I have been moving this spring and am starting a garden in a new yard. Like many other gardeners, I prefer to keep the budget for this project fairly low. Garden costs can shoot skyward easily, but it is possible, with some thought and extra work, to keep costs down.
Near the upper end of the “garden cost” range, there is the garden of William Alexander, who wrote a book about how his beautiful, ripe tomatoes, after figuring his expenses, cost $64 apiece to grow. Not too surprisingly, his book is titled The $64 Tomato (it is a hilarious book, if you are a gardener). However, Mr. Alexander paid for things like garden design, wrought iron fences, an irrigation system, and other elements that are nice to have, but not essential for food-growing.
For gardeners who have smaller budgets and are hoping to grow food for a lower price than, say, $64 per tomato, the range of costs extends pretty far downward, to a less painful level.
Each element of the garden can be either cheap or expensive, depending on choices the gardener makes. Most of the lower-cost options involve more work or more planning or both, but they do exist.
Boundaries of the Garden
These days, it is common practice for home gardeners to build their gardens using some kind of boards or other material to create deep beds. What are our options for this element of the garden?
Treated lumber is not recommended for use in organic gardens. Cedar boards are recommended, instead, for building gardens because they resist rotting without added chemicals. However, sturdy cedar boards can be expensive.
Gardeners who have access to free, non-treated lumber, such as pine, may want to use those boards. Most non-treated wood — that isn’t cedar or redwood — rots readily, and will need to be replaced every two or three years, so there will be extra work if this option is chosen.
Garden beds can be raised up or edged using rocks, bricks, concrete blocks, metal roofing, or other kinds of non-toxic materials. Many of these are at greater risk (than boards) of shifting around while the gardener is working near the edges.
A couple of my Georgia gardens were edged with rocks and bricks that were mostly free (long ago, we bought some bricks), so I know they can work if the gardener remembers to be careful when working around the edges. If a gardener has access to any of these materials for free or a low price, they can be an option.
However, raised beds are not required.
An in-ground garden
One of my favorite garden books is The Joy of Gardening, by Dick Raymond, and the author uses a system called wide rows. These garden beds are slightly raised, but they are not edged with any hard material.
Look for the book in the library and read it. The basic idea for these wide rows is that good soil is pulled onto the designated “bed” space from around the edges. This soil, plus any amendments, gives the wide rows a little height, but not the kind of height provided by most raised beds. Each wide row is three-or-so feet across, providing plenty of space for either multiple rows of a crop or for the intensive spacing (on a grid) used in square-foot style gardening.
My experience is that the lack of edging can increase the risk of soil loss in heavy rains and allows more weeds to creep in from the lawn. In spite of those drawbacks, this is the option I am using for my new garden this year. Since I am in the learning stage for gardening in this yard, a non-permanent bed seems like the wisest choice.
Raised beds pros and cons
You may decide that raised beds are the best choice for your yard. The following information may help you decide —
Raised bed advantages:
- increased height can make them easier to tend
- defined edges make them more obvious for dogs and small children to “see”, potentially reducing the number of times little feet run through the plants
- increased depth of loose soil can improve garden productivity, IF the soil used to fill the beds is truly good stuff
- increased height allows beds to drain faster in wet weather, decreasing risk of floods killing your plants
- increased height also allows beds to warm up faster in spring
Raised bed disadvantages
- can be expensive to fill with good soil
- can be expensive to build, if free materials for edging is not located
- improved drainage means that extra watering is needed during drought time (most of August and September, most years, in the Southeastern US)
- hard to move if an error in garden placement has been made (location too shady or too far from a water source, or laced through with tree roots that suck up all the water and fertilizer)
Filling a raised bed garden
If your heart is set on having a raised bed garden, the soil to fill it is the next element to consider. It can take a full cubic yard of soil to fill a 4×8 foot bed that is 10-inches deep. Buying that much garden soil in bags is going to get pricey. A cheaper option, if you have a pickup truck or a good friend who is willing to share theirs, is to buy a cubic yard of good garden soil at a landscape supply company.
I have done this, so I know it is possible. My cost at the time (years ago) was around $35 for a cubic yard of a good planting mix that included compost. The price has gone up since then, but a scoop of soil from a landscape supply place is still a lot less expensive than buying enough bagged soil at a garden center.
At a landscape supply place, the soil will get dropped into the bed of your pickup truck for you to drive home. Moving it out of the truck and into the garden is some work. Be ready with shovels, wheelbarrows, and helpers. You may need to bribe helpers (only immediate family members, this spring) with their favorite foods.
Choosing the soil product for filling raised beds
When choosing soil to fill a raised bed, DO NOT choose “top soil”. I have seen some miserable results from gardens that were filled with products labeled “top soil”.
Instead, look for a soil-product that is a mix of materials that includes compost. The product needs to drain well, so sand in the mix can be helpful. Some landscape supply places offer garden soil mixes that are designed for use in raised bed food gardens and that have a guaranteed nutrient analysis. Look for the best you can find.
If there is no garden soil option available, check to see if the place offers something like mushroom compost by the cubic yard. Growing in pure compost will be great for most crops, but it can be too “nutrient rich” for others, especially root crops.
