Gardening for (Almost) Nothing

by Pat Veretto


Whether you have a coffee can full of compost or a thousand acres of farmland to garden, you can grow at least some of your own food for much less than you'd pay for it. In some instances, you can for free.

Get a few plants, a little water and some gardening wisdom (the kind found at the local library or through a search engine on the Internet), and you can frugally grow everything from potatoes and carrots to artichokes and asparagus.

Be careful. It can be kind of scary to walk into a garden center and look at the price of bedding plants! Believe me, that's not a frugal plan. For the price of a few of those plants, it seems to be cheaper (and certainly easier) to just buy a few tomatoes and lettuce at the store.

Why do they cost so much?

The grower has invested in all sorts of lighting and containers and heating and watering systems to make the conditions just right to germinate and grow the largest amount of seed possible with the smallest amount of fuss and failure. While it would be impossible to duplicate that sophisticated setup at home without an enormous cost, it is possible to grow our own bedding plants and decide ourselves how much we want to pay for them.

Method One - This method is simple and straightforward, and while it can save money over buying the plants and/or the produce, it doesn't save as much as other methods do. You simply go to the store and buy seed, buy rows or racks of seedling pots, buy soil and/or peat moss and put them all together in a warm spot and water and wait and hope for the best.

Method Two - The second method is similar, except that you use the seed saved from last year. The pots can be saved from last year, or you can use empty food cans or plastic bowls for containers or just about anything else you can scrounge. Be sure to punch drainage holes in the containers and don't use clear glass jars; the light can cause fungi and other nasties to grow in the soil.

Method Three - The third (you knew this was coming, didn't you?) is the super frugal way. Save your own seed or trade with other seed savers for what you want. Make seedling pots from biodegradable newspaper so you won't have to disturb the tiny roots of the seedlings. Use your own compost or trade with someone for some of their compost to start the seedlings. Test the soil by putting a drop of vinegar in a teaspoon or so. If it fizzes, it's too alkaline. Then test it by putting in baking soda mixed with a little water. If it fizzes, it's too acidic.

I have yet another way. If you're not really into starting plants from seeds, but you want to garden within your budget nonetheless, there are ways to get free or almost free plants.

When you buy fresh vegetables over the winter, look for plants that have some of the roots left. Often, these can be put in a dish of water and they'll begin to grow. Keep your eyes open, too, for food that's trying to sprout. Potatoes are the most common of these. (No, you don't need special "seed potatoes.") Save potatoes with "eyes" for spring planting outside. Turnip roots can be replanted indoors and so can celery roots, onion bottoms and carrot tops. Don't cut too much of the vegetable away (carrots excluded). Leave a half inch or so with the root. You can eat the rest.

Carrots that have gone limp in your refrigerator will often grow beautiful tops in a container on a windowsill. You can eat carrot greens fresh or cooked, and you can stick a radish that's looking pretty bad in a container of dirt with plenty of water and it will grow and give you delicious radish seed pods.

At this moment I have, growing on my kitchen windowsill, two firm little white onions almost the size of golf balls. They grew from a soft little onion the size of a penny that was trying to sprout late last fall. It was the kind that usually gets thrown in the garbage.

Why throw away good food? Just because it doesn't look so appetizing now doesn't mean it won't be good eating with the proper conditions. Give it a try. It's fun and it's extremely frugal!

Other possibilities are cabbage and garlic, and don't overlook the seeds we eat. Got a few beans, peas, lentils, popcorn seeds? Why not plant them? The return is amazing.


Pat Veretto is a work-at-home grandmother who has homesteaded, homeschooled and happily lived frugally most of her life. She currently freelances and is the moderator of The Dollar Stretcher Community.

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