Less is More: Gardening on a Budget

A beginning gardener's ingenuity turns $75 into 6 months of fresh vegetables.

By Sharon Tregaskis

Photography by Matthew Benson

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less is more—gardening on a budgetLast year, my partner and I became new homeowners, buying a house and a few acres of farmland in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. We had ambition and creativity, but since we were also transitioning from two paychecks to one, cash was tight. So in early February, we set a goal of spending no more than $75 to grow, buy, or barter an entire season of fresh, local, organic vegetables. Could it be done? Yes, and then some. Ultimately, our scheme yielded as much in new friendships, hardened muscles, and lessons learned as it did in the produce we harvested. In our season of (admittedly, self-imposed) limits, we discovered that abundance comes in many guises. 
 
February 12 
It's rained all week, pooling atop a sheet of ice in the back yard. The snowdrops are budding. I've already arranged my first freebie, courtesy of Craigslist. A woman too pregnant to dig seeks help dividing her iris and strawberry beds. I will supply the labor and in turn help myself to unlimited rhizomes and runners. We'll arrange the details in April. Meanwhile, I'm inspired to inventory our perennials and post a barter offer of my own. 
 
The beds of the neglected vegetable garden are in rough shape: The rich soil has been overrun by weeds and saplings, some taller than I am, while the borders around the raised beds have decomposed. We have our work cut out for us.
 
I've alerted friends to our budget scheme; they're already sharing information. One who took the Cooperative Extension beginning-gardener class last year reports a free seed cabinet stocked with donations from the big companies and local seed savers. Any county resident may take up to 12 packets. And an ecoboutique downtown has posted flyers for monthly gardening classes; I've inquired whether they'll host a seed swap. I hope to expand our seed inventory and meet some like-minded gardeners.
 
March 14 
Today was beautiful: a clear, blue sky, bright sunshine, and temperatures warm enough to shed our winter layers here in Zone 5. A pair of hawks, hoping we might flush a rodent, wheeled overhead. We borrowed a truck and trailer this morning, and retrieved--free--15 cubic yards of mostly composted horse manure. This was the week for online offers from people cleaning out their barns, so I made a deal with the one right for us: herbicide-free feed, a farm both near our house and that of the friends lending us their truck and trailer, even help loading from the generous horsewoman sharing her wealth. 
 
This afternoon, we placed the trunks of quaking aspens thinned from an overgrown corner of the yard as borders for the raised beds. The result fits our rustic-chic aesthetic and spares the hassle and costs of store-bought lumber. To suppress weeds, we've sheet-mulched the footpaths with cardboard salvaged from the grocery store, topped with several inches of wood mulch from the town pile. Mounds of emerging daffodils, daylilies, poppies, and tulips abound, including in spots we plan to double-dig for vegetables. I'll offer those to the people who responded to my online perennial barter offer. It's starting to look like a garden! Next weekend, we'll repay the trailer loan by helping our friends plant trees at their place.
 
Penny Pinching Tips
  • Go online. Visit OrganicGardening. com's seed-swap forum. Craigslist has free, barter, and farm-garden categories where anything from mulch to seedlings, even lawn tools, finds a new home fast. On Freecycle.org, everything is free. 
  • Or check the local Cooperative Extension for free seed. Host an exchange. 
  • Barter and trade with friends and coworkers. Get creative: bake a cake or babysit in exchange for help planting a tree or for the loan of a truck. 
  • Scavenge your land or neighborhood. Tree trunks can become the sides of a raised bed; branches and brush can be turned into trellises and plant supports. 
  • The supermarket usually has boxes and containers available for the asking. 
  • Split the cost of expensive tools or large seed orders with friends and neighbors. 
  • Offer your labor or skills to a local CSA or market farmer for seedlings or produce. Many CSAs off er free or discounted subscriptions in exchange for a certain number of hours of work. 
  • Keep the giving cycle going. Donate leftover seeds and materials to local schools, community gardens, or the Cooperative Extension, and your excess harvest to a food bank.
     
April 3 
The seed swap was a grand success. Two dozen participants traded seeds and garden talk for about 2 hours. Also fun: crafting my seed packets, and delivering leftovers from the event to the Cooperative Extension seed cabinet. Next year, I'll schedule the exchange for late winter, before everyone orders by mail. The local native-plant society holds its exchange on the winter solstice--great idea. Some of the catalogs offer bulk discounts; next year, we'll save cash with a group order. 
 
April 19 
Friends starting an organic farm invited us to a work party to plant 20,000 crowns of asparagus. We helped out for a few hours and came home with a dozen crowns to plant in our own garden. They're interspersed with the strawberries, and now we have a beautiful bed of perennial vegetables that we'll begin harvesting next year. Later this week, I'll help another farmer transplant her tomato seedlings from trays to pots; she's promised me gooseberries and my choice of mature seedlings, instead of cash. 
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