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Cheap and Easy gardening…for the rest of us

You have a black thumb but you want a garden? Or maybe you have tried to garden here and there but got frustrated with the work and the cost? Well I think I can help you out. I used to kill everything I touched or even shared a residence with until I bit the bullet, gave it a legitimate effort, and I have been a full fledged garden junkie ever since.

My first experience was with a tomato plant. I heard something on the radio one day on all the crazy stuff they have to spray on tomatoes to get them “pretty and ripe” for the grocery store (which were never made to be shipped).

 Not really wanting random chemicals on my tomatoes, I figured I would give this gardening thing a shot. My husband and I had just gotten married, we didn’t have kids yet and this tomato plant became my child. I tended to it’s every whim and not surprisingly had a great crop that year. Over the years as my garden and my family have both grown I have realized that tomatoes (and a million other plants) can do quite well without all the fuss. With children (besides plants), a job, and just life, I don’t have hours to dote on my plants anymore and I am assuming you don’t either.  Thus began my cheap and easy garden.

First things first: WATER

The number one killer of outdoor plants is lack of water (the number one killer of indoor plants is too much water…but we’ll stick to outdoor pants here).  I suggest a drip irrigation system.  It is MUCH cheaper to install and uses way less water than a sprinkler irrigation system.  It is also very easy to do yourself…no really it is.  Step by step instructions here.    Most garden centers sell everything you need. 

I have my drip irrigation on a $30 timer that automatically waters my  garden everyday and a hose on the other end for watering plants not on the drip.  A hose splitter like this is less than $5.

This makes watering much less of a chore and gives my veggies the water they will need EVERYDAY during the heat of the summer. 

Established trees and shrubs do not need to be watered so often.  But the first summer you plant anything it will need to be watered at least every other day (except when it rains) to become established….this is why irrigation is helpful.  Cooler climates may not need quite so much water, the best way to tell is stick your finger about an inch down in the soil, if it is dry water it. 

If a drip irrigation is for some reason not possible, make life easier for yourself and plant your garden on a regular route you walk everyday.  The walk to the car, the walk to the mailbox etc.  Above all, CLOSE TO THE HOSE! 

Know your zone

A lot about gardening depends on where you live.  This map will let you know your USDA hardiness zone.  Very handy information on determining planting dates and what will grow best in your area. 

Pick a spot

When growing herbs and veggies you will need a full day of sun (at least 6-8 hours).  Making sure you get enough sun and you have access to a water source you may also want to consider how close it is to the kitchen.  Not a necessity but if you have the option a veggie garden close to the kitchen is a nice plus. 

Get the soil ready

Wherever you choose to plant your garden chances are right now it is currently growing grass (and or weeds).  If you have a tiller, a friend with a tiller, or a budget to rent one that is the ideal way to go…but for the “rest of us”  Here is a good solution:

First get your irrigation laid, then lay several layers (about 10) of damp newspaper, or cardboard over the surface of your garden.  This is a great chance to reuse/recycle your waste.  If you are anxious to get started and don’t have that much newspaper or cardboard on hand you can ask some friends for theirs,  or contact the local newspaper as they often have end rolls of paper without print that they discard with LOTS of paper left.  FYI cardboard from cereal and cracker boxes work great too. 

Make sure you overlap every piece because grass is RELENTLESS!   Then cover it all with mulch.  I use pine straw since I can rake it up for free but crushed leaves, bark, or cedar mulch is all great too.  When you are ready to plant just tear a hole in the paper/cardboard, plant the plant or seed and viola!

Believe it or not your plants can grow without ever having their leaves touched by water or fertilizer…its all about the dirt. Imagine the roots as the mouth of the plant. Everything it needs to eat and drink will be obtained underground.

Making the dirt “yummy” for your plants is all about what you put in the dirt. Being that I like cheap and or free, I use compost. I collect all my kitchen scraps (most anything but meat or dairy) in an empty coffee container on my countertop. But any container will do the job.
When it gets full, I take it outside to my compost container. A.K.A a trash can with holes drilled in the sides and bottom. I also add a shredded newspaper about once a week. I put the lid on and roll it around the yard a few times a week and there you have my $12 compost container that works way better than anything else I have ever tried. Instructional video here.

Compost has all the nutrients your plants could need but if you don’t think you are up making compost there are several commercial fertilizers that are great too.

Organic or Synthetic fertilizer?

I bet I don’t need to tell you what approach i use, but let me tell you why:

According to Paul James, my favorite expert gardener, synthetic fertilizers are like a plant drug. They give plants a quick high, produce abnormal behavior (growth), and are horrible for their health. They add salts to the soil which hinders water absorption AND microbial activity (earth worms and other helpful creatures). Not to mention all those chemicals are absorbed into the fruit or vegetable you will soon be eating.

For a backyard garden organic is cheapest and healthiest option for everyone involved. When I don’t have enough compost I buy Espoma fertilizer or chicken manure. A grab a few handfuls and throw it toward the base of the plant and water well.

Some other free organic fertilizers:

Coffee grounds
 when raking your yard in the fall dump those leaves in your garden!
Animal waste: if you have access to it, animals such as horses, cows, chickens, sheep, and even bats have the best fertilizer in the form of…well poop!

When your soil is well watered and fertilized your plants can’t help but flourish!
Even the blackest of thumbs can grow a good crop. 

Happy gardening!

Share your thoughts what are some of your cheap and easy gardening tricks?


Part of the Green Resource at Sorta Crunchy, the Greenbacks girl, Life renewed, and a Delightful home


Category: Frugal, Simple living
  • Lahawkins251 says:

    Awesome advice. I started a compost pile with large fencing I formed in a circle. I layered the kitchen scraps and browns. Once a month I open it up and turn it. Fast and cheap. I may try the large garbage container also. I hear ground rock dust is great as a fertilizer also, I am going to try it this year.

    March 25, 2012 at 11:56 pm

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