Gardening on the Cheap

There are a ton of ways to save a few bucks gardening, especially when you are starting out and bound to make some mistakes. Here’s a few tips that may save you some money!

  1. Hit the curb for tons of great freebies. I’ve gotten a few dozen gorgeous pots of varying sizing that have been set on the curb, tools, buckets, “mostly dead” plants and even THREE fully functional rain barrels. Just be ready to pull over at a moment’s notice and flick on your “park anywhere” lights. Keep a few old towels in the car in case your preciousesssesss are dirty.
  2. Lots of freebie pots don’t have the saucer for under them. You can get gorgeous plates for cents at garage sales and at second hand stores.
  3. Reuse favorite old mugs with broken handles for small planters. Just be sure to put some wood chips in the bottom for a bit of drainage and don’t overwater.
  4. Check out garage sales and second hand stores for old tools. Many of them are older than you, and far sturdier. Wood and metal will outlast plastic by years.
  5. Don’t be afraid of sale plants, especially at the end of season. Just be sure to look them over. Roots hanging out of the drainage holes, soil so dry it is like sand, obvious infestations or rot, leaves so dry they fall off? No. If the plant is green and healthy but just overgrown and rangy, go for it.
  6. Don’t lose your tools in the jungle! For years I’d unearth at least one rusty spade or weeder from the compost in the spring. However, I now keep a roll of neon duct tape in the garage. Every time I get a new tool, I wrap the tape around the handle in a spot where I don’t touch it. It needs a fresh loop once in awhile. But I sure don’t miss them in the grass or plants any more and I buy far fewer replacements.
  7. Get stuff sharpened and repaired. They will last so much longer and be less frustrating to use. Many hardware stores offer sharpening. In Madison,  WI Cutlery will do curbside sharpening while you wait!
  8. Buy in bulk and share with a friend. Lots of the farm storms will sell products in large bags, like plant food, vermiculite, perlite, etc. Divvy one up with a friend and save.
  9. Get free mulch! I LOVE GetChipDrop and have gotten a half dozen drops over the years. Lots of municipalities charge arborists to drop their chips at city mulch heaps. Sign up on the site and they will drop their load of chips at your house – for free (though it is nice to donate at least the cost of gas and a six pack)! The catch? You get the WHOLE truck. No halfsies. You can specify stuff like “no diseases/infested trees, no logs” but beyond that, you don’t get to choose the tree type or anything fancy. A load is around 20 cubic yards. This is the size of a minivan. I go through two a year, doing my paths and around all plants. If you’re not sure you will use a whole pile, ask a few other neighbors. Mine are as excited as me and we all rush toward the pile with our wheelbarrows like demented chip-mad ants.
  10. You can also get mulch in smaller amounts. Some parks allow arborists to dump in the parking lots and you can come with pails and load up. Check local municipality websites and ask around. Other gardeners may have hot tips. Some cities even have community compost you can access, too.
  11. Buy bulk bulbs. Want to fill in a big area? Google for wholesale plant/bulb sellers. Despite the name, lots of these companies don’t just sell to businesses. They just sell large quantities. I like Dutch Bulbs for bags of tulips, daffodils, and other spring bulbs. If you hold out for end of season sales, you can get plenty of bulbs for around 50 cents apiece. Compare that to a bag of 5 for $7 at the hardware store.
  12. Buy bulk seeds. American Meadows sells bags of seeds for far cheaper than a packet. Want a 1/4 lb (or even a pound) of zinnias, poppies, wildflower mixes, etc? Order a bag and split it with a few friends.
  13. Buy seeds on and You can find all sorts of unique plants, cheap seeds (often with free shipping), bulbs, plants, etc. Often these are other gardeners sharing some surplus or else small garden centers that can’t justify their own online shop. Usually the products are terrific (my fav is Seedville USA). However, caveat emptor. There are the occasional scams (hello rainbow rose seeds from China, anyone?) and some sellers aren’t too good at packaging and shipping live plants. But if you want cheap and crazy unique, these are the places to look.
  14. Look for things like growing racks, lights, bizarre containers to use as pots, tools and all sorts of other bits and bobs at places like estate sales, science surplus stores, library/school/university sales, Re-store and my favorite, the UW-SWAP.
  15. Make your own dirt. No, not like that! Start a compost heap. I get 30 or so wheelbarrows of black dirt of out each of mine spring and fall. This would be hundreds of dollars if I had it delivered. At a conservative estimate, this is around 12 garbage bins of trash I save a year. If you’re iffy about just starting a heap on the ground, I always see at least one of those black composters out on the curb in the spring. Just be prepared for it to be partially full.
  16. Hit craiglist. Lots of times people will have stuff like horse manure, mulch, gravel and other things they want gone. If you don’t mind schlepping, you can get all sorts of random stuff this way. Ditto with freecycle. You can also sometimes find people to assist you, such as bringing you a load of dirt or mulch with their trailer, for far less than a landscaping company.
  17. Some stone companies that do headstones and counters have a heap for their cast off bits. My neighbor has some really high class marble stepping stones across her yard that she got from one of the local stone company’s cast-off heap. Going to these places and buying pavers and other stones yourself is also far cheaper than delivery/big box stores. Just remember to have your car weighed BEFORE you load up (ask me how I learned this lesson).
  18. You can use any sort of container to grow plants. They may not be as pretty, but 5 gallon buckets with holes drilled in the bottom, old barrels, plastic tubs and even the bags from potting soil can all make growing containers.
  19. Save old egg cartons to start seeds. You can plant them directly in the ground!
  20. Save your cardboard and use it on garden paths, then cover it with mulch. Weeds will take far longer to grow back and you won’t need as much mulch.
  21. Get free or cheap plants by swapping with friends or neighbors. If you see a cool plant, nicely ask the owner if you can take a seed pod or even a small cutting. Dog owners always have a bag on them, but a Ziploc in your pocket when you are going on a long walk is also a good idea. Most gardeners are more than happy to share.
  22. Keep an eye out for garden sales from community garden clubs, university botany groups, fundraisers for botanical gardens, etc.
  23. Snag any broken terra cotta pots you see. Break them up a bit more to provide a layer of drainage in the bottom of other pots.
  24. Check out your library to see if they have a seed library. Some libraries now let you “check out” packets of seeds to plant. Ideally, you provide some seeds back at the end of the season, but I don’t think it is requisite.
  25. Save seeds from year to year. Obviously, some seeds are easier to collect and dry but plenty are quite easy like marigolds, cone flower, butterfly weed, lupine, etc.
  26. Find ways to make the equivalent of systems and store-bought sets. A cheap shop lamp and grow bulb is far cheaper than a fancy grow light system and does the same thing. Again, check places like Re-store.
  27. Learn to separate and split plants. If you’ve got a nice healthy plant you’d like more of, do a little research and figure out how to remove a chunk and propagate it elsewhere. Lots of plants for the price of one!
  28. Start seeds from store-bought foods. Had a tomato or pepper you really liked? Maybe even an avocado? Save the seed and start them in a pot. No guarantee they will sprout, what with all the handling they’ve been through. But it’s worth a shot.
  29. Check out small, local farmers markets. Often then will have seedlings quite affordably in the spring (more so than at a garden center or hardware store).
  30. The arbor day foundation sells lots of tree and bushes. They tend to be pretty small, but you can’t beat the price!

What do I think is worth paying full price for? A really sturdy wheelbarrow with two or more wheels, a big squishy kneeler and a hori knife. The rest is negotiable.

Here’s some other tips I came up with for cheap-o crafting.