Many people want to start a vegetable garden to save money. It’s no wonder, buying produce at the market can cost eight times more than growing your own. There are many other good reasons why you may want to grow some of your own produce in a vegetable garden.
First, you can enjoy better tasting food by growing varieties of vegetables selected for flavor rather than shipping and storage, as so many market vegetables.
Also, many people find that their cooking habits change after growing their own vegetables. They prepare simpler and less expensive meals. Still others make tending the vegetable garden a family activity to help teach children about healthy eating.
Along with these benefits, there are also some challenges to consider before starting a vegetable garden.
Know that gardening requires routine work, including planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting.
In addition, growing vegetables requires a sunny location. Most vegetables require at least six hours of direct sunlight every day, and more sunlight is better.
Upfront costs can be high, especially if you need to buy fencing or gardening tools, or build good growing soil.
You also need to realize that not all gardeners are successful. Some report losing some or all of their crops, particularly in the first two years as they learn how to plant, tend, and harvest their crops.
However, many new gardeners take the leap every year and learn that planting a vegetable garden is a very satisfying outdoor summer activity that can save them money and help them eat healthier.
To help you in your quest to grow vegetables, we’ve compiled the following list of vegetable garden tips and ideas to help you keep the initial cost as low as possible, and to successfully grow all the vegetables you want for your table.
Cheap vegetable gardening ideas
Make a garden plan
Start small or start with container gardening
Especially if you live in the city, container gardening is easy and scalable. Containers can be repurposed from almost anything, including a plastic bag of soil that you use as a planter, as well as milk jugs, two-liter soda bottles, five-gallon plastic buckets and metal bins, and plastic kiddie pools, as well as ceramic and terra cotta flower pots that you can buy for almost nothing at garage sales and thrift stores.
Begin with a few small containers or one large one. Or dig a small garden plot 10 feet by 10 feet (or less), or simply begin by adding add a few vegetables and herbs to your existing landscape.
Begin with easy-to-grow salad greens
Many first time vegetable gardeners start with salad greens and herbs. Plant in succession for a continuous crop, which means plant a few heads at a time, and start a new set every two to three weeks.
For herbs, start with easy to grow and versatile herbs such as parsley, rosemary, and thyme or oregano. To get started, visit these Vegetable, Fruit and Herb Gardening Guides from the National Gardening Association.
Plant seeds directly in the garden
As you gain confidence, you can learn to start seeds indoors for transplanting, saving seeds from some of the crops you grow, and other advanced gardening techniques.
The easiest vegetables to start from seed are beets, carrots, cucumbers, green beans, greens (including kale, spinach, Swiss chard, and lettuces), pumpkin and winter squash, radishes, tomatoes, and zucchini or other summer squashes. Follow planting instructions on the seed packet.
Starting seeds indoors
You can get a jump-start on your spring garden and save money by seeding veggies and flowers indoors. Seeds are a cheap way to create a spring garden as they cost much less than potted seedlings already grown in a nursery. While seed packets are inexpensive, your bill can still quickly add up, so it’s best to think through your choices. Make a list of what vegetables and flowers you most want to grow and then list secondary choices and compare prices.
Find seeds at your local nursery, or shop online for cheap seeds. Check several sites, as prices vary. When choosing between different varieties, select seeds that match your climate zone. For instance, if you live in an area that has short summers, choose varieties with the least number of days from seeding to harvest. Ask your friends and family if they have spare seeds, or if they want to share the cost of seeds with you – two gardens for the price of one!
- Plant seeds in just about any type of container, as long as it has drainage holes. You can use plant pots you saved from a prior season, or plastic containers from the grocery store that held produce items.
- Avoid seed mix-ups by planting each type of seed in a separate container. Fill each container with a light seed-starting mix that you’ve pre-moistened. Gently pat down the soil surface to make it even.
- Sprinkle small seeds on the soil surface and cover with additional seed-starting mix in a layer the same thickness as each seed type. Light seeds require a very thin coating. Push larger seeds, such as squash, cucumber and pumpkin, below the soil surface, to the same depth as the width of the seed and cover with soil.
- Use a pencil to label craft sticks with the name of each plant and the date, and insert in the appropriate container.
- Mist the soil surface with a spray bottle until it is thoroughly moistened. Encourage seed sprouting by creating a humid environment. Cover the pots with a plastic lid, or use plastic wrap.
- Place the containers on a heated seedling mat. Keep them covered and the soil surface moist. Remove the lid or plastic when the seedlings emerge.
- Seedlings must receive adequate lighting. While a bright window may work, putting them under full-spectrum lighting is best. Such lighting can be found in tubes and bulbs. Place the light within two to three inches of the top of the plants.
- Keep the plants moist but not soggy. Too much moisture can lead to fungal pathogens that cause root rot, and too little water causes tender seedlings to quickly perish.
- Once the seedlings have grown two sets of true leaves, they are ready to transplant outdoors in the garden, if the chance of frost has passed. When the weather is still too cold, pot up into containers and keep them indoors under lights. The plant should equal two-thirds of the plant/pot combination.
Grow vegetables your family eats
Start with vegetables that you are already buying and eating. Choosing to grow vegetables your family enjoys will give you the highest return over store-bought produce.
The best times to water your garden are early in the morning or later in the evening. Never water in the middle of the day when evaporation is higher; less water makes its way to your plants.
Add a rain barrel
Capture rain water for use in your garden to save money on your water bill. You can buy one at places like Home Depot or Walmart, but you can also make one for less money. Try these four DIY Rain Barrels from treehugger.com or these PDF instructions to Build Your Own Rain Barrel from Washington State University Extension.
Make your own compost from yard and food waste
You may need to purchase good soil to start your garden, but you should never need to buy compost or fertilizer.
Use inexpensive chicken wire to keep out critters such as deer, raccoons, and rabbits, or household pets and young children.
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