Alright my friends. For those of you who have been putting off having a garden because you didn’t think you could afford to get started, here’s the kick in the pants you’ve been needing!
Raising food is supposed to save you money, not cost an arm and a leg! If the prices of seed packs and potted plants have been holding you back from growing backyard produce, I’m gonna let you in on a little known secret.
It’s totally possible to start a garden with absolutely zero money.
Will it be everything you’ve dreamed of? Probably not at first. Will it win accolades and awards? Again, not likely.
What it will do, however, is grow FOOD. Nourishing. Free. Food. Stuff your family will benefit from and enjoy.
It might not be everything you wanted to grow, and it might not be as pretty as you’d like it to look, but these things take time. Start with what you can get right now, and work toward your ultimate vision as you can afford to add to your garden.
The goal here is to cut your grocery expenses, to reduce your dependence upon the stores, to feed your family the most healthy foods possible, and to take control of what goes on your plate. All of which can be done with absolutely zero money to get started.
I have to warn you though. It won’t be quick, and it won’t be simple. Free takes effort.
If you’ve got more time than money, then these tips are for you. Fortunately, we live in a time when resources abound if you just know where to look. Let me help open your eyes to the possibilities…
How To Find Free Seeds
Seeds are probably the easiest free gardening item to obtain, but are definitely the trickiest to begin your garden with. It’s gonna take some practice learning how to sprout plants from seed. It’s a great way to go though ’cause when you learn how to start plants from seed you can grow virtually anything.
There are lots of ways to find free fruit, vegetable, and herb seeds if you know where you look. Here are some examples of how I’ve scored seeds to plant in my garden…
Glean leftover seeds from other gardeners.
Seed packs that you buy at the store or order online often have more seeds in them than the average gardener is going to use in a year. You might plant 50 ears of corn, but 50 squash plants? Not likely unless you plan on selling at the market.
Unfortunately, after a year or two leftover seeds begin to age. Oftentimes gardeners will throw out their old seed packs and will buy fresh seeds to avoid lower germination rates.
Offer to take unwanted seeds off of other people’s hands. You might not get as high of a germination rate as you would with a fresher pack, but likely some of the seeds will still be viable and you’ll at least get a few plants to grow!
You might even get some fresh seeds if you know somebody who won’t use a whole pack of newly purchased seeds.
Maybe your grandmother or a sweet elderly lady at church has a small garden in her backyard, so she buys a pack of seeds to plant a few zucchini plants. She only needs a half a dozen seeds or so. What will she do with the rest of the pack? Perhaps you can work it out that you will help her in the garden in exchange for her extra seeds. She’d probably be thrilled to have the help, and she just very well could teach you a thing or two while you’re there.
Keep your ears open when people start talking about gardening, know who your gardening friends and neighbors are, and don’t be afraid to ask! You might even have something to trade in return for a few vegetable seeds.
Save seeds from fresh produce.
Did you know that you can save the seeds from home grown (and even some store bought) produce to plant again next year? There are a couple of caveats, but it’s totally doable!
Here’s the short and sweet of what you need to know before saving seeds. Heirloom and open-pollinated seeds will produce plants that are like the parent plant. Seeds saved from Butternut Squash will produce Butternut Squash.
Unless… and here’s one of the caveats… it has cross-pollinated with another member of the cucurbit family. If cross-pollination has occurred, it is likely that you will not get seed that is true to type.
For example, one year I saved seeds from some yellow crookneck squash that I’d grown in my garden. I’d had a good harvest, so I figured I’d better same the seeds from the plants I’d grown to use the following year.
The next summer, the squash I grew from those saved seeds came in beautifully. However, when it came time to harvest them I noticed that the skin was extremely hard… almost too hard to cut through! I realized that the squash must have cross-pollinated the previous year, and what came from the saved seeds was more like a gourd. They were completely inedible.
Now, just because cross-pollination occurs it doesn’t mean that the next generation of plants won’t be edible. Just be aware that what you end up producing might be nothing like the parent plant.
The second caveat to saving seeds comes into play when you’re working with hybrids. Hybrid plants are the result of crossing different varieties, either naturally through cross pollination or on purpose to breed certain characteristics.
If you save seeds from hybrid plants you’ll run into the same problems you find with cross-pollination. The seeds won’t be true to the parent. It doesn’t mean that you can’t save the seeds from them, but the outcome will be uncertain.
I’ll give you another example… ’cause I’ve tried everything my friend.
