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Gardening can be so expensive and labor intensive. There are so many steps to know, supplies to buy, and things to learn about your micro-climate that it can feel very overwhelming on our minds and pocketbooks. You’ll see that it doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive when you read my instructions on how to start your own garden. And because I’m frugal that way, I’m going to show you my special tips and tricks to garden cheaply as well!
One of the areas of starting a garden is buying the plants you want to grow. I do that sometimes, but inexpensive options for what I want aren’t always available, depending on the time of year. I have found it much more profitable to start my own seeds. There is definitely a learning curve to it, but I have a list of the top 5 tools I get for a buck at the dollar store–the list might surprise you! These things really cut down on the cost of growing food for my family and I use them every year. That list is available to you at the bottom of this post, by the way.
But before we even get into talking about starting to plant anything, there are a few concepts and ideas that you need to familiarize yourself with. Let’s get into those.
How to Garden in Your Area
Do you know your planting zone? This is the single most important piece of information on how to start your own garden. It will tell you when to expect your first and last frost dates, what you can plant (and when) in your area, and what won’t grow in your area. It’s valuable information!
First and Last Frost Dates
Your first and last frost dates are important to seed germination, plant growth, and harvesting times. If you plant your seeds too early, they won’t have the right temperature soil to germinate. In the event your plant does grow, it may be stunted because of lack of sunshine or too much heat. Planting too close to your first frost date isn’t a great idea. It may cause your plant to be unable to give you a harvest in time before it freezes.
Find Your Planting Zone
The cool thing is that there is tons of free information on the internet for finding the information you need. To find your planting zone, you can check out the USDA Hardiness Zone Finder. There you can plug in your zip code and find out your zone number. You can also get a planting calendar (includes info on first and last frost dates), find gardening events in your area, and visit their plants database.
How Much Space Do You Have
When you are starting a garden, space matters. It’s not that you need a large space, necessarily, but you need the right space. Also, water availability is a must. Limiting your gardening space and making sure there is water nearby are both helpful. Doing these things will save you time, effort, and money in the long run.
Start Small, It’s a Big Commitment
It’s tempting to think that it’s best to start with a huge garden area. We might think we need to if we are looking to feed our family through gardening. However, it’s much more prudent to master important gardening concepts before we branch out into major garden square footage.
Starting with a 10′ x 10′ garden will give you 100 square feet to work with. A garden this size can fit plenty of food inside of it. It will need less water. It will also cut back on the amount of weeding and tending that you’ll need to do throughout the season.
It’s best to choose a space for your garden that has a nearby water source. Having to run water out to a “dry” area on your property can be time consuming and expensive. You can use hoses to carry the water, but even those can be expensive for long, high quality ones. We sometimes use hoses, and sometimes bury PVC, which is less expensive, but more time consuming.
Consider how much time you would like to spend outside watering, as well. An automatic watering system like drip irrigation is another consideration that can save time, but it is an added expense. For a smaller garden plot, the expense would be less for a drip irrigation kit. An even cheaper option would be building a system from PVC. I’ve done both, and they both work quite well.
What Grows Well in Your Area
You would think that it would be just about checking your planting zone’s list of what grows in your area (I cover this in this post). It’s not quite that easy. It’s not hard, it’s just a matter of trial and error. One shortcut to the trial and error method is to connect with other gardeners where you live and ask them what has grown well in their gardens. Occasionally, there are books that speak directly to the area that you live, but in all honesty, the smaller the area you study, the more accurate the planting recommendations will be.
A few years ago, I started a Facebook group for those living in our little unincorporated area of Riverside County. It has helped tremendously in finding out specific plant varieties that thrive well in the gardens around me. I highly recommend either finding a group like this or starting one for the gardener who is serious about growing food.
What Type of Soil Do You Have?
Most areas seem to have their own type of soil. In the area we live, many properties have granite soil on top, with clay down below it. It’s not conducive at all to growing a garden, or even trees. On the other hand, when we lived about 12 minutes away from here, the soil was completely different, and much better for growing food.
If your soil is like ours, you may opt for raised bed gardens. They can be expensive to set up at first, but the return on the investment will be for years to come. If you have gophers on your property, you may consider lining your garden with hardware cloth. Again, expensive, but it will save your garden plants from sure harm if you use it.
If you are able to plant directly in your ground, you will want to till plenty of compost into your soil. It’s not a bad idea to add something to create structure and allow for easier root growth, like raised bed soil. You won’t need all that much if your soil is already in pretty good shape. (I cover this more in depth in this post.)
What Does Your Family Like to Eat?
It’s best to think through which garden produce would be most useful to your family. Often, new gardeners are so excited to get started and choose commonly grown vegetables. This is a good idea if your family likes to eat those vegetables. Not such a great idea if it doesn’t get used.
