite instead of just water..would it be beneficial when trying to start seeds?
And we had a horribly buggy year last year and didn’t get the garden burned and tilled before winter. Are we doomed this year, too or do I need to just watch it carefully and apply pesticides at the first signs?
Thanks for your help. I love your website!
I love adding vermiculite. I think it really helps, the problem is finding it. I would apply pesticides at the first sign. Really they are already starting to come out here. :-(
Did you know that you can determine which seeds are viable by placing them in a cup of water. The ones that sink are good to use and the others are no longer usable. I save my seeds and test them from year to year to help me determine which seeds I need to buy. Saves lots of money!!!
Yeah, I enjoy your newsletter, usually scan and delete, maybe save or copy a few things. Now, with the gardening, What a blessing!! MY PASSION ALSO. Keep it coming!!!!!!!!
We will Pam. Like I mentioned earlier we will be posting many more gardening tips over the next couple of months.
And don’t forget, tell your friends you garden! I have a friend who has the most beautiful gardens. He always offers to save me some daffodil bulbs when he thins and divides them! Last year he gave me 42! They should be gorgeous this year, and he knew they were my favorite flower!
Gardening friends are super at sharing!
Keep in mind if you want to start small like suggested, that most plants need fertilized by another plant. Last year I tried 1 of every kind of vegetable (that grows well where I live) and I babied them, and nothing. A lot of money spent of a few vegetables that came from the plants that self-fertilize.
you can find vermiculite at menards in the insulation section in 3cu foot bags. Same stuff as you would buy at a garden center.
Hey, I just read todays comments about needing compost. You can get all the compost free and delivered by contacting tree triming services companies. They are always trying to find someplace to dump the debris free. They normally have to pay to dump thyis in a land fill. You will need to add alot of nitrogen to the soil to grow any plants in or if you want it broke down by next year.
I recently moved so only have a teeny-tiny garden this year (4 tomatoes, 2 peppers, 2 cukes & some carrots the baby planted). Next year I’m going to have a 4’x8′ square foot garden using the lasagna layering technique. We’re putting up the bed at the end of summer, layering everything and letting it “bake” till spring. It’s my first time gardening this way and I’m so excited to get started! Is there anything you recommend NOT to put in a square foot garden?
Yes, I am going to try the lasagne technique too. It seems to work well. I grow EVERYTHING in a square foot garden. Some stuff my have to go into a square 2 foot like rubarb but you can do it.
I’ve read that other people have been successful planting strawberries in a square foot garden so I’m going to give it a try. Will dedicate 2′ squares to it and clip all the runners. Won’t get a ton of strawberries but mainly doing it because my little guy wants to grow them. Thinking I may have to put a net over them because the birds here are HUNGRY! lol
One tip I have found is I save all the 2 liter bottles of Pop for gardening-I cut the bottoms off,leave the caps on and make little greenhouses for my tomato plants, they grow faster and no wories about cold nights damaging the little plants. Less watering them too.
Hope that helps!
I do the same but take the caps off. I found out the hard way one year that the plants will cook really fast on a just barely warm day!
Milk jugs work really well for starting seeds. I cut an upside down U shape on one side in order to add soil and seeds. Punch a couple holes in the bottom and water well. Leave the cap off! As it gets warmer you can cut off the door and later the entire top until you are ready to plant in your garden.
I also do the same thing with all the hardy crops that can go outside before the last frost such as broccoli, kohlrabi, lettuce etc. Except, I plant them in the winter and place them OUTSIDE and let them freeze. When the weather is just right, they will sprout and then harden off without out no further work from me except to make sure they don’t dry out. This is known as the Winter Sown method.
We have made raised beds for our garden at a couple of homes where we have lived. For cover between the raised beds, we lay down landscaping fabric (one could probably use newspapers) and then cover with shredded Christmas tree mulch, which is free and can be picked up at several sights around the city, at least here in Wichita.
Nancy, I attended an organic gardening meeting a few weeks ago and they recommended not planting tomatoes in pots because the roots need to get deeper here in Texas where it gets so hot in the summer – try putting them in the ground – they also recommended at least 6″ of mulch and not adding fertilizer when you first plant them.