One year somebody gave me some beautiful, huge, slicing tomatoes. They were gorgeous, and tasted amazing. I wanted to grow some just like them in my own garden, so I saved the seeds.
The next year I planted those seeds and they grew like crazy. But when the fruit came in I was shocked to discover cherry tomatoes growing! Although they were still tasty on a salad, they were nothing like the original tomatoes.
When you save seeds from hybrids, one of two things will happen. Either you’ll get something completely different from the parent plant, or the seed will be sterile and will grow a plant that produces nothing at all (I’ve had that happen, too). You really don’t know what you’ll get when you save seeds from hybrid plants. But hey, if it’s all you’ve got it’s worth a shot!
If you’re new to saving seeds and need some guidance, I highly recommend the book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. It’s the most comprehensive book I’ve found on the subject, and a must-have for every homesteader’s bookshelf, in my opinion.
Ok… now that we’ve talked about saving seeds… let’s explore ways to get your hands on more of them!
The generous gardener. When a friendly neighbor brings you a bag of their garden abundance, take a few extra minutes to scrape out the seeds and save them. If possible, ask them if the produce was grown from open-pollinated or hybrid seeds, so that you have a better idea of what you’re getting.
Save seeds from store-bought produce. If you’re going to be buying produce anyways, you might as well try saving the seeds, no? Now, this method of gleaning free seeds isn’t ideal because more likely than not the produce will be grown from hybrid seed (see previous section) and you won’t know for sure what you’ve got until it produces (or doesn’t produce). However, it’s definitely worth a try when you’re desperate, right?
I’ve actually had good success in the past growing plants from store-bought seeds. Have you ever thrown out tomato scraps or watermelon rinds only to find a plant growing there the following year? I’ve had plenty of surprise plants sprout up in our compost pile from grocery store produce we tossed the year before. Let me tell you, some of the most delicious watermelons we’ve ever grown volunteered from seeds spit out at a fourth of July party the previous summer!
If you shop at a grocery store that stocks locally grown foods, especially from small farmers, or if you purchase produce from the local farmer’s market, you’ll have a much better chance of finding heirloom and open-pollinated varieties that will be better for saving seeds.
Buying organic produce to save seed from will also give you a better chance of gleaning viable seeds. Be sure to pick plants that actually grow in your area… they may have come from a nearby farm.
Ask for old produce. Don’t be afraid to ask the produce manager at your local grocery store, or the farmer at the market stand, if they have any veggies that are too old to sell. You might be able to glean something you can scavenge some seeds from. Let them know you’re looking for seeds, and that you won’t be eating the old food. Oftentimes they won’t give you spoiled food due to liability risks unless they know you won’t be consuming it.
Volunteer in a garden. If you know somebody who can use help tending their garden, trade your time for produce to eat and save the seeds.
Always keep your eyes peeled and your ears open for opportunities to glean produce that might be perfect for saving seeds.
How To Find Free Plants
Free plants are even better than free seeds ’cause they’ve already got a head start. All you need to do is find some dirt to stick them into, water them well, and watch them grow!
Okay, so it might not be quite that easy for all plants. Some definitely need more babying than others. Sometimes plants will experience major transplant shock when you move them, but will come back strong the next year. Give them time to adjust to their new home and settle in their roots before you give up and pull them out. I’ve had fig bushes look dead for a whole year before finally sprouting signs of life the following spring. Be patient!
Here are a few ways I’ve been able to find free plants for my garden…
If it sprouts, plant it!
Some plants can be sprouted and planted again. Potatoes, onions, and garlic are three such plants. You’ll know it’s ready to plant when it starts sprouting on your pantry shelf. That little bit of green that’s growing is showing you that the plant is still alive and is ready to go into the ground!
I actually scored some purple sweet potatoes for my garden this year by sprouting produce given to me. One day my husband was buying our groceries from a little grocer who sells locally grown foods. When the worker noticed he was buying sweet potatoes, she offered to give him a couple of free ones that were about to be thrown out. He gladly took them. When he brought them home I immediately stuck one in a bowl of water and a few days later we had sprouts. I planted four sweet potato slips from that one old potato he brought home, which should bring in a nice little harvest for us. Free.
I was also blessed to receive a box full of old, sprouting potatoes that a dear friend of mine didn’t have room to plant. All I had to do was ask! She was glad to find a home for them since she’d already planted all she needed. I filled two huge beds with those free seed potatoes, which should produce about 100 lbs of Irish potatoes by the end of the growing season.
