When I was a kid, I thought my parents were so uncool for wanting to plant things outside.
I remember them waking up early on Saturdays and working diligently in the garden… decorating with bricks, planting a variety of colored flowers, laying down mulch… They would work hard until the Texas heat kicked in and the sun mercilessly poured out its scorching rays. My sister and I were routinely called to deliver tall glasses of water, iced tea or lemonade – always with extra ice.
Now that I’m older, have children of my own and am passionately learning more and more about real food, I’ve grown to appreciate the art of having a garden. Except…
I did NOT inherit the green-thumb gene. In fact, I’m pretty sure I got a double dose of the black-thumb instead.
Still, I’ve been wanting, yearning, CRAVING a garden for over a year now. Last year my friends grew zucchini like there’s no tomorrow. My step-mom had four different varieties of tomatoes and my son liberally ate them right off the vine. Even our church flower bed is majestically producing potatoes that were planted there over a decade ago!
My lettuce growing in a cup wasn’t cutting it out anymore. I wanted the real deal. Outside. With dirt.
But first, we had to clear up just a few teeny tiny little issues.
- My soil. Or rather, the lack thereof. The backyard of our rented townhouse is sand and reedy weeds.
- The neighbor’s cats and their community litter box, a.k.a. our backyard.
- Inconsistent sunshine.
- Funds (since we’ll have to create a work-around for issue #1 and a solution to issues #2 & 3.)
My step-mom saw me drool over her tomatoes and understood my growing desire to garden. So for Christmas, she gave me four big round planters, carrots and lettuce seeds, a pair of gloves, a watering can and a gift card to Home Depot for dirt.
Next to the new DSLR camera that Mr. Crumbs bought me, it was my favorite gift.
Now that it’s officially Spring, I’ve put her gift to good use and started my own garden! I’m very excited to share it with you guys, but today’s post isn’t really about my garden. It’s about inspiring you to start your own!
I know that I’m fortunate to have been gifted these things to start my garden, and I know that many of you desire to garden too but feel inhibited with finances. So I’d like to share some ideas with you to help offset the cost of starting a garden, plus how we tackled some of our typical gardening issues above without spending money at all.
Why am I talking about gardening on a frugal real food blog? For 4 main reasons:
- Growing your own food is the only way to know for sure the methods used for growing and harvesting.
- Picking food from your own garden is good for your grocery budget.
- Gardening in therapeutic, and stress can really do a nasty number on your body.
- Gardening is a way you can teach your kids about real food, as well as yourself.
Note: I am not a professional or even experienced gardener, nor do I pretend to be. This year is my first year planting ANYTHING. However, I have a knack for thinking outside the box and getting things done without spending a lot of money. You’re safe following my money tips. Follow my gardening advice at your own risk!
Creating and Growing a Frugal Urban Garden
Issue: What are You Going to Grow?
This should be an easy answer, but it’s really not. Not every climate is ideal for every fruit and vegetable, and not every family likes tomatoes! Some ideas to consider when deciding what you’re going to plant:
1. Your family’s preferences. If your family can’t stand zucchini and hates green beans, then don’t grow them! Only grow what your family will eat and enjoy. This will make the entire gardening process much more fun.
2. Cost if you bought the food. What foods tend to lean toward the expensive side? Which ones are affordable? Try to grow the foods that cost the most at the store or the farmers market. For us, that’s zucchini and tomatoes for sure. Onions are VERY cheap (and they rank low on the Environmental Working Guide’s full list anyway), and organic potatoes aren’t too far out of range either, so I believe that our efforts (and monies) would be better spent on other foods.
3. Growing conditions. Contrary to popular belief, it is not always sunny and warm in California. Yes, we have some temperate weather, but 85F is considered a heat wave and a partly overcast/foggy sky is normal for us. Fruits and vegetables that require full sun and thrive in hot conditions (like bell peppers and watermelon) won’t make it here. Instead, we grow foods that will survive in partial sun and be able to withstand the wind that comes off the ocean.
Another option is to research a plant that shouldn’t survive, and find a species of that plant that will. You can do this research independently, or talk with nurseries in your area. Big hardware stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s are likely to know more about mainstream gardening than that specific to your climate, so take their advice with a heed of caution.
The issue with seeds is that unless you’ve been collecting them to garden, you don’t have any. And you can’t magically create them either. Which means you have to get them in some way.
If you’re going to buy them, find ones that are non-GMO.has a huge list of seed companies that are not tainted with Monsanto’s GMO seeds. In addition to buying from this list, you can also buy 100% certified organic seeds (since the organic certification does not allow any GMO).
Don’t forget! “Unraveling GMO’s” is 20% off through next Monday. Use CRUMBS20 at checkout!
