Gardening Can Be Expensive. But Low Cost Gardening is Not Only Possible, It’s Also Easy to Undertake If You Follow These Simple Rules. Low Cost Gardening Is Very Satisfying And I Often Find The Gardens & Environment Benefit From The Extra Thought That Goes Into Them.
Having spent years as a commercial grower I love Low Cost Gardening and my mind is very much focused on quality and being cost-effective. There are times when we need to spend money on our gardens, it can be money well spent. But often we can achieve better results by spending less. That might sound strange but it’s true.
For example, when planting trees, it can be tempting to buy bigger trees rather than smaller ones. But smaller trees are not only lower cost, they also tend to establish far quicker and can quickly outgrow the “bigger” trees that struggle to establish. This applies to both decorative trees and fruit trees bought for their ability to provide us with fruit.
Another tree trick is to buy bare-root trees. Bare root trees planted in autumn or early winter have months to settle in and grow roots below ground before leafing up and romping away. Bare root trees are also much cheaper to buy. Pot grown trees and shrubs often struggle to grow out off their rootball and growth is then restricted for a season or more.
Low Cost Gardening Basics
I often see gardeners starting to plan their gardening with a list that includes all the equipment they think they will need. It tends to be a huge list. And the first job they do after clearing the weeds in their new garden is to build raised beds. Both of these are likely to cost a lot of money.
So first think about what you really need. And this comes down largely to the gardening techniques you intend to employ and what you intended to grow. For example traditional gardening will mean digging the soil so a fork and or spade will be needed. And maybe a rotavator. At this stage you are beginning to think about spending big money unless you can buy second hand and at low cost.
So check out Facebook Marketplace or Freecycle and see what’s available. Or, if you have an allotment, check if anyone wants to sell or share equipment.
And if you want raised beds think seriously about how much you need to spend on timber or whatever you need to build the sides. Can you get it free? And once built you are going to have to fill them with soil or compost.
Calculate the volume of your beds BEFORE building them. Can you afford to fill them with compost? What are the beds going to cost? Is this an economic way to garden? Or will you be growing the most expensive veg in the UK?
When I had my market garden we used to smile when people told us they didn’t need to buy tomatoes any longer and they had a new greenhouse and could grow free toms. We knew they had often spent four figures on their greenhouse and the few plants they grew were going to produce extremely expensive fruit!
But of course we don’t only garden to save money. It’s about flavour, exercise, self sufficiency and enjoyment. The thing is none of these mean we have to spend a lot of money.
Low Cost Gardening Techniques
Based on my experience one of the lowest cost gardening methods is No Dig. You’ll need compost, a wheelbarrow, some cardboard and a fork to spread the compost … plus a dibber to plant your crops. You’ll also need to grow the young plants, but you can use recycled fruit trays for this or even toilet roll centres (though I don’t like using cardboard centres as they can break down before planting).
None of the above need be expensive. For example a dibber is just a pointed stick! You can make one of those from a piece of scrap timber or even a piece of branch. And you can get wheelbarrows etc on Freecycle. Farmyard manure (FYM) is also often available at very low cost. Don’t forget FYM includes thing such as stable manure. This is often free as its a problem for horse owners who have problems getting rid off it. By taking it from them you are doing them a favour.
One bonus of going No Dig is the fact that you don’t need a rotavator. That can save you £400-600 if you were considering buying new. Even second hand ones are expensive. Anything decent is going to cost three figures. If it’s cheaper its probably problematic. Anything you save by not buying a rotavator can be spent on more essential items such as seed.
Thats some of the basics of Low Cost Gardening. Below I go into more specific ways to save money but still get good healthy and nutritious crops from your fruit and veg.
Recycle To Improve Ventilation
Greenhouses and polytunnels can quickly overheat. So why not use recycled materials and build a mesh door?
This door is a basic wooden frame and plastic mesh. It keeps large birds out, allows pollinators in and the heat to escape.
The cost? Zero.
Low Cost Equipment
Pots, seed trays, watering cans etc all cost money. But recycled items can often be used instead.
For example you could take a plastic drinks bottle, drill a few small holes in the cap and you have a zero cost moment watering can ideal for seeds and seedlings.
And seed trays can be replaced by recycled fruit trays. I often use recycled grape trays for bigger plants and recycle the trays chicken comes in as seed trays. Just drill a few drainage holes in the bottom of them for drainage.