Take the excess. It’s very common for gardeners to start more plants than they really need for their garden just in case some of the seeds don’t germinate. If they’ve ended up with more plants than they have space for in their garden, they’ll be more than happy to let you give them a home rather than throwing them out. If you don’t like asking for something for free, then offer to make a trade!
Learn how to propagate. Shoots from many trees and shrubs can be cut and rooted to grow a whole new plant. Some plants, such as fig bushes and herbs, can be divided at the root and transplanted. Cuttings can be taken from other plants, such as tomatoes and basil, and placed in water to grow a whole new set of roots. All of these are great ways to make whole new plants from pieces of something a friend or neighbor might have growing.
Every year I divide and give away mint, catnip, horseradish, oregano, lemon balm, and other herbs simply because I’m growing more than I will ever use. I bet you can find somebody in your area who would be more than happy to give you cuttings or divisions of their plants as well.
Offer to dig up suckers. Some plants naturally send off suckers, or baby offshoots. Oftentimes these suckers end up growing in places where they aren’t wanted, or they begin to grow in too densely and cause disease issues. Let people know you’re interested in re-homing intrusive suckers. Who knows what you’ll end up with!
I personally give away lots of raspberry canes, elderberries, strawberries, and blackberries, simply because they spread like crazy. I’ll likely do the same with our blueberries once they get established and start to spread as well.
Put the word out. It never hurts to ask, right? Put it out there on your social media networks, “Hey friends, if anyone has any edible or medicinal plants that they need divided or dug up, I’ll be more than happy to take them off your hands!” Get out there and hunt some plants!
One year I put an ad on Craigslist offering to trade some plants that I had for something new. A lady who lived not too far from me responded, and was happy to let me dig up plants in her yard that needed to be divided out. People don’t know what you need unless you ask. Don’t be afraid to let others know you’re on the hunt for free plants!
Does it grow wild?
As I type this article I’m with my grandfather taking care of him in his suburban neighborhood. He has neighbors on every side, though is fortunate to have plenty of trees and woods around as well. Just this morning I spotted wild grapes and wild blackberries growing within feet of his driveway.
Food. Growing wild. In suburbia.
My question to you is… What might be growing in your own backyard?
Learn how to spot what edible plants look like so that when you see a volunteer growing in the wild or somewhere it doesn’t belong, you’ll be able to dig it up and transplant it to your own garden.
Funny story. One day my family was in town walking to our car when I spotted something green growing in the dirt along the brick wall in front of our parking space. I bent down, picked a leaf, and smelled it. It was just what I thought it looked like…. spearmint!
I bet you can guess what I did.
Heck yeah. I dug that baby up and took it home! I now have spearmint growing in a pot by my front door. Let me tell you, it makes the best tea.
Keep a sharp look out. Maybe you’ll find some wild berries growing in the woods near a local park. Maybe you can try collecting nuts and growing trees from seeds. Perhaps you’ll spot a grapevine growing somewhere odd that can be transplanted into your own yard. There are lots of opportunities to find free edibles if you know what you’re looking at. Just be sure you know what you’re getting before transplanting it! There are plenty of poisonous look-alikes to be aware of.
How To Find Free Planting Materials
Trash to treasure containers.
Something else you need to think about is having containers to put your plants in. Will you be starting your garden from seed? If so, you’ll need something to hold your planting mix and growing seedlings. You’ll also need large pots if you’ll be container gardening on a patio or porch, or deep boxes if you’ll be doing a raised bed garden.
Fortunately, plants don’t really care what they grow in for the most part. As long as the container is deep enough to allow growth for the root system, and has holes for drainage, a plant will just fine. I’ve seen flowers growing in everything from an old kitchen pot with holes drilled in the bottom to a pair of old worn out boots.
You really can get very creative with container gardens so don’t feel like you have to go out and buy planters. There are plenty of ways to get garden containers for free.
Here are just a few ideas of things you can use to start seeds in. Just make sure there are a few holes in the bottom of whatever container you use for adequate drainage. It shouldn’t hold water.
- yogurt cups (or similar plastic containers, ie: sour cream, ricotta cheese, etc.)
- tin cans
- make paper pots out of newspaper
- check Craigslist or Freecycle for free pots
- toilet paper rolls (fold bottom to hold dirt)
- plastic bottles (cut in half)
- empty egg shells (or egg cartons)
- basically anything that’s 1-4 inches deep, at least an inch in diameter, and can drain excess water.
For larger containers and raised beds, here are a few more ideas…
- old bathtub
- old pots
- storage tub
- wash tub
- kiddy pool
- old dresser drawers
- cinder blocks
- trash cans
- free scrap wood
- basically anything that holds dirt and can drain.
