When speaking to people who don’t already grow their own, one of the main factors that comes up is cost. People worry that it will be expensive to get started with the process of growing their own food.
But a vegetable garden or kitchen garden does not need to cost the earth. In fact, you need no money at all for many of the basic elements you need to get started.
So to help new gardeners get started on the road to greater resilience and self-sufficiency – here are some zero cost tips for starting a vegetable garden right now:
Providing the Basics – Getting Started With Zero Cost Growing
First of all, it is important to remember that most of what plants need to grow is already there. Plants need sunshine, nutrients from the air and soil, and water.
While gardening can sometimes seem a complex business, nature already provides a lot of what you need. You won’t need much, other than seeds, time and a little effort, to get growing.
When you start a vegetable garden, what you are doing is essentially manipulating the natural world so it can better meet your needs. But the mistake many gardeners make is forgetting that when you take from nature – you have to give back.
In an organic garden, one of our goals is to make sure nature’s cycles keep on turning, while we still generate the yields we need. If we don’t think about nature’s cycles, and about giving back, we risk creating a garden that thrives for only a brief period of time.
So before you even think about making your vegetable garden and sourcing your seeds, it is important to think about how you will keep your garden healthy and productive. You need to think not just about right now, but also about the long term. The goal with any new growing system should be to create a garden that can continue to thrive, evolve and grow for years to come.
Fortunately, making sure that you provide for the needs of your garden long term need not cost you a thing. So let’s take a look at how you can ensure enduring health and fertility in your garden without necessarily even spending a dime:
Composting is one of the most important processes in an organic garden. It is the method we use to ‘recycle’ good waste and other biodegradable materials and return the nutrients they contain to our growing areas.
Before you do anything else, therefore, it is a great idea to set up your own composting system. It does not matter how large or small a plot you have. You may even have no garden at all. But you can always compost, even if it is only on a very small scale.
By setting up a composting system on your property, you can boost your self-reliance, and build a growing system that you can maintain for free (or for next to nothing) for years to come.
Composting for Free
These tips should help you set up a composting system for free:
- If you want to make a simple cold compost heap or compost bin – you can just make a heap in a corner of your property. But to contain the compost and make things neater, use materials you already have, or which can be sourced for free. There are a number of things you can use to make the structure to contain the compost. For example – make a compost bin from old wood pallets or other scrap wood or scrap fencing. Or use reclaimed barrels or drums for the purpose.
- On a smaller scale, an upcycled 5 gallon bucket can be perfect for composting kitchen scraps. You can use any number of old food containers or used storage bins for this purpose.
- You can even try out vermicomposting, or increase the amount you can compost with a bokashi system.
- Another option for composting (which can kill two birds with one stone) is simply to compost in place. You’ll learn more about composting in place a little later in this article, when we turn our attention to making a new growing area.
Other Fertilizers for Free
Composting is not the only method gardeners can use to return nutrients to the system. There are also other ways to use free resources from your environment to make your own free fertilizers and fertility boosters for your garden.
For example, you can:
- Make leaf mold from garden foliage that drops in fall.
- Use mulches from garden plants (ie comfrey, grass clippings etc..) or from other resources that you may be able to source for free in your area (e.g. seaweed, bracken, straw, leaves etc..).
- Make liquid fertilizers for your garden, such as from comfrey.
Use these methods and make use of all the natural organic material you have at your disposal and you should never have to buy fertilizer for your garden.
Another important thing to think about before you start your vegetable garden is whether you will need to water it manually.
In most locations, it is likely, even when growing outdoors in the open, that you will have to water your vegetable garden for at least part of the year. Even in higher rainfall areas, there can often be dry periods during the spring or summer months.
The first thing that you can do is think about how you can keep around the rainfall that does fall on your property. Water can be stored on your site in:
- the trees and plants themselves.
- the soil.
- ponds, reservoirs and basins.
- rainwater tanks, cisterns or barrels.
The more water you can catch and keep on your property, the better. We can influence how much water we catch and store in our gardens by:
- Choosing the right plants and avoiding bare soil wherever possible.