Low Cost Compost
Compost costs can soon add up. But rather than buy expensive seed compost I make my own. I start with homemade compost from my compost bin or a bag of bought Farm Yard Manure and mix it with soil from the garden.
To ensure you have good weed free compost make some loam and sterile it. Take some turf and create a heap. Allow the grass to rot down for a few months. Sieve it into a microwavable container and place it in the microwave. Heat to around 70C and leave to cool. The loam needs to be moist and not too wet and it needs to heat all the way through. But this produces wonderful material that can be mixed approx 50:50 with the farm yard manure or compost. It is moisture retentive whilst being free draining and ideal fro small seeds in trays or modules.
This is such. basic idea I initially forgot to add it to this post. Then Dave from Normandy reminded me so here it is.
Just barter with friends and neighbours. For example I give my neighbours leeks .. I always have huge numbers. In return they give me their grass mowings .. which I use to keep weeds down and feed my crops, including the leeks.
Some people barter plants. Just barter what you have.
If you really want a rotavator or even a wheelbarrow but rarely use it, why not share with a neighbour or friend. Lets face it you are unlikely to both want them at exactly the same time.
Here’s another one from Dave. Take cuttings of any plants you have. Then use them yourself or barter them.
I take cuttings of my Perennial Kales, strawberries and other plants. It’s quick and simple.
Last year I put out a plea to my Facebook Group members for penstemon cuttings. This year I’ve had dozens of different varieties to plant in my garden.
How to Make a Low Cost Potting Bench
A potting bench/tray/table is ideal for when you need to sow seeds or pot on existing plants. I’ve just looked on Amazon and found small ones at around £10 with the most expensive being a potting table at £120!
None of these would fit my greenhouse so I decided to make one that exactly fitted my staging and gave me room for two large seed trays. The cost was zero, zilch, nada!
I recycled some fascia boards that were left over when we had our extension built last summer. The boards are easy to cut and are wipe clean “plastic”type material, so hygienic and easy to keep clean.
I built this potting tray in under 15 minutes. It uses plain fascia boards and a piece of wide soffit board. It measures 57.5cm by 59cm and is a perfect fit for what I need.
You can probably find left over fascia and soffits in a skip where builders are working and just need to ask if it’s OK to recycle them. Or if you offer them the price of a few drinks the builder might even save and deliver some to you.
Alternatively they are available to buy at builders merchants etc .. but are not cheap. And it’s far better to recycle what’s going to landfill anyway.
I’ve fixed my tray together using short screws. It works a treat.
How to Make Homemade Peat-Free Compost
I know people are struggling to find good peat free compost. So here’s my solution.
I buy, or get given, well rotted farmyard manure (horse manure is just as good) and mix it with sterilised sieved topsoil / loam.
The soil is sterilised when damp in a microwave and taken up to around 170F / 70C. The mix ratio is assessed by eye to get a friable mix that absorbs water but drains freely.
The photo shows how well various seed mixes, including fine seed, cope with it. Germination and growth is superb.
Recycling Single Use Plastic Items In Our Gardens & Allotments
Despite efforts to reduce the amount of single use plastic it seems to grow each year. As gardeners we can recycle so many single use plastic products and ensure it’s used multiple times.
For example these grape punnets make excellent seed trays or flower pots. And to make life even easier they already have drainage holes in them. If that isn’t a firm indication that they deserve to be recycled I don’t know what is.
Upturn a grape punnet and a mini greenhouse is created. Often it’s about how imaginative we are and there are dozens of other plastic containers that could be recycled.
Some people also recycle paper and cardboard products to grow seeds in. Personally I struggle with them when they get too wet and start to break down, but many people swear by them and I can’t argue with that.
How To Harvest Green Gold & Ensure Low Cost Gardening
If you’ve read that to grow wild flowers its best to remove the mown grass you’ll know its because the grass is “nutrient rich” and wild flowers do best with a low nutrient status soil. I go in
to the nutrient value of grass in the next section, but here I want to focus on another valuable aspect of mown grass.
I call grass mowings / clippings green gold not only because you can use it to feed the soil or make compost but because you can use it to suppress weeds.
In the image I’ve applied freshly mown grass to a flower bed where it will firstly suppress the weeds and then, as it breaks down over winter it will feed the soil.
To make it easier to suppress the weeds I’ve firstly laid thick cardboard over the weeds, cutting out small holes fro desired plants to poke through. Then I’ve covered the cardboard in a thick layer of grass. Over the next few days the grass will dry out and shrivel up a bit. Once it’s turned brown I might top it up a bit with more mown grass.
