Guest Post: Adventures in Frugal Gardening (By: Mrs. Kiwi from Kiwi and Keweenau)

Happy day-after-Earth Day!  Today, I have a fellow Michigander, Mrs. Kiwi (from Kiwi and Keweenau) on to discuss frugal gardening.  As someone who has yet to dip into the gardening world, I found this post detailed and fascinating… enjoy!  ~Mrs. AR

Happy belated Earth Day everyone! I’m excited (and thankful to the AR family) to share my adventure in frugal gardening. 

But before I regale you with the gardening tales, I should introduce myself. I am Mrs. Kiwi, and I write about my family’s journey to financial independence through simple and frugal living at Kiwi and Keweenaw. My husband and I live near Lansing, MI with our two dogs in a suburban neighborhood. We both have escaped our standard engineering jobs, and are embracing a slower saving journey to FIRE. I just started a mini-retirement, and my hubby is back at school working on his Ph.D. We were just a few years shy of reaching our FI date, but got burnt out along the way and chose to slow our journey down to enjoy more in life.

Our Frugal Gardening Adventure

I was not born a gardener. Nor was I taught how to grow much of anything as a kid. Mr. Kiwi gave me a potted flower plant for our first Valentine’s Day. It was sweet of him (we’d been officially dating for all of one week), but I told him I was going to forget to water it and kill it. He laughed but thought I was just joking. Well, the plant died, but not because I forgot to water it, but because I dropped it off my desk one day studying. I’m not really graceful, so dropping it wasn’t too surprising.

Six years ago I had never grown any plant successfully, much less any food I could eat. But our landlords generously offered us a portion of their large garden, so we figured why not try it out. 

Well, at least that’s why my hubby said. I firmly said no, it wasn’t worth us spending all this money to get into gardening to not save any money! We were busy grad students saving half our income for our first home, paying off college loans, and planning our wedding. We don’t have many expensive hobbies, but I didn’t think we had the time or energy to sign up for one more. 

Mr. Kiwi agreed that we probably wouldn’t save any money, but wanted to give it a go, since we both like being outside and he likes to play in the mud. We compromised and set a super modest budget of $20 that first year. Fortunately, our landlord’s let us use their tools, so we only bought some packets of seeds a few tomato plants.

The First Year Gardening Failure

I wish I had pictures from my first-year garden, but it was a muddy, mosquito-y mess! We read a few articles on the internet about how to grow a garden and sewed our seeds in tiny mounds. 

We then watched for them to sprout, along with all the weeds. Welp, if you’ve never watched a spinach or cucumber seed sprout you can’t tell it apart from a weed! So we just let everything keep growing! 

Those seeds grew slowly since they were competing for water and nutrients in the soil with all the weeds. Also, our novice gardener selves were walking anywhere we wanted in our little garden. We stepped on the plants since the rows were only 6” apart. (Gotta maximize growing space we thought! Uh, nope. That’s not actually helpful, plants need room to grow big and strong.)

But guess what! We eventually started telling our plants apart from the weeds (hint, they were the ones that were few and far between). We enjoyed a few salads of homegrown spinach. And even got a few tomatoes that summer. 

Honestly, we mostly got a million mosquito bites and learned some pretty major lessons.

  • Don’t step on your plants
  • Mark where you plant your seeds (now we use paper straws)
  • Weed early and often
  • Water early
  • Have fun

When you live next to a river the mosquitoes are bad, so garden in the heat of the day or during heavy rains to get fewer bites.

The best part of tackling our first-year garden is that we had an excuse to play outside in the soil again. We were hooked on frugal gardening from then on.

The Actual Frugal Gardener

Okay, I know getting enough greens for a handful of salads with $20 worth of seeds probably doesn’t sound all that great. But were enamored with the idea of feeding our own little family with food from our yard. 

The next time we set out to grow some of our food, we were a bit more prepared. At this point, I was all in on the FIRE path, so I was dedicated to actually save money with a hobby that I love. Most hobbies end up costing a bit (or a lot) of money, but gardening is one of my frugal superpowers now and we are able to eat healthy and cheap thanks to learning this one skill. Of course, the hourly pay is terrible, so remember before you jump into taking on a frugal garden that it still is largely a hobby!

Learning About Gardening

For year two of gardening, we decided to actually find some advice from the experts. So I talked to friends, family members, checked some blogs and headed to the library. Honestly, books are still my favorite gardening resource. These are my favorites:

  • The Vegetable Grower’s Bible by Edward Smith
  • All New Square Foot Gardening, Second Edition: The Revolutionary Way to Grow More In Less Space by Mel Bartholomew

My second favorite gardening resource is to find the gardening experts in your area. For me, that’s my local conservation district (google your county name + conservation district) and MSU extension website. Each state has land-grant public universities that offer extension services. They are mostly there to help farmers, but they have some resources that aid small organic farmers or home gardeners. 

