How To Grow Organically On A Budget

Think you can't eat wholesome food on the cheap? This couple turned $75 into 6 months of fresh vegetables—and they'll show you how.

January 6, 2016
Last year, my partner and I became new homeowners, buying a house and a few acres of farmland in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. We had ambition and creativity, but since we were also transitioning from two paychecks to one, cash was tight. So in early February, we set a goal of spending no more than $75 to grow, buy, or barter an entire season of fresh, local, organic vegetables. Could it be done? Yes, and then some. Ultimately, our scheme yielded as much in new friendships, hardened muscles, and lessons learned as it did in the produce we harvested. In our season of (admittedly, self-imposed) limits, we discovered that abundance comes in many guises. 
February 12 
It's rained all week, pooling atop a sheet of ice in the back yard. The snowdrops are budding. I've already arranged my first freebie, courtesy of Craigslist. A woman too pregnant to dig seeks help dividing her iris and strawberry beds. I will supply the labor and in turn help myself to unlimited rhizomes and runners. We'll arrange the details in April. Meanwhile, I'm inspired to inventory our perennials and post a barter offer of my own. 
The beds of the neglected vegetable garden are in rough shape: The rich soil has been overrun by weeds and saplings, some taller than I am, while the borders around the raised beds have decomposed. We have our work cut out for us.
I've alerted friends to our budget scheme; they're already sharing information. One who took the Cooperative Extension beginning-gardener class last year reports a free seed cabinet stocked with donations from the big companies and local seed savers. Any county resident may take up to 12 packets. And an ecoboutique downtown has posted flyers for monthly gardening classes; I've inquired whether they'll host a seed swap. I hope to expand our seed inventory and meet some like-minded gardeners.
March 14 
Today was beautiful: a clear, blue sky, bright sunshine, and temperatures warm enough to shed our winter layers here in zone 5. A pair of hawks, hoping we might flush a rodent, wheeled overhead. We borrowed a truck and trailer this morning, and retrieved—free—15 cubic yards of mostly composted horse manure. This was the week for online offers from people cleaning out their barns, so I made a deal with the one right for us: herbicide-free feed, a farm both near our house and that of the friends lending us their truck and trailer, even help loading from the generous horsewoman sharing her wealth. 
This afternoon, we placed the trunks of quaking aspens thinned from an overgrown corner of the yard as borders for the raised beds. The result fits our rustic-chic aesthetic and spares the hassle and costs of store-bought lumber. To suppress weeds, we've sheet-mulched the footpaths with cardboard salvaged from the grocery store, topped with several inches of wood mulch from the town pile. Mounds of emerging daffodils, daylilies, poppies, and tulips abound, including in spots we plan to double-dig for vegetables. I'll offer those to the people who responded to my online perennial barter offer. It's starting to look like a garden! Next weekend, we'll repay the trailer loan by helping our friends plant trees at their place.
Penny Pinching Tips
  • Go online. Craigslist has free, barter, and farm-garden categories where anything from mulch to seedlings, even lawn tools, finds a new home fast. On, everything is free. 
  • Or check the local Cooperative Extension for free seed. Host an exchange. 
  • Barter and trade with friends and coworkers. Get creative: bake a cake or babysit in exchange for help planting a tree or for the loan of a truck. 
  • Scavenge your land or neighborhood. Tree trunks can become the sides of a raised bed; branches and brush can be turned into trellises and plant supports. 
  • The supermarket usually has boxes and containers available for the asking. 
  • Split the cost of expensive tools or large seed orders with friends and neighbors. 
  • Offer your labor or skills to a local CSA or market farmer for seedlings or produce. Many CSAs off er free or discounted subscriptions in exchange for a certain number of hours of work. 
  • Keep the giving cycle going. Donate leftover seeds and materials to local schools, community gardens, or the Cooperative Extension, and your excess harvest to a food bank.
April 3 
The seed swap was a grand success. Two dozen participants traded seeds and garden talk for about two hours. Also fun: crafting my seed packets, and delivering leftovers from the event to the Cooperative Extension seed cabinet. Next year, I'll schedule the exchange for late winter, before everyone orders by mail. The local native-plant society holds its exchange on the winter solstice, which is a great idea. Some of the catalogs offer bulk discounts; next year, we'll save cash with a group order. 