- Mulching and undertaking earthworks to aid water retention.
- Making sure that there is plenty of organic matter in the soil.
- Digging ponds, basins or reservoirs. (On a small scale, these can be dug by hand. You might also even be able to avoid using pond liners or similar, and keep costs at zero by using natural clay from your own property.)
- Catching rainwater from the roof of your home and any other buildings or structures on site. (Using reclaimed pipes and guttering, and reclaimed vessels such as old barrels or drums to contain the water can allow inventive gardeners to set up such systems for free.)
- Even placing buckets and other containers outdoors when it rains can allow you to gain some water to use on your vegetable garden.
Those on a water meter will immediately understand why catching and storing rainwater is a money-saving idea. But there are plenty of other reasons why catching water is a good thing for your garden, in the short and long term.
Creating Thriving, Biodiverse Systems
One final thing to remember when planning your vegetable garden is that the more diverse your garden is, the more resilient it will be. And the more resilient your garden, the easier it will be to maintain it for zero cost, and organically, over time.
It is important to keep biodiversity of plants and wildlife in mind as you plan and implement your kitchen garden. That can definitely save you money, time and effort moving forwards.
Zero Cost Tips For Sourcing Garden Tools
No matter how low-maintenance a garden you plan to create, you will inevitably need certain tools to implement your plans. You may worry about the cost involved in obtaining these items.
But the good news is, you don’t necessarily have to spend much on tools at all. You may even be able to get everything you need for free.
The first thing to remember when planting a zero cost or low cost vegetable garden is that less is generally more when it comes to tools.
We highly recommend that you employ ‘no dig’ gardening techniques, which mean that there will be hardly any digging, and far less manual work involved. But you will likely still need a spade or shovel to move materials around.
To begin with, I would recommend beginning with this basic tool list for your vegetable garden:
- Spade or shovel.
- Garden fork.
- Small trowel.
- Secateurs or a small pair of garden shears.
- A wheelbarrow (Which you might even be able to make yourself from reclaimed materials.)
While there are plenty of other tools that may come in handy, these are the basics that it will be helpful to have from the beginning. Anything else will just be a bonus, but not strictly necessary. You may not even need all of these.
Sourcing Tools For Free
Unless, of course, you have the skills to make your own garden tools, there is no guarantee that you will be able to source them for free. However, there are a number of avenues you could try before you decide to buy some. You could:
- Ask around to see if family, friends or neighbours have any tools they don’t need lying around.
- Check if there is a community gardening group with a shared tool resource that you could take advantage of.
- Look online on free giveaways on sites like Freecycle, Freegle or on Gumtree. (Remember, even old rusty or broken tools might be suitable for repair.)
- Check local yard sales or thrift stores/ antiques stores which may have old tools that could be put back into active use. If you can find the metal ends of garden tools, these can be affixed easily to new wooden handles – which might even be branches from your garden.
Zero Cost Tips For Making a New Growing Area
So, you are set up to provide the basic essentials for home growing, and have the tools you need. What now?
Well, you might be amazed by how easy it is to make a new growing area, and by how little you might need to spend.
It’s time to start planning and making your new growing area.
Zero Cost Outdoors Growing Areas
If you are planning a new outdoors growing area, the first decision to make will be where to locate your new vegetable patch. Choosing the right spot could potentially make a big difference to cost over time. It might also have a considerable impact on the yield from your new kitchen garden.
Be sure to think about sunshine and shade, rainfall and water, soil type and quality and other environmental factors. You should also be sure to consider where your vegetable garden sits in relation to other elements of your garden – your kitchen door, and your compost heap, for example. The easier your vegetable patch is to access, the easier maintenance will be over time, and the less likely waste is to occur.
You’ll also need to consider whether you will grow in the ground, or create raised beds of some kind. Growing at ground level is generally the cheapest option. You won’t need to think about creating edging for the new beds, or filling them. However, if you choose the ‘lasagna’ method for creating your beds, filling them won’t be an issue. And you may also be able to source raised garden bed edging for free too.