Once vegetables have been chosen, think about what you would use them for. Do you plan on preserving your food? Perhaps you might think about growing enough to eat fresh, as well as put up for the rest of the year. Great vegetables for that are carrots, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.
Where will you shop for your seeds? You can purchase non-GMO heirloom seeds at places like Botanical Interests or SeedsNOW! for a decent price. Alternatively, you can shop at the local dollar store to get them as well. (Check out my resource library for my “Top 5 Crazy-Cheap Seed Starting Tools You Can Get from the Dollar Store” cheat sheet. You can get the password at the bottom of this post, so stick around!)
How to Start Your Own Garden
Now, we finally get to the good part–planting! This is by far the most exciting part of starting a garden, in my opinion. It’s the part that brings about that wonderful feeling of anticipation of what the future will hold.
How Will You Get Your Plants?
You have a choice of purchasing plants at the local garden center, which is the obviously easier way to get your garden planted. In late winter and early spring the garden centers are chock full of 6-packs of various easy-to-grow plants that are perfect for the beginning or seasoned gardener. Depending on which veggies you’ve decided to plant, it would be pretty easy to spend at least $30+ on these pre-grown plant starts.
If $30+ doesn’t sit well with your budget, you can opt for starting your plants from seeds. This can be done indoors or outdoors. Starting them indoors means that you will get a jump start on the season. You can plant seeds indoors roughly 4-6 weeks before your last frost date, which can give them a strong start before they are planted in the garden. Starting them outdoors is a great way to avoid losing plant to transplant shock, since their seeds will be planted in their permanent place in the garden.
Starting Seeds Indoors
While starting seeds indoors is cheaper than purchasing plant starts, you will need to spend a little money for the supplies. You will need the following:
- planting medium (choose the best one for your gardening style here)
- heat source
- light source
You can spend a lot of money on these things, or you can do inexpensive versions of them. Since you are reading this post, my guess is that you are looking for the inexpensive version.
First, I want to mention that all of the things above, save for the water, you can purchase at your local garden center. The seeds are $2-3/pack, the planting medium is about $8, the heat source can run up to $25, and the light source, even higher than that at around $30. Depending on how many seed packets you purchase, you can spend up to $80+ just to start and care for your seedlings.
It doesn’t have to be that way, says the queen of garden frugality! Being a one-income family, I always tried to find ways to cut costs of everything that I wanted to do around here. Most places that’s possible, and sometimes it’s not, but I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve that will get you spending much less than $80 to get your garden started!
What Else to Do
The next thing you want to do is to gather the following:
- planting medium – You can purchase a bag sterile seed starting medium at your local garden center for about $7-10. It will last quite a while. You only need this if you decide to plant your seeds in containers. Alternatively, you can purchase peat pellets, which is basically the planting medium inside of some netting. This eliminates the need for a pot. A flat of 72 peat pellets with a tray is around the same price as the bag seed starting medium. Using this eliminates the need for extra trays (at least until after you transplant your seedlings).
- find your heat source – Some seeds, like tomato and pepper seeds for instance, need warmth to germinate. You can use a heating pad that is made for germinating seeds, which will run you around $25. However, heat sources can easily be found around most homes. The top of a refrigerator, a floor heating vent, or even a sunny window will work nicely. If you use a floor vent, elevate your tray a few inches above the vent. This will help the heat distribute to whole bottom of the tray. This will also help prevent the seedlings from drying out too quickly. If you use a sunny window, you will want to move them to a proper lighting source once they sprout.
- build your light source – All germinated seeds need a proper light source. Many use a window, but that doesn’t always work well. The sunlight is just too far away to allow the plants to grow into healthy seedlings. It can work, but your seedlings may end up being weakened in the long run. It’s best to use an indoor grow light of some sort to bring the light as close as possible to your seedlings. This will encourage strong stems, and healthy growth.
- water – This one is easy. Your plants can drink your regular old tap water if that’s what you have to give them. And by the way, they won’t need any fertilizer until about 2 weeks or so after they have sprouted.
You will likely need to transplant your seedlings up at least once before you plant them in the garden. Here’s those instructions. Care for them until they are about 4-6 weeks old, or until your last frost date. At that point you’ll need to harden them off to acclimate them to the outdoors, then you can plant them outside in your garden that you have prepared.
Planting Your Seedlings in the Garden
Once the frost has passed and there is plenty of sunshine, it’s time to plant. When it’s time to plant your seedlings in the garden, you can use these instructions, and for more a few time saving ideas for the busy homesteader, you can check out this post.
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- When to Start Your Spring Seeds Indoors by Zone
- Super Simple Planting Zone Cheat Sheet
- Top 7 Quick Soil Fixes Cheat Sheet
- Top 5 Crazy-Cheap Seed Starting Tools You Can Get from the Dollar Store
- Common Vegetable Garden Plant Info Sheet
- Natural and Organic Pest Control Cheat Sheet