You really just need to train your eyes to look at junk in a whole new way. To see something that might be old and broken as something that might have potential for holding plants.
A few years ago I built an herb bed out of an old industrial fan and reclaimed bricks. It cost me nothing but my time, and looks pretty darned good if you ask me.
Be resourceful and use what you’ve got! There’s no reason you would have to go out and buy containers to put plants in.
Make your own compost.
If you’re like me and your native soil is less than ideal for planting you’ll want to amend it with something rich in nutrients. You could buy bags of potting mix from your local hardware store… but I have a better solution. Make compost instead!
It’s true. Making compost at home takes time. Several months, in fact, so get started now. You can do it for free though, and for very little effort, if you just take the time to source the right ingredients. They might even be lurking in your very own backyard.
Building a compost pile is basically layering “green” and “brown” natural materials. If you’re new to composting and need more details, please refer to my article: Composting The Easy Way! for more information.
Here are some of the materials you’ll want to collect to add to your compost pile:
- grass clippings
- old straw/hay
- barn litter (animal bedding mixed with manure)
- livestock manure
- leftover plant material (weeds, garden waste, etc.)
- kitchen scraps (plant based only)
- newspaper (not the glossy pages)
- pine needles
- small sticks
- wood chips
- saw dust
- corn stalks
- coffee grounds
- tea bags
When your neighbors are mowing their yards let them know they’re welcome to dump their grass clippings in your compost pile. In the fall when people are bagging up leaves, collect them to use in your garden! Also, see if your local city has a yard waste facility where they collect useful materials. Oftentimes they have a once a year event when they allow the public to come in and get truckloads of free leaf mulch and compost (usually in the spring).
As you acquire these materials add them to your compost pile. Try not to put too much of one thing in a layer, but mix it up so that it will break down more quickly. Make sure you build your pile directly on the ground so that earthworms and other decomposing organisms can come up into your pile and start working their magic.
Over time these organic materials will begin to break down and turn into what is referred to as “black gold”- a super rich compost that’s full of nutrients your plants will thrive on.
It’s best to allow the compost to sit for six months to a year before using it, so it has time to fully break down any weed seeds that might be germinating in there. Once finished, use your beautiful compost to start seeds or to top dress around existing plants. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes! Plus, you won’t have to buy fertilizers to feed your plants through the growing season. Score!
The last thing you’ll need once your garden is planted is mulch. Mulch is necessary for suppressing weeds and conserving moisture in the soil. Mulch around your plants and between garden rows to reduce the hoeing and weeding you’d otherwise be doing, and to keep your plants cool and moist during the warmer summer months.
It’s best to choose organic materials for mulching so that they can be feeding the soil as they decompose. Some gardeners prefer to use a plastic weed barrier, but organic materials are usually easier to find for free.
I’ll tell you my absolute favorite material for mulching between rows. Wood chips. I love them because they take a long time to break down, they feed the soil in the garden as they decompose, they hold water in the ground so my plants can find moisture on hot, dry days, and they’re great for smothering out weeds (if spread thickly enough).
The absolute best way to get your hands on FREE wood chips is to hit up a tree trimming company when you see them working in your neighborhood. They’re always more than happy to have somewhere to dump the chipped up wood they have to haul away. You can also give tree trimming services a call and ask if you can come and pick up wood chips from their service yard if you don’t happen to catch any working in your area. I’ve gleaned tons (literally!) of free wood chips this way.
My husband always laughs at how excited I get about free wood chips. I’m an easy woman to please.
Besides wood chips, I also collect leaves to mulch over my raised beds through the winter. This helps to keep the beds weed-free until spring. Since we don’t live in a neighborhood I don’t have neighbors to collect bags of leaves from, so I just take my rake and wagon into the woods and scoop up leaves that way (watch out for baby snakes!). It takes time, but the garden benefits tremendously.
Straw and grass clipping also make great mulch. Just make sure they’ve had time to age so there aren’t weed seeds in them. It’s a huge pain when grass seed starts to take over your garden beds ’cause you didn’t give your mulch time to break down properly.
My last piece of advice. Pay it forward.
If somebody gifts you with free seeds, or plants, or cuttings, be just as generous with somebody else the next time you have excess of something. In this way we’ll all benefit as more and more people begin to grow their own food and share from their abundance.
Remember how it felt to start with nothing, and be on the lookout for others in need. Got something you can share? Let your friends know! They might even have something to share in return.
I’d love to know how you find ways to garden for free!