Ground Level Growing
If you are starting with bare, fertile soil, you might not need to ‘create’ your growing area at all. It might be right there ready and waiting for you. But if the area lacks fertility, it might be a good idea to plant a cover crop or green manure to prepare the area before you start growing your veggies.
But if your chosen site is part of a lawn, or overgrown, or on poor quality soil, you will have to do a little work before you begin planting. The good news is that this work will cost nothing, and require nothing other than materials that you can probably already gather for free from around your property and surrounding area.
Lasagna beds are garden beds that are built in much the same way as you would layer a lasagna in your kitchen. But rather than making up layers of pasta sheets, tomato sauce etc. you are building up layers of organic materials.
Creating lasagna beds is a great way to create a new growing area on lawns or elsewhere in your garden. Much as you would build up a traditional compost heap, with layers of brown (carbon rich) and green (nitrogen rich) materials, you can build new areas for a kitchen garden and compost materials not in a separate zone, but in place.
When building a lasagna style garden bed, you will usually begin by laying down cardboard. This will break down over time, but to start with, will help stop grass and weeds from growing through into your new vegetable patch.
Next, you will cover the cardboard with brown and green materials. You can often source these for free.
Brown materials that you might be able to get for free include:
- untreated, shredded card and paper
- brown dead leaves and twigs
- wood chip/ shredded woody material
Green materials you might have access to for free include:
If you do not have access to soil/compost to top your garden bed, you may need to buy a small quantity of good quality peat-free compost to top the bed. But if you set up your own composting system, this should only be a one-time purchase.
Raised beds can be built up using the same method as above. Just continue to add layers of organic matter until you reach the depth required. The materials will sink as they break down over time, but by adding mulches to the surface, you can keep your raised beds topped up over time.
But what about the edges of your raised beds? Well, there are plenty of great natural and upcycled bed edging ideas to consider, and many won’t cost a thing.
Zero Cost Greenhouses/ Under Cover Growing Areas
If you are feeling really ambitious, you could even consider creating a zero cost greenhouse. Or another under-cover growing area for your garden.
You could make a greenhouse using items that might otherwise be thrown away, such as old windows and doors from a demolition or renovation project.
You could make a small recycled window greenhouse.
Or even a larger, walk-in structure.
You can use a range of other free materials too – from plastic bottles, to glass bottles, to reclaimed PVC piping and more.
Check out my article on greenhouse ideas for more inspiration. Many of these ideas can be created using only natural items, or reclaimed items that are available for free and might otherwise be thrown away.
You might not need a greenhouse or polytunnel/ hoophouse. But having an undercover growing area can increase the length of the growing season and make it possible for you to grow a wider range of fruits, vegetables and other plants where you live.
Zero Cost Seed Trays, Pots and Planters
Even if you don’t have a garden, you could start a vegetable garden, right now, inside your home.
A sunny windowsill can be enough to get started with container gardening. No matter where you live, it is possible for you to grow at least a small proportion of your own food.
When it comes to seed trays, pots and planters, you can, again, make use of what is available to you already, rather than going out and buying anything new.
Plastic food packaging – pots, trays and bottles – can have a wide range of uses when it comes to getting started with your vegetable garden.
For example, you can use plastic pots (such as yogurt pots):
- With holes made in the bottoms, as simple plant pots.
- Strung along a wire or string as hanging planters, to make the most of your space.
- Stacked, to make a small vertical planting tower.
You can use plastic trays to:
- Catch the drips beneath your recycled pot containers.
- Make DIY seed trays or (using one as a lid) a makeshift propagator for your seeds.
You can use plastic bottles:
- As lidded propagators for individual plants.
- To make a little self-watering garden.
- For a vertical garden.
And these suggestions are just the beginning…
You can also make seedling pots from old toilet roll tubes. Not only are these a free and widely available resource, they can also be planted along with your seedlings in your new vegetable garden. So they are a great example of one of the biodegradable plant pots you can make at home.
Small cardboard boxes, and recycled paper made into papier maché pots with flour paste, are other interesting (and zero cost) options.
Take a look at Tracey’s experiment testing out seven of the most popular biodegradable seedling pots – including paper rolls, newspaper, citrus peels, eggshells and more.