Hello, I want to share my bug problem fix… I have 4 ducks that eat all the bugs and slugs as we live in the PNW South of Olympia WA in the country. They have a dog house to stay in at night and I keep the food in there to so it stays dry its nice to have them around my raised beds. Enjoy reading about how to save $$
Hi all. I’m very new here…great stuff here! I’m currently disabled and living on a very small, fixed income and I’ve never gardened before, but have been thinking about it. Any helpful hints for the first time gardener? I would very much appreciate any input!
You have come to the right place Reese. Tawra got her degree in horticulture and that is how she earned her living before she got married combine that with me who can’t keep a dandelion alive and we have tried to cover it all on our website. Here are a couple of articles hopefully you will get a chuckle out of and gain some good info – First Time Gardeners and Me and How to start a Garden. I will be running gardening posts and newsletters during the next few weeks too so keep watching. Also if you can’t wait just click on the pictures at the bottom of the posts I gave you and they will lead you to several other posts or you can type in gardening in the search bar at the top and it will give you a big list to start from.
If you have any specific questions give us a holler and we will try to answer them for you.
Before I sow seeds in a plastic margarine tub, I use a drawing pin (thumb tack) to make four or five small drainage holes.
I use the back to Eden method and it works great. Here is a link to the film and it gives all the info you need or search the website for more.
No tilling, no or very little watering, just luscious good yield of produce. Work smarter not harder is the moto.
Learned the hard way from my dad who was a farm boy and always had a garden all my life. That is why it didn’t interest me. Too much back breaking work. But this is truly easy once you get it set up and going.
Yeah, I pretty much just let everything rot where it is now.
Old tires work good for a garden as well as old iron bath tubs I use for horse feeders. Also an old camper shell can be used as a roof on a frame built for a shed. Measure the height of camper shell. Compare to height of tallest person going to use the shed. Then build the frame to the height you need. Make 3 sides and sturdy built. Put shell on frame and fasten securely. Make your door as seems fit to your need. We left the glass door on. Built a swinging door size of opening on bottom. Can even put a lawn tractor in this or ATV. Good for garden tools, chicken coop, storage that would cost at a storage unit. Got ours free. Also people moved and left old beat up garden shed that was used for his motorcycle. Husband brought it to house. Repairs dings and dents. Made a hanging slide door for it out of scrap wood. These 2 sheds were his welding shop for years. He built a nice shop. I suggested he build a metal skid frame with a expanded metal screen floor. He used scrap pipe and scrap screen. Attached both sheds unto this skid. They were moved across yard many years ago and are still in use.
Something on a green note. I work in a mine. The gov’t regulates EVERYTHING! I recycle because of what I have learned at work. I started about 7 yrs ago. The thrift shop 50 miles away is a non-profit that gives jobs to handicapped people. They take in recycles to give these jobs. I was amazed at what I was able to keep out of the county landfill. I have a 500 gal trash container supplied by the town required trash service. We would put it out twice a week. Now twice a month at most. The mining company has started a recycle program for local public use. Tires (auto only), glass, cardboard, newspaper, white paper (mail/magazines), scrap steel, steel food cans, aluminum cans. I use this now as diesel is $4.58 a gal/gas is 3.74. 7.5 miles one way vs 55 mile one way. Most don’t recycle where I live. Takes too much time. Pffft!! I tell them they are lazy.
I don’t recycle because I have nothing to recycle. I come from another direction and say stop buying so much that you don’t need and then you don’t have to worry so much about recycling. They didn’t have recycling 50 years ago because people used what they had, didn’t buy silly things like water in bottles (I remember so well when the environmentalist said to buy water in bottles because it was better for you and now they are upset because those bottles are messing up the environment. I wish they would make up their mind and I am so glad I don’t pay attention to them.), used rags instead of paper towels. Even today I was looking at a plastic grocery bag and it had written all over how it was made out of recycled materials and to return to the store and sat wonder how much ink it took to write all that and energy to recycle that bag. I can’t take it back because I use it for so many different things around the house and probably save much more then the ink it cost to print it and recycle it.