April 19 
Friends starting an organic farm invited us to a work party to plant 20,000 crowns of asparagus. We helped out for a few hours and came home with a dozen crowns to plant in our own garden. They're interspersed with the strawberries, and now we have a beautiful bed of perennial vegetables that we'll begin harvesting next year. Later this week, I'll help another farmer transplant her tomato seedlings from trays to pots; she's promised me gooseberries and my choice of mature seedlings, instead of cash. 
May 3 
This past weekend's rototilling extravaganza was brilliant. A friend of Mohawk descent has outgrown his communitygarden plot and will work the soil on our land instead. He'll interplant heritage varieties of white corn with beans and pumpkins in the traditional Three Sisters style, along with tobacco, sunflowers, and vegetables for his family. He rented the largest rototiller available and coordinated the timing so we could take turns behind the beast. We supplied the fuel and extra hands to pick rocks. Running nearly dawn to dusk, we broke ground for his extensive gardens and ours, and when we ran out of steam, the neighbors took a turn in their yard. I'm excited by this new partnership, and especially pleased that there was time and energy to clear several hundred square feet of lawn for flowers. The annual seeds I've collected will attract birds in view of the kitchen window, and Mom now has a bed into which she'll transplant the primroses, bleeding heart, balloon flower, and other perennials she divided years ago in anticipation of us one day settling into a home of our own. 
May 15 
If there's one thing I hate, it's mowing grass—and this house floats in a sea of the green stuff. Happily, my aggressive lawn-eradication plan looks like a winner. Friends of friends ripped a dozen mature yew bushes from in front of their foundation. We leaped at the chance to install them along a property line where we'd like a smidgen more privacy, then filled in among them with divisions from our overgrown hostas and forsythias we received in a daylily trade. An online post yielded a beautiful, mature bridal wreath spirea. I cut it back hard before digging it from the donor's yard and replaced it with the white lilac she had sought, dug from a clump in desperate need of thinning at our place. A former colleague long ago offered bamboo and rhubarb from his gardens, and finally we can take him up on the offer. I've also transplanted several varieties of willow and strawberries, as well as hops, butterfly bush, purple coneflower, salvia, rudbeckia, black currants, blueberries, and horseradish, all free. 
We're wary of overtaxing our well, so to nurse the newcomers through their first summer, we've relied heavily on free mulch from the town's mulch pile and, for the acid-loving plants, used grounds from the local coffee shop. We've also amassed an assortment of rain barrels, all cheap or free. One began as a pickle barrel ($3 at a garage sale); others formerly held industrial dishwashing detergent at the local college's dining hall. Not pretty, but shielded from view by fast-growing vines and decanted into 3-gallon jugs discarded by the naturalfoods co-op—which we store out of sight in the potting shed—it's a rainwater collection system that works for us.
June 16 
A small organic-vegetable operation wants the excess hay from our fields, which is cut and baled free by a cattle farmer down the road who takes the bulk to feed his livestock over winter. The produce growers will suppress weeds in their garlic beds; in exchange, they've offered credit at their farm stand, which boasts honey and jam. 
While we couldn't start seeds indoors ourselves this year, between the trades, some starts from the Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm we belong to (free because we're supplying our labor in exchange for the season's eats), and leftover seedlings from another friend planting veggies at our place, we've gotten a great jump on the season.
It's too early to know how my homemade fish emulsion works in the tomato beds. Dad supplied sunfish from his pond; I buried a few while planting seedlings and fermented the remainder in a discarded 5-gallon bucket with lid, free from the co-op. The process is admittedly stinky, but so is store-bought, and this approach appeals to my do-it-yourself, get-it-for-free ethic.
June 26 
Earlier this month, we transplanted a trio of hardy kiwi vines overwhelming their previous owner's tiny 
downtown yard. To raise the hand-hewn, post-and-beam arbor that will support the vines at our garden entrance, we invited friends to help. We supplied snacks and drinks and they supplied muscle, camaraderie, and laughter. 
