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.
- 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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