Tools

You don’t need to buy lots of expensive tools to get started, but you do need some. And home improvement stores have so many colorful items in the garden center that it’s tempting to just buy one of everything. But I promise you don’t need all that many tools to have a frugal garden. We still only own:

  • Spade (flat bottom shovel) – to remove the sod
  • Garden rake
  • Hoe (to make weeding easier)
  • Hand trowel
  • Round point shovel
  • Garden gloves
  • Something to collect your harvest (we use a cloth bag for most of it and a strainer for the leafy greens)

When you are building your garden you may want to rent or borrow a rototiller. Otherwise, you’ll be hand turning a mixing your soil, which will be quite the workout. 

I had absolutely no clue what a rototiller was when I started gardening, and I’m still pretty bad at using a shovel. But I embarrassed myself a few times and got dragged across our backyard by the borrowed rototiller. It’s awkward taking on a new hobby as an adult, but I figured it out eventually.

We don’t till up our garden each year and instead are embracing no till gardening! You can save money on tools and gas and get better yields this way. But for it to work well you need to only walk in the aisles of your garden and not step in the beds. It seems like every time we have friends over they walk right in the middle of the beds and I have to politely ask them to stick to the paths.

Building Your Garden

Okay, now for the fun part, getting dirty. Fortunately, our first foray into gardening was in our landlord’s garden, so they had done the heavy lifting and removed the sod (grass) and prepared the soil. The soil is super important in growing your food. I talked a lot about soil health in last year’s frugal gardening post.

Where Should it Go?

If you haven’t gardened before you may want to convert an existing flower bed into a vegetable garden first to dip your toe in the dirt. If you have a garden bed where you plant annuals that would work best since you won’t have the headache of fighting against an aggressive perennial! (We’ve been trying to get rid of some of our lilies for years and new plants just keep coming back every year since we can’t dig up every bulb.)

Assuming you are in a temperate area, you’ll want to put your garden in the sunniest part of your yard. That, of course, was the middle of our yard, so we didn’t do that. Instead, we pushed ours into the sunniest corner of our yard. That means it spends part of the day shaded by our 6’ cedar fence, but we also saved money on fencing materials. I’ve learned by trial and error what grows well up against the fence (raspberries and strawberries) and what doesn’t (tomatoes).

Mostly you should put it somewhere with decent sun and where you’ll be motivated to get outside and work in it. Ours is fifteen steps out our back door, so it’s extremely easy to just go out for 20 minutes a day.

Building Your Garden Beds

I won’t go into too much detail on building the actual beds since I use the Vegetable Growers Bible method for gardening. But I wanted to talk about it for a minute since everyone is going to tell you that you should build a raised bed.

And, maybe you should. There are lots of great reasons people use raised beds:

  • Easier to weed since the beds are higher up
  • Control of soil mixture so you can grow whatever you like
  • Fewer weeds and pest issues
  • Great if you have a super small area to garden

I don’t use raised beds since they are soo expensive to install. You have to buy or scavenge:

  • Wood, brick, or blocks for the walls
  • Soil (and lots of it)

Okay, that is only two things! But you can easily spend hundreds of dollars on those two things. You will likely have immediate success with a raised bed garden, so if that’s your goal, go for it! 

But my goal was to always save money by gardening, so I put the extra sweat equity in it and built our garden using compost and the soil we already had. Plus we have a big yard (⅓ acre) so we had plenty of room to spare for a large garden.

Here’s what I did:

  • Plan out the garden beds. I’m short, so for me, 3.5’ wide beds with 2.5-3’ walkways between them work well. You want to be able to reach to the middle of the bed without stepping in it, to weed and plant comfortably.
  • Ideally in the fall (but I did this in the spring…because planning ahead wasn’t my strength), flip the sod upside down. 
  • In your walkway remove your sod and also place that in your garden bed. This will raise the bed slightly (but be warned your walkways may get muddy).
  • If you planned ahead and did this in the fall. Then wait until spring! If not, be ready for a slightly tougher step 5.
  • Using the rear-tine rototiller (or muscles if you have super strong arm muscles or a small garden area), mix the sod/topsoil in each of your garden bed. At this point, you’ll want to add in some compost or additional topsoil and mix it in too.

Your garden beds will be nicely raised now and ready to plant. If you did steps 2-5 all in the spring, you’ll be fighting grass that keeps trying to grow! But have no fear, I did too and we successfully grew lots of veggies too.

If you are tight on space I know many people have had great success with smaller container gardens. 

Fencing

We have a chicken wire fence around our garden and used fence poles and step in poles to support the wire.