Jill – I agree with you about the plastic water bottles, but we have recently started using them because our well water has so much rust and also a bad taste. We’ve had it tested and it’s safe to drink but not palatable. We’ve tried various filters without success. I used to fill gallon jugs at my mother’s house in town but health problems make it too difficult for me to carry them. I hate to see all the bottles in our recycling container but haven’t come up with another solution.
Cindy of course there are always exceptions to the rules and this isn’t what I was talking about in this case. Tawra too lived where they had nasty water and had to haul it in jugs so I know what you mean. I’m talking about people who have perfectly good tap water and do this.
Southwest gardening is a learned experience. Containere gardening works well for some plants, but you need to make sure the plants get enough water. My husband took a dryer aparet & we set the drum in a corner of the yard, filled the bottom with big rocks, then gravel, then several feet of soil. Plants love it. It has a nice finish, & the top rim is chrome. We have two 1/2 wooden barrels that are also plant havens. Succulents can be planted in building blocks. (Hens & chidkens & other succlenrs thrive in heat don’t need lots of water & have short roots.) Paint the outside of the blocks for contrast (before planting. I’ve cut the bottom out of plastic chicken & swan planters, & planted ivy. (The container gives it a sheltered place to start, & it can put down deep roots.) Ivy & mint travel. Be sure you plant them where that won’t be a problem. Rock gardens do well. Large rocks hold the moisture & add interest (with plants growing between the rocks.) Cut worms hate scratchy lava rocks, so I cover the ground with lava rocks (where I plan to plant lilies & iris right into the ground.) The lava rocks hold moisture in the ground & deter cut worms. Iris are hardy plants & in the spring some iris growers sell plants at a local flea market or right out of the fields. That’s a great time to get iris starts. Tomatos do well in planters, (up on a bench, in a sunny area, sheltered from wind.) The key is to learn what works well in your area & to try again the next year (Using what you learned each year to plan the next garden.) Buying plants locally works for me. (They are better acclimatized. Someone who smokes cigarettes & touches tomato plants can transfer tobacco virus to the plants. My brother smoked & he grew 6 foot tomato plants. He wore surgical gloves in the garden to protect his tomatos from tobacco virus.
What about container gardening?
We have several gardening articles already on the web site and ones we will be highlighting over these next couple of weeks which might help you. Did you have a specific question or just need general ideas on container gardening?
Lowes has so many pallets that they just trow away. I ask my local Lowes to hold the pallets and I pick them up. We use them to create vertical gardens. Strawberries grow really well in them. In addition, in our box gardens we use lattice (we use the plastic type because it doesn’t need to be replaced as often) to control weeds between the plants. We place it on top of the soil and plant the plants within the squares that are on the lattice.
Love the gardening part. PLEASE keep it going. I am out side all spring, summer and fall in the gardens. I just got a used small 6’x8′ green house from a neighbor. can’t wait to set it up and use it. What is the best way to set it up and what is the best thing’s to grow for the first try in my new green house? Thank you.
Charolett keep watching because we have a ton of garden stuff I start posting this time of year. Also you can check the boxes at the bottom of the post for more articles and here is Tawra’s separate gardening website that is all gardening things you might like.
I have a garden of mostly native host and nectar plants for butterflies and other pollinators. I also grow tomatoes, herbs and cucumbers. We need bees to pollinate the plants so they produce the fruit and veggies. If you plant native plants next to the garden, this will attract butterflies but also bees to pollinate your vegetable plants. Native Bumblebees pollinate tomato plants, for example. Do an internet search to see what plants are native to your area. For example, native Bee Balm (Monarda) is a pollinator favorite and will also attract hummingbirds. Non native exotic plants and native cultivars will not work, (lilies, hostas, etc.) it must be native plants.
I share seeds every year with my neighbors and I go to native plant sales in my area. The plants cost a lot less than plants at the big box store and help the environment at the same time.
I’ve started ‘gardening’ recently. I have started indoor with seeds of marigold, basil, rosemary and sunflowers. The marigolds have started to bud already. I figured my houseplants are doing quite well so it was time to venture further. I hope to do some container gardening and use the The Grow Box system for heavy vegetables. Do I need to use compost for anything?
If you are using soil for any of it our will need to mix part compost and soil.