The cost of a package of seeds can range from $1-2, and it might be worth shopping around at different stores to see who has the better deal. If the cost of seed prevents you from gardening, consider splitting the cost with another real foodie. Just like dirt, consider Freecycle, Craigslist or your own city’s Facebook Garage Sale page for people looking to barter, or even giveaway their extras!
Also remember that spending just $1 and growing just one item will have an impact on your budget in the long run. Consider a $1 packet of zucchini seeds. One packet could grow 12 plants (and honestly, that’s on the conservative side) with each plant producing 3-5 zucchini’s each week. If you’re paying 50¢ per vegetable, you’ve saved $17 in just that first week!
If your property is lush wish dark brown dirt and rich with natural occurring nutrients, count yourself lucky – your dirt is free! You can easily plant in the ground or in raised beds using the dirt you already have on hand. You might have to supplement with more soil, but at least the majority of your dirt is readily available.
If your property is less than ideal (i.e. filled with sand, clay, rocks, sticks and random pine cones), you’ve got a little bit more work to do and some things to consider before you start planting.
First, do you want to plant in-ground, in raised beds, hanging planters or boxes lined up against the fence? Your answer will greatly depend on what you’re growing, but know that there IS hope for a garden in your sandy, reedy beach.
Based on where you’re going to grow, determine how much dirt you’ll actually need. The best mix for plants is actually not 100% top soil, so you can mix/match certain materials to get a perfect combination based on the food you’re growing, your environment and how you’re going to grow it. Here’s a tutorial for making your own potting soil, plus tips for enhancing the soil you already have.
Organic soil isn’t always better, but it’s almost always more expensive. Rely on labels instead and if there’s anything from animals (like poultry litter), know that it’s likely from conventionally-raised chickens unless it says “100% organic.”
Think outside the box in terms of where you get your dirt. Traditional stores like Home Depot and Lowes are an option, but so are smaller hardware stores, grocery stores, drug stores and even the dollar store! You can also ask family and/or friends if they have spare dirt or salvage dirt from open land. Don’t forget sites like Freecycle, Craigslist or your own city’s Facebook Garage Sale page. I found someone giving away dirty on Craiglist just yesterday!
Issue: Growing Containers
There are so many different free things you can use to start seeds, it’s crazy. My container of choice is the egg carton, since you can start seeds of several different plants in just one carton and it’s easily portable to the best spot in the house. Just be sure to label nearby so you know which is which (C for carrot, Z for zucchini, etc.). When it’s time to transplant, rip each little cup off – taking care not to break the roots – and plant the whole thing in the garden!
Other container ideas include yogurt containers, reusable bags, small trash cans, kiddie pools, colanders, clam-shell from berries… or a shoe rack that hangs over a door! Even the cardboard from toilet paper can be shaped into a container! All you need is something to hold a little bit of dirt that has a small hole at the bottom for drainage (or is porous) and you’re set! Remember, you can cut a hole if one doesn’t already exist. 😉
Once the seedlings are ready to be transplanted, you can put them into pots, or you can corner off parts of your yard with a raised bed. Things like rocks, cinder blocks and even wood make great “walls” to your bed and allow you to fill just that area with the good dirt the plants need. We have these big pots (below), but I’m considering the cinder block approach for next year in a spot that gets partial sun (which I’m told is good for zucchini?).
Consider re-using materials around the house too, like we did with this hanging planter. The top of the fence is prime territory for the wind, so we took them down and just leaned them against the pots. We’ve already turned the soil and started planting lettuce, something that does well with the small row.
Most of us pay for water in some way, and it’s inevitable that the cost of watering a garden every other day will become add up to something.
Reduce the cost by capturing water from the tub as it’s getting hot and use that water to water your garden. Another option is to route your gutter into a large trash bin and collect rainwater, and then use that. You can also re-use water used to wash your car or drain bathwater or empty water that you used to boil noodles or steam veggies… Anytime you’re about to pour water down the drain, consider setting it aside for the garden instead.
When you do water, be sure to water the roots of the plants well and you won’t have to water as often. I’ve seen some people poke holes in a water bottle and then plant the bottle a few inches away from the plant, but leaving the top of the bottle above the soil. When they water, they water the jug and the water goes out the poked holes, directly feeding the roots instead of just the surface of the plant.
A milk jug with holes poked in the lid can make a great watering can, or just go super simple and use a cup!
This is where our garden first started. On a beach towel, behind a chair, in our living room, in front of the back window. The plants never got full direct sun, but it was the warmest spot in the house. See that plant in the bottom left in the yellow pail? That’s our zucchini after just four weeks being inside the house. Our carrots (in the egg carton) are growing strong and the tomatoes were already starting to bud!
Regardless of your circumstances, how little your yard is or how busy you might be, I promise that you can grow SOMETHING and enjoy the rewards that come from growing your own food. Even if it’s a basil plant in a cup of water in your bathroom, baby steps can make a difference.
Do you have any experience gardening? Do you have any tips to share with us? Please leave them in the comments!!
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