When it comes to larger containers and planters, there are a range of further zero cost options to consider. There is almost no end to the options you could consider – from the drawers from old wooden furniture, to washing machine drums, to old pots and pans… the list goes on.
By now, you should see just how possible it is to use natural and free resources to create your vegetable garden, no matter how large or small. All that now remains is to source the seeds and plants you need to actually populate your new garden.
Zero Cost Tips For Sourcing Seeds and Plants
There may well be some small expense involved in actually sourcing the seeds and plants you want. To save money, remember that it is always cheaper to use slow solutions and grow from seed. So do this rather than buying in plug plants or fully grown plants for your garden.
But before you head out and buy your seeds, it could be worthwhile trying to source seeds and plants for free.
Making the Most of What You Already Have
Before you make any purchasing decisions, it is always good to do an inventory to see what you already have in your garden and in your home.
First of all – are there any weeds or wild edibles in your garden that you might want to keep/ relocate to your new vegetable bed. You might also find other plants already in your garden that will make good companion plants for your vegetable garden.
Secondly, can you save seeds from your store cupboard to plant? (For example, you might be able to sow dried peas or beans, if these are organic, local, and have not been treated.)
You might also be able to plant, for example, potatoes sourced from a local farmer’s market or local organic supplier. If in doubt, it won’t hurt to give things a go and see what germinates and grows.
Another thing to consider is whether you can save seeds from food you buy to plant. (Organic tomato seeds, or squash or pumpkin seeds, for example.)
You may also be able to regrow vegetables from scraps.
Sourcing Seeds For Free
No doubt, there will still be seeds you want or need. You might be able to source seeds for free from:
- Family, friends or neighbors who already grow their own.
- The wider community/ growing groups/ community gardens in your area.
- Seed saving/ seed swapping organisations close to where you live.
- Online sites where people offer things for free.
Sourcing Cuttings and Plants For Free
It is also worthwhile looking around your neighborhood and asking around to see if anyone you know would be willing to give you plants or plant cuttings to populate your garden.
Home growers often grow too many seedlings and frequently have young plants or cuttings they would be willing to give away.
Garden Knowledge – An Invaluable (and Often Free) Resource
If you are new to gardening, getting to know some more experienced gardeners can often pay dividends – not only in terms of seeds and free plants, but also in terms of their invaluable knowledge and expertise.
Reach out to those you already know. But also consider reaching out online to other gardeners close to where you live, to see how they might be able to share resources and advice to help you set up your new garden. If in doubt, it never hurts to ask.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer, permaculture designer and green living consultant. She is a practical, hands-on gardener, with a background in philosophy: (an MA in English-Philosophy from St Andrews University). She has long had an interest in ecology, gardening and sustainability and is fascinated by how thought can generate action, and ideas can generate positive change.
In 2014, she and her husband moved to their forever home in the country. She graduated from allotment gardening to organically managing 1/3 of an acre of land, including a mature fruit orchard,which she has turned into a productive forest garden. The yield from the garden is increasing year on year – rapidly approaching an annual weight in produce of almost 1 ton.
She has filled the rest of the garden with a polytunnel, a vegetable patch, a herb garden, a wildlife pond, woodland areas and more. Since moving to the property she has also rescued many chickens from factory farms, keeping them for their eggs, and moved much closer to self-sufficiency. She has made many strides in attracting local wildlife and increasing biodiversity on the site.
When she is not gardening, Elizabeth spends a lot of time working remotely on permaculture garden projects around the world. Amongst other things, she has designed private gardens in regions as diverse as Canada, Minnesota, Texas, the Arizona/California desert, and the Dominican Republic, commercial aquaponics schemes, food forests and community gardens in a wide range of global locations.
In addition to designing gardens, Elizabeth also works in a consultancy capacity, offering ongoing support and training for gardeners and growers around the globe. She has created booklets and aided in the design of Food Kits to help gardeners to cool and warm climates to grow their own food, for example. She is undertaking ongoing work for NGO Somalia Dryland Solutions and a number of other non governmental organisations, and works as an environmental consultant for several sustainable companies.