August 14 
There's no better gift for a gardener than free labor. My cousin and her brood infused the garden with their energy and vision last week. The eldest transformed the sunflower patch outside the kitchen window into a destination by laying a winding path edged with rocks from the gardens, punctuated with divisions from around the yard and trade perennials I potted back in June. Row cover and old sheets will shield them from the hot sun at this inopportune time for transplanting. Soon, they will be a gorgeous legacy of her visit. The second-eldest built liners for the remaining garden beds with salvaged lumber, and the young ones collected seed for next year, including peas, garlic, and spring bulbs that had naturalized during the years of neglect before we arrived. 
Heartbreaking, But Inevitable: Our tomatoes and potatoes have late blight. It was reported locally in late June, and many here spent the July 4 weekend burning or bagging their infected plants. And yet, silver linings: Many weeks ago, we transformed the plastic and lumber bequeathed by friends who are leaving town into a pseudo-greenhouse. That partial protection from the summer's constant rain held infection at bay long enough that we have green tomatoes for jam and pickles. To save the 200 row feet of potatoes planted as part of an organic fingerling variety trial that provided free seed, we cut and bagged their foliage. This should keep spores from moving into the soil and destroying the tubers. Harvest can wait. If we're lucky, we'll have potatoes for winter storage, as well as data for the trial.

What We Bought
Seeds: $35.45
Row cover: $12.00
Cover-crop seed:  $10.00 
Rooting medium: $7.55
Seed inoculant: $5.49
Plastic pickle barrel:  $3.00
Hollyhock seedlings:  $1.25
Total $74.74

What We Harvested:
Beans: 4 pounds and remainder to seed for 2010
Beets: 25 pounds
Cabbages: 64 pounds
Carrots: 10 pounds
Cherry Tomatoes: 5 pounds
Corn: 10 pounds dry seed, 12 ears fresh
Cucumbers: 25 pounds
Daikon: 5 pounds
Eggplants: 10 pounds
Flowers: 1 or 2 bouquets cut every week
Green Tomatoes: 9 pounds
Horseradish: A few leaves for sushi; harvest in 2010
Hot Peppers: 3 pounds
Kohlrabi: 30 pounds
Leeks: 20 pounds
Lettuce: 10 pounds
Podding Radish: 1 pound, plus seed
Potatoes: 350 pounds
Purple-Top Turnips: 30 pounds
Rhubarb: 2 pies
Scallions: 1 pound
Soybeans: 1 pound as edamame
Spinach: 3 pounds
Sunflowers: 100 pounds to feed chickens, wild birds
Tomatillos: 10 pounds
Winter Squash: 40 pounds
Total About 796 pounds, plus our CSA share
September 30 
Our first frost was 10 days ago. Yet, while harvesting kale and turnips yesterday at our CSA farm—which has provided a rich education in larger-scale organic farming techniques, great exercise, stimulating conversation, and hundreds of pounds of veggies since May—we learned that the gorgeous green tomatoes in their hoop house must make way for winter greens. I requested permission to glean, and in one hour this morning we picked several hundred pounds of fruit. More than half went to a program that provides CSA memberships for low-income families, augmented with cooking and nutrition classes. They'll organize a giveaway and class with a local chef. I'll trade and share what we kept, stock the pantry, and ripen some in newspaper for November salads. I've heard rumors of a defunct gleaners' network in the area; I plan to learn more. 
November 4 
We still have potatoes to dig and leeks we'll harvest into the New Year. The pantry, freezer, and root cellar promise good eating throughout the winter, and we haven't paid cash for produce since early May. Yet we still have much to learn. In September, we forgot to freeze our collected vetch seeds to kill bugs. Instead of a free winter cover crop, we had a startling October hatching. Our laying hens feasted on several heads of sunflowers, but the challenge of drying and storing 100 seedheads demands winter research. 
Even so, our myriad trades and barters have produced a generous harvest while the social connections we've made and the wisdom we've gained will yield for many seasons to come. We've already thrown down the gauntlet for 2010: all the food we can eat and give away from May to November, for less than $25.