Home Garden Basics Start a Vegetable Garden on the Cheap

Start a Vegetable Garden on the Cheap

by Dawn
Economical gardening

You Can Feed Your Family ~ Without Going Broke

I won’t lie, there are some expenses associated with starting a vegetable garden. But, if you’re careful, you can do it without spending a ton of money.

I’d like to walk you through what you’ll need, and hopefully you’ll see where you’ll need to spend some money, and where it’s easy to save. Let’s get started!

This post contains affiliate links. When you make a purchase through one of these links, I receive a small commission. This does not affect your purchase price.

FENCING

Fencing is something you’ll need to invest in, unless you’re gardening on your roof, which not too many people do.

NOTE: If you garden exclusively in containers on a deck or patio, fencing may not be that much of a priority either, but a traditional garden is going to need a fence.

If you’ve ever gardened or know people who have, you’ll know that rabbits and groundhogs are perfectly happy to burrow under just about anything to get at your veggies, while deer have impressive jumping skills.

Garden fence

Let’s start with deer.  Although they’re champion jumpers, they do have limitations. They can jump either high or far, but not both at the same time. 

They don’t see very well either, so rely more on their sense of smell to tell them whether there are predators nearby.

Now, an 8-foot tall fence is going to cost you a fortune, so probably isn’t in the budget. But here’s the thing, deer don’t want to get into a place where they feel trapped. What this means is that if you have a fairly small garden, a 4-foot fence may be adequate, as the deer won’t want to get trapped inside with no easy way out.

You don’t have to have a tiny garden for this to work. My garden is roughly 20 by 40 feet. Now I know deer are around because I’ve seen extensive damage OUTSIDE the fence.

However, they don’t try to get in. The size of the garden is part of it, but there are other factors that you might be able to take advantage of.

I have gardens and a stone wall along 3 sides of my garden, which definitely discourage the deer. Even if you don’t have that, you can easily add some bushes or a flower garden around the sides of your veggie garden to deter them.

Even better, make sure the bushes are thick and tall enough they can’t see through them. They won’t jump into an area they can’t see not knowing what dangers may lurk there.

Because deer have poor eyesight and rely heavily on their sense of smell to warn them of danger, adding strongly scented objects around your garden can help deter them as well.

Honestly, you can get those predator urine sprays and all that, but I have something simpler for you: Irish Spring soap.  I can barely stand the smell of the stuff, I think it’s horrible, and apparently the deer agree.  The easiest thing to do is to get (or make, you can check out a how-to here) a couple of mesh bags and hang a bar of soap about every 4 feet along your garden.  

NOTE: Although soap can be detrimental to soil and plants, I’ve never had a problem with the little bit that gets into the garden with each rainstorm. 

groundhog

Now, how about rabbits and groundhogs? You’d be amazed how much damage those “cute” little rodents can do in just a few hours! And, as I mentioned, they can dig and tunnel.

However, all is not lost! First, if you’re building a fence, bury the bottom of the fence about 18 inches to 2 feet into the ground.  This will keep all but the most persistent of the beasties out.

Another option is to lay chicken wire horizontally inside the fence under your soil for about 2 to 3 feet. Because tiny rodents have tiny brains, they burrow under the fence and encounter the wire. Instead of continuing to burrow further in, they often just give up, go back the way they came, and bother someone else’s garden. YOU WIN!

GARDEN SOIL

You’ll find that another major expense when you get started is soil.

The most inexpensive way to get soil is to find someone who will deliver a bulk load of topsoil to you. Yes, it’s more work than bags because you’ll be hauling it, but it’s usually 1/2 the cost of bags.

Soil is usually sold by the cubic yard. Don’t go nuts getting the highest quality soil out there, because you’ll be adding other good stuff to it soon.

In case you’re not a math whiz, a cubic yard is 3 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep (or long, depending on how you want to say it).  Basically, it’s a 3 foot cube.  

You certainly don’t want to buy more soil than you need, but how to figure how much you need? 

I would suggest at least 6 inches of soil in your new garden.  This works out to a cubic yard covering 6 feet x 9 feet of garden.  This won’t be exact and precise, but it’s a good place to start.

So a 12 foot x 18 foot garden will require 4 cubic yards (2 cubic yards for the width and 2 cubic yards for the length). 