Another option for many Georgia residents is to purchase a cubic yard bag of compost (the Big Yellow Bag) from Soil3. The price includes delivery, and it can be used “straight” to grow garden crops in. This option will cost more than a cubic yard scoop of planting mix or compost from a landscape supply place, but the convenience factor may over-rule the cost factor for some gardeners.
Amending an in-ground garden
If you choose an in-ground garden, the soil will need to be amended with compost to improve its fertility and how it holds water. Sandy soils and clay soils both will make more productive gardens if a two-inch layer of compost is worked into the garden before planting.
For some soils, more compost is even better.
However, if you don’t already have a compost pile in the backyard to provide this magical assistance to your garden soil, that compost may need to be purchased. Costs for this can add up, so start a compost area for leaves and kitchen veg/fruit scraps now, for use in fall, to limit how much needs to be purchased later, when you replant for fall crops.
Some counties maintain a compost facility for yard waste, and then allow residents to come get the finished compost for free. In the metro-Atlanta area, Dekalb County is one that has done this. If your county does not offer free compost, you are stuck with buying bags from garden supply centers or buying a full cubic yard of compost from a landscape supply place.
Also, you should be wary of offers of free horse manure, even if it has been composted. In the past, some horse manures have been contaminated with a persistent herbicide. This herbicide stays active for a few years, and it is not approved for use in human food crops. In the first year or so, when it is most strong in the composted manure, the pesticide can kill some of your crops.
If you’ve filled (or mostly filled) a raised bed with a good compost product like Soil3 or BlackKow, your garden may not need much (or any) additional fertilizer until next spring. For those of us whose garden soil is less nutrient-rich, fertilizer is another expense.
Look for a complete fertilizer — one that includes many nutrients and not just the “big three” of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. All of the organic fertilizer products labeled for vegetable gardens will meet this goal.
Organic products are not as concentrated as many of the chemical fertilizers, so be aware that your garden may need more of these than you think.
In addition, you may need to apply more as the plants grow, if the package says to side-dress at certain times through the growing season. Read the fertilizer labels carefully to find your best option.
For gardeners whose budgets are very tight, the cheapest fertilizer option may be a chemical fertilizer. If this is all that your budget will allow, look for a complete fertilizer similar to MiracleGro, and avoid the products that include only the three major nutrients (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus). Reading fertilizer labels will help you identify the best fertilizer for your situation.
Plants and Seeds
The final big expense for the garden is the actual crops. Some may need to be purchased as plants, but some should be planted as seeds directly into the garden.
Crops to buy as plants
For plants to set into the ground, we typically purchase the kinds that take a long time to reach maturity. For summer crops, these include tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Sweet potatoes are another summer crop to set into the ground as plants, because seeds are not typically available. Sweet potato plants are grown from stem cuttings.
To save money on plants, buy the smallest size available. A 4-inch potted tomato plant may cost around $4; a larger plant will cost a lot more. If some plants are available in “6-packs”, those are usually the most economical.
Starting with smaller plants may mean that the first harvest from those plants is a little later than it might be for larger plants. However, the delay may be only a week or two.
Crops to buy as seeds
Almost every other crop that you hope to plant will be more economical when planted as seeds, unless you are planting only one or two of a particular crop. This includes cucumbers and squashes, all the beans and summer peas, corn, okra, Swiss chard, amaranth, grain sorghum, and more.
If you can find another gardener to share seed packets with, you can split the cost. In this spring of pandemic weirdness, the sharing may get a bit tricky, but it should be possible to arrange drop-off locations for seeds, to help maintain your “social distance”.
An additional savings for seeds is that, stored properly, this year’s seeds can also be planted in next year’s garden. Store leftover seeds in an airtight container (not a plastic bag) in the fridge.
In the past, I have pooled my seed order with a friend, to reduce shipping costs in addition to sharing the contents of our seed packets. However, the mail-order seed companies are running out of seeds this spring, and they are also running behind in filling seed orders. Gardeners who have waited until now to buy seeds may find that their selection is limited.
A warning: it is possible to get carried away with seeds. Each packet may not be all that expensive, but I have seen “seed stashes” that represent hundreds of dollars in costs. Leftover seeds can be used for a few years, for most crops, but around year three or four, many seeds will not reliably make good plants. Only buy what you think you will need.
For preparing the garden, some tools are needed. The basics include a shovel, a hoe, and a trowel. Keep the hoe and shovel sharpened, so they can slide through the soil more easily. It helps to have a bucket, too, for gathering weeds (to add to a compost pile) and for moving compost.
The shovel is for digging. The hoe is for moving soil (pushing/pulling) and for scraping out the weeds. The trowel is for planting — digging holes, especially.
Another totally optional but nice to have item is a journal to keep track of garden activities. I have been using the one I created, and it is good to have written down exactly which varieties of crops are going into the garden, which fruiting plants I’ve added to the yard (‘Albemarle’ muscadine, Chickasaw plum), and how the ground was prepared for each crop.
Creating a record of amendments, crops, weather, pests, and more will help improve the productivity of future gardens.
Best wishes for great gardening!