Though the example in the photo is a flower bed, this technique works perfectly well on veg beds as well.
What Gardening Sceptics Say
Some people will joint out the folly of the technique saying it encourages weeds. They say I’m just adding weed seeds from my lawn.
They clearly don’t understand the technique as when a lawn is frequently cut there are no weed seeds. If I leave a lawn long enough to go past the weed flowering stage I wouldn’t add those mowings. But the way its done here there’s no problem.
They’ll also say the herbicides I use on the lawn will go into the soil. Wrong again. I don’t use herbicides on my lawn.
Some also point out that as the grass rots down it robs the soil of nitrogen and my plants will suffer. Thats a great theory but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Look at a wood or forest. Each autumn the trees drop their leaves and the woodland floor is covered in a thick layer off leaves that needs nitrogen to help them rot.
Now think about spring time in the woods. The floor is full of primroses, foxgloves and hundreds of other plants. The “lack of nitrogen” hasn’t stopped them growing!
That’s because this is a natural process that has been happening for millennium. Decomposing material does need nitrogen to decompose quickly, but then it releases nitrogen as the cycle continues. Its a continually process of give and take.
In fact there’s more give than take. Because at the end of the process the soil is richer than at the start. The nitrogen was only borrowed for a short while and was given back, plus there’s more potash, phosphate and trace elements than there was before the grass was added. .
The Nutrient Value of Grass Clippings
People often put their mown grass in their green bin which is a huge waste.
The NPK of grass clippings is 4 – 0.5 – 2. They are green gold and can be used to mulch beds, be composted etc. Putting them in the council recycling is like throwing money down a drain.
And if you don’t believe me, consider this. Why are we advised to remove the grass clippings from wild flower meadows?
Don’t Replace Compost Every Year: This Is A Low Cost Gardening Gem
Newbies often wonder if compost needs replacing each year. And sadly they are often advised tha tit should be thrown away as it is full of disease, has no feed left in it etc.
That is very poor advice!
Professional growers and farmers don’t do this. Growers might repot a large plant and add more compost to a big pot but they don’t throw the old compost away. And they don’t dig out the greenhouse borders and replace that compost. And farmers don’t replace the soil in their fields each year.
The truth is compost is a natural material and lasts ages.
I can however understand why people might be confused with this. When compost comes out of the bag it is moist, friable and smells good. Once it’s had a season growing plants it tends to look drained of goodness. Often it is dried out (or soaking wet), without the free flowing characteristics it had when “new”. It can look like a “lump” of lifeless withered compost. But the truth is there is still a lot of goodness in it. But it needs rejuvenating.
Many purchased composts have a trace of wetting agent added to them when processed. It acts similar to washing up liquid and allows water to penetrate the compost, wetting every fibre. But once dried out compost can be very difficult to re-wet. But that doesn’t mean it’s dead.
What I tend to at the end of the season, do once plants are harvested from my containers is to loosen the compost with my fingers or a hand fork. Then sit the container in water for a few hours .. often up to a day .. for it to re-wet properly.
To re-use I then let it drain, add a little organic fertiliser to replenish that that has been used up, and top up with some fresh compost.
It’s not that there isn’t any goodness in the compost, there is. It’s that it is locked up in the organic matter and only released as the organic matter breaks down.
Pest & Disease Problems
As for disease and pest problems they clearly need consideration. If you’ve had no discernible problems there’s not likely to be anything to carry over to the next crop, so rotating the cropping isn’t an issue. If there has been disease issues then it makes sense to grow a different crop next time. Something from another plant family of that doesn’t suffer the same issues. Ditto pests.
Having said that, most pests ands diseases don’t last that long in compost. They only carry over if there are plants to support them. That’s true of late blight and many other diseases. You might get blight during the next season but it is far more likely to come from the airborne spores coming in and growing when conditions suit them.
The exception would be diseases such as sclerotinia. Sclerotinia fungus produce a fruiting body, a sclerotia, that can last a long time soils and composts. I’ve rarely seen sclerotinia as I’ve always been scrupulous over plant hygiene but it can surface in cold damp conditions. If you see it remove the plant, anything that has fallen to the soil and a few inches of soil. This is one of the only times when I suggest you burn the material. Its the one time I don’t compost … and I happily compost plants infected with late blight!
The above compost rejuvenation technique can be adapted for use in beds, borders etc. It doesn’t just apply to containers or pots.