It’s easiest to draw your garden out in little cubes on a piece of paper. If you draw 6 foot by 9 foot cubes (remember this would equal 1 cubic yard at 6 inches deep), you’ll quickly be able to see how much soil you need.

Compost

Now, you didn’t necessarily buy the most expensive soil, but you need to add compost to it, and this should be the highest quality you can get. At the very least, get organic.

Now, why do you need organic? Here’s the thing. Compost is animal poop. If the animal is eating grass from a field where herbicides have been sprayed, those herbicides can survive intact in the animal’s intestinal tract and end up in the poop.

Then, you put the poop on your garden and the residual herbicide kills your plants. YIKES!

Here’s the thing, though.  Don’t go buying as much compost as you did soil and cover your whole garden.

If you plant in rows, as most people do, just put it in the rows close to the plants. They’re not going to be able to get to the stuff farther away, so don’t waste it there.

You can buy it in bags or bulk, but only place it where your plants are going to grow. This will save you a ton of money.  

You can, of course, get your soil tested so you know exactly what kind of amendments you need, but that’s a subject for another day.

Mulch

You should definitely mulch your garden, but good news! You can do this for cheap or maybe even FREE!

Newspaper makes great mulch. I don’t get the paper, but I have friends who do, and they save their old papers for me. I just lay several layers between and around my plants.

The paper keeps weeds down and conserves water. As a bonus, it breaks down over the course of the summer and helps nourish the soil.

NOTE: Wet newspaper can get slick, so I spread some straw in the paths to keep from slipping. DON’T USE HAY! It has live weed seeds in it. I actually use something called Mulch Master, which is chopped straw and works very well.

CONTAINERS

Ok, let’s pretend you don’t want the expense and work of a fence and all that soil. Is there an alternative? Why, yes, there is! And I even wrote a blog post about it!

You can grow an entire vegetable garden in pots on a patio or even in your driveway.  This means you won’t need a fence (as long as they’re close to your house), and soil and compost needs will be less. 

My blog post on growing a garden in containers is here. Please feel free to check it out for more detailed information.  

STARTING WITH SEEDS VERSUS PLANTS

The cheapest way to start your garden is, of course, with seeds.  If you’re only buying a few tomatoes or peppers, plants make sense. Otherwise, consider starting from seed.

Even if you don’t use all the seeds you buy on any given year, store them somewhere cool and dry, and they’ll be perfectly fine to use for several years.

There are a ton of great seed companies to choose from.  I love High Mowing Organic Seeds and Baker Creek Seeds and purchase most of my seeds from them. 

seedlings

STARTING SEEDS INDOORS VERSUS OUTDOORS

Peas, beans, carrots, radishes, lettuce, and spinach all prefer to be planted where they’re going to be grown. Be sure to check the seed packet for directions on when to plant in your zone.

Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini and winter squash all do better if they’re planted indoors to give them a head start, as they need a long growing season.

So, is seed starting indoors pricey?  Nope, it doesn’t have to be. What about all those seed starting containers and special seed starting mix and lights and, and, and…..

Trust me, you can do it for (almost) free.

Containers

Let’s start with the containers. Does anyone in your family eat yogurt or jello or cottage cheese, anything that comes in little plastic containers?  Save them! Poke a hole in the bottom and they make great seed-starting containers.

How about egg cartons?  The nice thing about the cardboard egg cartons is that they’re biodegradable, so you can plant the seedling, carton and all, and not have to worry about damaging delicate roots.

You’ll need some kind of trays to catch water under your seed starting containers. Old pie plates work great, or head to your local dollar store and see what you can find. Lasagna pans are usually pretty cheap, and you can use both the pans and the lids as trays.

Potting Soil

Now, how about soil? Lots of people use special seed starting mix. Guess what? I don’t! I use regular potting soil and I’ve never had a problem. As a bonus, potting soil has nutrients in it, so you don’t have to feed your seedlings as often.

PRO TIP:  If you use regular potting soil, be sure to always water your seedlings from the bottom to discourage damping off, a fungal disease that will kill your plants.  

Grow Lights

As far as lights, you can get grow lights, but yes, they’re expensive.  If you have a warm, sunny windowsill, you can easily grow seedlings there. You’ll have to turn them every couple of days to keep them from bending towards the light, but that’s it.

If you want a grow light setup, the cheapest way to do it is to repurpose a shelf you already have and suspend some fluorescent lights under them.

