After doing a little digging (pardon the pun) I was surprised at just how many resources there are for free garden supplies. It really is possible to garden completely for free! Even so, some of these ideas aren’t entirely free.
Needless to say that gardening for free automatically involves gardening organically. No purchase of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Gardening for free involves a little more work and a little more time, but can be well worth it.
Generally, if you have ground, you have somewhere to dig a garden. For our garden, we used dirt from our yard. It’s not very good dirt, it’s full of old tree root and someone in the past had a pebble feature, so lots and lots of rocks. We ended up getting a $2 piece of bird netting to use as a sift to sift out the rocks and it worked really well. It was a fair bit of work, but free.
If you don’t have topsoil to use in your garden, there are places that you can get it for free. Your local council, local classifieds and freecycle are good places to start. People excavating generally have to pay to dump dirt, so are often more than willing to have you cart it away for free. Another alternative is to contact landscape designers and gardeners to see if they have soil they need to get rid of.
Would you believe that there is actually a website dedicated to listing free dirt. Check out Freedirt.com.au for topsoil in your area.
Often this free dirt is going to be pretty poor quality. When I did some work in a plant nursery, the horticulturalist told me that it was much better to get this poor quality soil and build it up with nutrients, than to get the expensive stuff which may be too ‘rich’ or not right for your yard’s micro-ecosystem.
For recipes on making your own potting mixes, check out tipnut.
Composting and Fertilising
Take a drive in a rural area and there will be signs everywhere advertising free poo. Cow, chicken, horse – all good to dig into the garden. Manure is nature’s recycling system – today’s waste is tomorrow’s food. It’s really quite efficient that plants thrive in soil built up with decomposing waste. Again, the local classifieds can be another source of finding free manure.
I haven’t tried composting yet, but it is a great way to create nutrient-rich soil by recycling kitchen scraps and garden waste. For information on creating your own compost see The Vegetable Patch.
If you’re thinking that you live in a small flat and can’t compost, think again! I discovered this little invention when working at the plant nursery. The Bokashi Bin is a tiny bin you can keep in your kitchen specifically for composting kitchen scraps and creating liquid fertiliser. While obviously not free, a handy person might be able to whip one up out of an old cordial drum or tea urn.
When it comes to fertiliser, there is nothing like a good poo stew. This is a “tea” of manure and water and you use the liquid on the garden. Alternatively you can grow some comfrey and make comfrey tea. Comfrey is also good to put in your compost. For liquid fertiliser recipes, check out Down To Earth.
Finally, you want to do everything you can to encourage worms. Worms are a sign of really healthy soil, which means healthy plants. They help with decomposition and fertilisation.
Mulch keeps moisture in the soil longer, saving you water; keeps the soil temperature more even; breaks down over time, providing nutrients for the plants without needing as much fertiliser; and keeps the weeds at bay.
When I was a kid, dad used to mulch the garden with dry grass clippings. If you have lawn to mow, you have mulch. Beware though, as this can be a great source of weeds! Fallen leaves can be another source of mulch. Larger mulch like pine bark can rob the soil of nitrogen as it decomposes, so you may need to feed your garden a little extra if you use this type of mulch.
Many local councils have a free mulch service. I looked up our local council, but we have to pay. Other places to find free mulch is again in the local classifieds and freecycle, neighbours and local tree loppers.
Saving water is a huge issue in Australia now, so there are many, many resources to help you save water in the garden. To start with, build your soil up with plenty of compost and use plenty of mulch as this keeps water in the soil longer. Just don’t make it so deep that the rain can’t penetrate it. About 5cm is good.
If you can, collect rain water. There are plenty of small tanks on the market that can go into even the smallest yard, but even a bucket in the rain will help. If you live in a subtropical region like we do though, mozzies like to breed in water that’s been sitting around so keep this in mind when collecting water.
You can also use household water, like collecting water in a bucket when you shower or using the greywater from your washing machine. If you do use greywater, make sure that the washing powder is greywater safe. A friend noted the other day that her laundry powder says “grey water safe”, but in small print says only to use the rinse water, so check the label carefully or make your own detergents and dilute them.
Pots, Planters, Garden Beds and Paraphernalia
Pots can be anything that hold soil and drain water. The kitchen and recycling bin are a treasure trove of planters: egg cartons for seedlings, yogurt containers, milk cartons and tins. Also think plastic bags and soft drink bottles to use as greenhouses, white plastic milk bottles cut up for labels, plastic bottles for drip irrigation.
But you don’t have to stop at the kitchen. Old boots are a common ornamental garden pot, old baskets, recycled wheelbarrows, styrofoam boxes from the grocers. Recycled window frames with glass make good greenhouses. You can use recycled timber or old bricks for garden beds or raised gardens. Council collection day, tip scavenging (or tip shop) and salvage yards are a source of recycled materials. Just beware that treated timber can leach stuff into the soil. Another popular suggestion is old tyres, but I’m a bit sus on the chemicals that could leach into your soil.
Old panty hose make good garden ties as they don’t cut into your plant. Stakes can be recycled. Grow climbers on wire attached to a fence.
Pests and Disease
The problem with chemical pesticides is that they kill indiscriminately. Not all garden insects are bad. In fact some insects eat the pests that eat your plants. Before killing, check out if you pests are beneficial or not.
When it comes to pests and disease, prevention is better than cure. Ensure that your plants are in nice, healthy soil, that they get plenty of water (a deep soak less often is better than a regular light watering), and that you cut off dying and diseased leaves. Adopting companion planting and permaculture practices can also help prevent pests and disease.
For organic homemade pesticide recipes try the garden guru. For more information on pests see Annette McFarlane’s website. And for coffee lovers, coffee grounds not only help fertiliser plants, they also repel slugs.
If you’re serious about gardening, you may need to splurge on some good quality tools. We bought the cheapest available and the handle has already snapped off the spade. On the other hand you could borrow tools for free or for barter or try freecycle for free tools.
When buying tools stick to a couple of quality basics like a good spade, rake and cultivator, depending on your gardening needs. Try your local classifieds, thrift stores, and EBay for cheap but quality second hand tools.
Plant swapping can be something as informal as swapping with neighbours, or as formal as joining a local garden club or swap meet. Collect and swap seeds from your plants or divide clumping plants to share around. If you know a garden lover, plants can also make great gifts.
In the face of recession, it seems vegetable gardening has become popular again. But many ask whether it really saves money. I think that it’s an investment that can pay you dividends in the long term. There’s the initial cost (or not!) of establishing an organic garden, but after that, a minimal cost of maintaining it.
Not only can it supplement our groceries for very little cost, especially if you collect seeds, but gardening can be good exercise, a hobby, a stress release, a way of meeting people and a way of reconnecting with our natural environment and teaching our children where our food comes from. When I heard Annette McFarlane speak, she said her favourite thing is getting out in the garden in the cool of the evening with the hose in one hand and a glass of Chardy in the other listening to the birds and insects and unwinding from the day – then eating the produce!