Low-Cost Gardening Equipment
The compost bin is central to many successful gardens. It recycles our waste, stops garden waste going to landfill and gives great satisfaction to many gardeners.
Better still, composting is a natural process and makes our gardes more sustainable. and compost bins are easy to construct .. indeed at its basic level, it needs no equipment, just a heap of organic matter left to rot in a corner of the garden.
But of course, unless you have a large garden, with a hidden corner to heap up your compost, most of us want something that is presentable if not beautiful. Four pallets tied together with string or wire will make a workable bin, but still doesn’t look great in many cases.
In my case, I use a large plastic compost bin that sits in the corner of the veg patch, under my cherry tree which benefits from the seepage of plant juices! It’s well made, measures one metre x one metre at the base and is one and a half metres high. It was quite low cost and subsidised by my local council many years ago when I lived in Warwickshire. They wanted to limit green waste going to landfill and my bins have dealt with many tons of garden waste.
Smaller Compost Bins
Smaller bins exist, often barrel shaped with a top lid and removal port at the base. Costs are around £25+ each unless you buy the tumbling barrel type of bin which will set you back around £130. In my book that’s a lot of money to undertake a natural process!
Then there’s the Hotbox Composters that can retail at as much as £229.99 PLUS delivery (smaller and cheaper ones are available).
Retailers claim that Hotbox composters offer a wide range of benefits.
Apparently, they reach 40-60°C which makes for fast and effective composting. So do well-made compost heaps.
They also claim to produce compost quicker. In 30-90 days is the claim. I’ve seen no evidence of the 30 day claim but know a well made compost heap can match the 90 day claim.
They also claim they are cleaner and simpler. I’ve never found putting weeds and other garden waste particularity difficult to put in a compost bin. It’s very simple to do.
The next claim is that they compost all food and garden waste. So will any compost bin system if you put it into the bin. But beware, rats can chew their way into any type of bin, including plastic and metal bins.
Smell is claimed to be another problem that hotboxes overcome. I’m not sure why smell is a problem! My compost has no discernable smell unless you put your nose six inches from the compost.
Retailers also claim that hotbins only require only 2.5-5 Kg of waste per week to maintain temperature. A well insulted or well-maintained compost heap can match these claims.
Finally, retailers say the bins are compact and take up little space. I think what they really mean is that they are small and don’t take much waste. The comment I hear from gardeners is that, though they work reasonably fast, they soon fill up.
As you see I’m not a great fan of hotbox composters. Sure, they work, and I can see the attraction. But at the end of the day, they are just well-insulted plastic bins that cost a lot of money. Composting is a natural process that is impossible to stop. It’s possible to buy well-priced bins without spending a fortune. I prefer my low-cost gardening solution.
Growing Seeds in Modules
Starting seedlings off in modules is an established way to get seedlings germinated in the best conditions. Garden soil is often cold and wet early in the year whilst modules mean the seeds can be germinated in a propagator, on the kitchen windowsill or similar. Germination rates are then much higher and, once the seeds are hardened off, they can be transferred outside when conditions dictate.
The question is what sort of modules to use.
Some people recycle toilet roll inners and that sort of works but are cumbersome and the tube tends to break down if you keep the seeds in them too long. That’s not great if planting out is delayed.
Pots can be used as can seed trays. Both have their merits, depending on what you are growing in them and how quickly you can plant them out. For example, commercially I used to grow lettuce seedlings in seed trays and transplant them into the greenhouse soil at the cotyledon stage. Its a meticulous process but saved us a lot of money at certain times of year, when we had enough time to do it. We would get 800-1000 seedlings in a thickly sown tray and the losses in the greenhouse were usually zero.
If we lost 0.001% it was a bad year! Celery seedlings were also grown like this then transplanted to compost blocks. The blocks were made through a blocking machine and looked a bit like a chocolate bar. One seedling was placed in each square and when we went to plant we just snapped that plant from the bar!
Wafer Thin Plastic Modules
Garden centres sell plastic modules but they tend to be wafer-thin and single-use. That makes them relatively expensive.
Much better are the injection moulded plastic modules. They are made from recycled polypropylene and last 15-20 years of multiple uses per year. The costs are only slightly more expensive than the single-use types sp this makes them incredibly lower cost per use.
There will be more Low Cost Gardening techniques added soon. In the meantime why not check out the Gardening Dictionary for any terms that are new to you.
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