It mostly is there to keep out our super curious and hungry dogs. Our husky-mix loves to walk around the yard and bite the flowers off plants to spit them out. I get pretty angry at him when he does that in the garden (that’s the fruit/veggie!), so we keep them out.  We also buried the chicken wire 6” to keep out bunnies and other critters.

Our fencing supplies were picked up from the Habitat for Humanity Restore for ~$25. We like buying used when possible just to keep things out of landfills.

Deciding What to Grow

Okay, so the trick to actually having a frugal garden is to grow food that you will eat. It doesn’t really help you save money on groceries if you grow a bunch of food you don’t like.

Our favorite starter plants:

Zucchini

Okay, this is what everyone grows, but for a reason. It’s pretty easy and a couple of plants will produce more than enough to get overwhelmed with in the summer. But it’s great to grow something that is almost guaranteed to be a success.

Spinach

Spinach is pretty expensive at the grocery store and loses a lot of its’ nutritional benefits quickly. We grow it in our backyard and eat it within 30 minutes of harvest. It tastes extra sweet. If you live in a hot place this doesn’t do well in heat.

Leaf Lettuce

It grows super quick and easy, plus we can cut it and it regrows. That’s called “cut and come again.”

Kale

It holds up well to many frosts, so it works to extend our season into the fall even later. Plus organic kale is so dang expensive, and this is so easy to grow.

Beets

You can eat the leaves and the bulb

Acorn Squash 

grows easy like zucchini, you just have to wait until fall to eat it

Raspberries

You can normally get some raspberry plants for free off craigslist or by asking around. The plants are perennials, so they come back each and every year!

Any type of “early” tomato 

The shorter the growing time for a tomato plant the more likely you’ll be to get a successful harvest. I always grow at least 4 varieties of tomatoes, since I like to freeze them and use them in chili and spaghetti sauce all winter.

Our favorite slightly more difficult plants:

Peppers

everyone grows these, but they take a long time to actually produce high quality fruit. So, be warned, you may be disappointed by your first year’s harvest.

Heirloom tomatoes

Same issues as with the peppers, but you’ll be sure to have the best potluck food with a colorful tomato salad

Peas

seriously, I love peas, but I’m constantly fighting with the birds to protect my plants

Carrots

These need lots of water at the start of the growing season, but can stay in the ground and be harvested as desired in the winter. Our dogs especially love when we grow carrots since they break into the garden, pull them up and eat them whole in the fall when we forget to close the gate.

Eggplant

I also love the idea of growing themed gardens like SALSA if you are limited on space. That’d include:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Onion
  • Cilantro

But it’s a bit tricky to time all those to be ready at the same time, so maybe start a bit easier in your first year. 

Can I Actually Save Money Gardening?

When someone new is getting into gardening they always ask how much time it will take and how much they’ll save on groceries. Well, for many people the answer is lots of time and zero dollars. But you really can have a frugal garden if that’s the goal. You have to:

  • Plan ahead
  • Don’t build too big too quick
  • Grow food you like
  • Be ready to make mistakes
  • Gardens save money

In your first year plan to spend (your numbers may differ!):

  • $20-80 on fencing
  • $20-40 on seeds and starts (this expense will recur each and every year)
  • $0-50 on soil (if you have compost lying around)
  • $10 Epsom salt and other fertilizers (buy smaller bags, you won’t need much)

We spent $20 our first year gardening since we only needed the plants and seeds. But on our “real” garden we’ve spent a total of $50+seeds and plant starts on all the supplies! We asked for gardening tool for Christmas/birthdays. And we used the soil and compost we had.

Mostly we had an adventure learning how to actually grow our own food.

We venture slowly into new hobbies since it is easy to get distracted. So we try to not invest a bunch of money at the start into a new whim. Now we know that gardening is one of our favorite hobbies, so we’re comfortable upping our game and are building cold frames to use this fall. It will help extend our growing season in the spring and fall. 

The benefits of gardening are vast: 

  • We’ve both lost some weight
  • Eat healthier
  • Extra time outside 
  • More comfort at the farmers’ market since I know how food is grown

Saving money on groceries is a nice side effect too. We track our monthly spending and average $225/month on groceries for our family of two adults. And before we really got into gardening we were spending ~$350. The garden isn’t responsible for all of those savings, our frugal grocery list helps, but I bet it accounts for a good chunk of them. And now we only eat tomatoes grown in our yard.

It took us a couple years to really get the gardening thing down. And we still aren’t the best at making (well, mostly sticking to) a plan for the garden each year. 

But nature is pretty intelligent and strong, so we just guide it along to provide us with some fruit and veggies every year. I’m glad we took on the challenge of growing our own food, it was a fun adventure.

What are your gardening tips and advice? What’s your favorite food to grow? Have you ever gardened? What questions do you have?

Thank you, Mrs. Kiwi, for the amazing guest post and pictures!  Mr. AR & I may just have to get our (hopefully) green thumbs working this summer!