By Sean Pyles
Gardens can take many shapes — expansive beds of seasonal vegetables, decorative plants stuffed into an apartment, a shelf of herbs growing near a kitchen window.
Whatever the configuration, the fundamentals are the same: seeds, soil, care — and cash.
That last ingredient can be the hardest to come by. But no matter how ambitious your garden plans, you can control costs at each step.
Make a plan
Know what you want out of your garden and what you can afford before heading to a store.
“First step for a budget garden would be determining what your top priorities are,” says Ben Bowen, a Portland, Oregon, landscape designer. “Are you creating a space that needs to look good? Or is there some function like growing food or creating a gathering space?”
Once you determine the space’s purpose, then list each plant, pot and garden tool you would need.
Dream big, then come back to reality. Take a look at your budget to see what you can actually afford. A simple guide is the 50/30/20 budget, where half of your income goes to needs such as housing, 30% goes to wants and the final 20% goes into savings.
Your garden budget will likely come from the wants category, even though it might help you trim grocery spending.
You may be tempted to buy everything at once, but assembling your garden over time could help keep your spending in check. Building and planting a robust vegetable garden bed, for example, could cost upward of $500, depending on the size and complexity, Bowen says.
If you’re feeling sticker shock from that $500 figure, know that you can trim costs for your shopping list. You’ll have to put in a bit more effort, but the resulting savings can be significant.
Here’s a breakdown of shopping categories and how to cut costs for each:
FOR GARDEN VEGETABLES
Go for seeds over starts. While starts, or plants that have been partially grown already, are an easy way to kick-start your garden, they can be expensive.
For example, some vegetable starts cost close to $5 for one plant, but you can get a packet of seeds to produce many plants for less than $2. Start your seeds early enough so they’ll bear fruit during the peak growing season.
For starts, local nurseries may be the best value. They’ll often have plants grown on-site that are acclimated to your local climate. These can be hardier and easier to grow compared with starts shipped in and sold at chain stores, says gardener Kate Formichella, owner of Cape Cod, Massachusetts-based Flora Chella Design.
FOR DECORATIVE PLANTS
Think nearby here, too. Many local nonprofits have sales of native or easy-to-grow plants, often for just a few dollars. You can also get cuttings from friends for free; this is often easiest with succulents.
For something that’s everywhere, soil can get expensive fast. To cut costs, again check local resources. Farms and even landfills often have quality soil and compost they’re willing to give away, or sell and deliver for less than what you’d pay for bags at a chain store.
Garden hardware includes pots, shovels and hoses. Buying new gets expensive.
But there are sources of durable used supplies. Estate sales are one of the best spots to pick up cheap tools, Formichella says.
“Forget what’s inside the house at an estate sale and go right for the garage,” she says. “You’ll find shovels that are $1 or $2, and often they have durable ash wood handles. The tools you’ll find might be 40 or 50 years old and they’re hardy.”
Thrift stores are a good resource for pots, she says. If you’re doing most of your gardening inside an apartment and need a lot of containers, buying secondhand can mean big savings.
A plant can take months to produce flowers or fruit. Likewise, ambitious plans for an outdoor garden lush with native plants or a chic indoor display will take some time to come together.
Assemble one piece of your garden at a time and consider holding off on some purchases until they’re more affordable. Some plants are cheaper once they’re out of peak season, and outdoor furniture to complement your new greenery will be less expensive in the fall. Focus on your priorities and play the long game. There’s always next summer.
About the author:
Sean Pyles is a personal finance writer at NerdWallet. His work has appeared in the New York times, USA Today and more. Read more.
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