You don’t need special grow lights.  The full spectrum fluoresent bulbs from Home Depot work just fine.  They’re not the same as sunlight, but they’re sufficient for the few weeks your seedlings will be indoors.

NOTE:  You may want some more detailed information on indoor seed starting. Be sure to check out my posts on Seed Starting Essentials and Steps for Successful Seed Starting.

PERENNIAL FOOD CROPS

Rhubarb

Have you ever thought about growing perennial food crops?  These are plants you put in the ground once and they grow for years. The upfront investment is higher because they don’t all get started easily from seed, but you only have to buy them once.

Raspberries and blueberries are easy to grow, very productive perennial crops. You’ll need to find a way to net them to keep them from the birds, but they’ll produce lots of juicy berries for many years.

Rhubarb is another wonderful perennial crop.  It’s basically unkillable, and the best thing? Nothing eats it so you don’t have to even use garden space inside a fence, you can put it anywhere! 

I also grow asparagus without a fence.  I’ve been told some domestic dogs acquire a taste for it, but I’ve never had even a nibble from wild critters. And it’s YUMMY!

Another easy, and FUN, perennial food crop is the Egyptian walking onion.  These onions do produce an underground bulb, but they also produce tiny onions at the tips of their leaves. These eventually get heavy enough to fall over, hence how the onions “walk” across your garden. If you’re intrigued, you can get more information here.  

FOOD PRESERVATION

So, you’ve got all these delicious veggies. BUT, maybe you’ve got too many wonderful veggies! What to do?

Well, you can give it away, but then you won’t have the extras to use in the middle of winter when there’s no more garden.

frozen veggies

Freezing is the easiest way to preserve many garden veggies. Even potatoes do well if you cook and mash them, then freeze them. Peas, beans and winter squash all freeze very well.

Winter squash also keeps a long time just as is, but it freezes wonderfully if you cook it a bit first and then cut it into chunks.  

Cucumbers, green peppers and lettuce don’t freeze well. They’re much better eaten raw, or preserved in a different way, mentioned below.

As for cucumbers, pickling is definitely the way to go! Whether you like sweet or dill pickles, there’s a recipe out there for you.

You can also ferment cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, cabbage and many other vegetables.  Cultures for Health is a recognized authority on fermentation and will give you tons of great information on safe fermenting practices.

Have you ever tried canning?  I love it because the food is there, all ready to be heated up, when I decide at 4:30 what I’m making to get dinner on the table at 5!

canned veggies

Please remember that if you’re canning, you MUST follow safe canning guidelines.  Ball is the recognized authority on this, so please listen to them. 

Following safe canning guidelines and using a pressure canner when needed makes canning a great alternative for food preservation.

PS- You may have heard horror stories about pressure canners blowing up in the past.  Today’s pressure canners are very safe to use. 

This is the one I’ve been using for years and I love it!  I wish it were a bit bigger so I could do more at once, but other than that, it’s great, and very easy to use.

I can close to a hundred jars of food each year, from green beans to salsa to spaghetti sauce, peaches to jams to pie filling.  YUM!!!! What could be better than opening a jar of summer fresh peaches during a January snowstorm?

I hope I’ve given you some ideas on how to start your garden without spending a fortune, and that you’re inspired to give it a try.

This post has been shared on the Farm Fresh Tuesdays blog hop. Please check out all the great frugal living, homesteading, and gardening bloggers there!

Please be sure to pin one of the below images to your Gardening board for later reference. As always, thanks for reading, smile, and have a crazy organic day!

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5 comments

Nikki Gwin 03/07/2020 - 11:16 am

I miss the days where I could just go get cow patties from Daddy’s and make manure tea for my plants. Those were the days! I actually do not have a fence and haven’t had the need for one. Guess I am lucky in that respect.
🙂

Reply
Dawn 03/10/2020 - 7:57 pm

Wow! No fence? My grandma gardened in Pennsylvania without a fence too. I just don’t get it!

Reply
sissy 02/08/2020 - 1:53 pm

Like you mentioned, the cost of fencing can be crazy. I’m going to attempt to fence mine with pallets this spring.

Reply
Dawn 02/11/2020 - 8:44 am

That’s a good idea! Let me know how it goes.

Reply
Linda Carlson 02/07/2020 - 11:01 am

Lots of good ideas here.. We were lucky when we moved here that the place was completely fenced with chain link.. Some neighbors have a few buffalo. The manure has been a great mix into our growing medium..

Reply

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