5 Ways to Create an Organic Garden on the Cheap

Going organic means you save money on gardening costs as well as on your food budget.

Emily Main April 24, 2009

Go ahead, dig in: Organic gardening takes elbow grease, but needn't cost an arm and a leg.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Fresh food free of toxic chemicals, healthy soil that's better able to resist droughts and floods, tasty veggies that are as close as your own backyard...these are all good reasons to start your own organic garden. Here's another one: thanks to the reduced up-front costs of growing organic, organic gardening is the inexpensive way to grow. You’re relying on resources you have around your yard, rather than buying expensive bottles of chemicals.

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Here are five easy ways to start an organic garden on a budget:

1. Forgo the beds. If the cost of supplies needed to build raised beds give you pause, don't worry. You don’t even need them. Organic Gardeningmagazine recommends that cost-conscious gardeners mound up soil and plant vegetables among the flowers and landscape plants you’re already got growing. Parsley makes a beautiful border plant; basil comes in ruffled forms and in dark-leaf forms that are wonderful mixed with flowers and yield lots of leaves for making pesto. And since you won’t be dousing your veggies in toxic pesticides, you don’t have to worry about the chemicals doing collateral damage to other plants.

2. Find free mulch. A bag of mulch may cost only $3, but that provides just enough for 2 square feet. A better idea is to scavenge your recycling bin and yard waste for free alternatives that can cover your entire garden. Try laying down sheets of newspaper directly on top of the soil or using grass clippings as mulch. Both add nutrients, help water stay in the soil, and suppress weed growth (so you won’t have to shell out for chemical weed killers). You can cover your repurposed mulch with straw, perhaps from a decorative bale you saved from last Halloween or Thanksgiving. The decaying straw will feed the soil. If you don’t have any leftover straw, a single bale usually costs about $5 and will cover much more than 2 square feet. See Why-And How-To Mulch the Heck Out of Your Garden for the basic principles of mulch use.

3. Be fruitful and multiply. Some plants have higher yields—and therefore greater cost benefits—than others. A tomato plant, for instance, can cost $1.50 and will yield up to 12 pounds of tomatoes. Considering the costs of heirloom tomatoes at a local market in summer, that’s a savings of $60 right there. Zucchini is another money save. Homegrown greens save you cash as well as provide added nutrition. Greens lose many of their nutrients in the time they are shipped or as they sit on store shelves. So plant lettuce and arugula seeds and you can harvest fresh greens into midsummer.”

4. Make your own pest sprays. Herbs are natural pest deterrents, so if you start a simple herb garden, you’ve already got a built-in money saver. But for a persistent pest problem, there’s no need to spend money on hazardous chemical sprays, which may contain nerve-damaging synthetic chemicals called pyrethrins. You can make your own spray by mixing some hot, soapy water with chopped up hot pepper and garlic. Other ways to stop pests without spending much: Keep some bowls of water in the garden to attract insect-eating birds and frogs; plant pollen and nectar plants such as nasturtium or alyssum to attract good bugs (they eat the bad bugs); plant vegetables in spots where they get the correct amount of light, spacing, and moisture (so they’ll be healthy enough to resist pests).

5. Reuse, reuse, reuse. Organic gardening is all about replenishing resources, rather than consuming them, whenever possible. The best example of this may be the compost pile, a mainstay of any organic garden—it turns yard waste and kitchen scraps into a soil conditioner, mulch, potting mix ingredient, and fertilizer. Get into the organic mindset and you’ll find stuff that you can use in your garden almost everywhere you look: An old bucket or kiddie pool can make a great container garden. Serving spoons, forks, and other flatware you no longer use could make excellent tools for working a small garden. Fallen branches or twigs can be used for trellises and tomato supports.

Find everything you need to know about organic gardening, from expert advice to beginner tips, at OrganicGardening.com.