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

You can grow a lot of food for a little bit of moneyMay 3 
This past weekend's rototilling extravaganza was brilliant. A friend of Mohawk descent has outgrown his communitygarden plot and will work the soil on our land instead. He'll interplant heritage varieties of white corn with beans and pumpkins in the traditional Three Sisters style, along with tobacco, sunflowers, and vegetables for his family. He rented the largest rototiller available and coordinated the timing so we could take turns behind the beast. We supplied the fuel and extra hands to pick rocks. Running nearly dawn to dusk, we broke ground for his extensive gardens and ours, and when we ran out of steam, the neighbors took a turn in their yard. I'm excited by this new partnership, and especially pleased that there was time and energy to clear several hundred square feet of lawn for flowers. The annual seeds I've collected will attract birds in view of the kitchen window, and Mom now has a bed into which she'll transplant the primroses, bleeding heart, balloon flower, and other perennials she divided years ago in anticipation of us one day settling into a home of our own. 
May 15 
If there's one thing I hate, it's mowing grass--and this house floats in a sea of the green stuff. Happily, my aggressive lawn-eradication plan looks like a winner. Friends of friends ripped a dozen mature yew bushes from in front of their foundation. We leaped at the chance to install them along a property line where we'd like a smidgen more privacy, then filled in among them with divisions from our overgrown hostas and forsythias we received in a daylily trade. An online post yielded a beautiful, mature bridal wreath spirea. I cut it back hard before digging it from the donor's yard and replaced it with the white lilac she had sought, dug from a clump in desperate need of thinning at our place. A former colleague long ago offered bamboo and rhubarb from his gardens, and finally we can take him up on the offer. I've also transplanted several varieties of willow and strawberries, as well as hops, butterfly bush, purple coneflower, salvia, rudbeckia, black currants, blueberries, and horseradish, all free. 
We're wary of overtaxing our well, so to nurse the newcomers through their first summer, we've relied heavily on free mulch from the town's mulch pile and, for the acid-loving plants, used grounds from the local coffee shop. We've also amassed an assortment of rain barrels, all cheap or free. One began as a pickle barrel ($3 at a garage sale); others formerly held industrial dishwashing detergent at the local college's dining hall. Not pretty, but shielded from view by fast-growing vines and decanted into 3-gallon jugs discarded by the naturalfoods co-op--which we store out of sight in the potting shed--it's a rainwater collection system that works for us.
June 16 
A small organic-vegetable operation wants the excess hay from our fields, which is cut and baled free by a cattle farmer down the road who takes the bulk to feed his livestock over winter. The produce growers will suppress weeds in their garlic beds; in exchange, they've offered credit at their farm stand, which boasts honey and jam. 
While we couldn't start seeds indoors ourselves this year, between the trades, some starts from the Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm we belong to (free because we're supplying our labor in exchange for the season's eats), and leftover seedlings from another friend planting veggies at our place, we've gotten a great jump on the season.
It's too early to know how my homemade fish emulsion works in the tomato beds. Dad supplied sunfish from his pond; I buried a few while planting seedlings and fermented the remainder in a discarded 5-gallon bucket with lid, free from the co-op. The process is admittedly stinky, but so is store-bought, and this approach appeals to my do-it-yourself, get-it-for-free ethic.
June 26 
Earlier this month, we transplanted a trio of hardy kiwi vines overwhelming their previous owner's tiny 
downtown yard. To raise the hand-hewn, post-and-beam arbor that will support the vines at our garden entrance, we invited friends to help. We supplied snacks and drinks and they supplied muscle, camaraderie, and laughter. 
August 14 
There's no better gift for a gardener than free labor. My cousin and her brood infused the garden with their energy and vision last week. The eldest transformed the sunflower patch outside the kitchen window into a destination by laying a winding path edged with rocks from the gardens, punctuated with divisions from around the yard and trade perennials I potted back in June. Row cover and old sheets will shield them from the hot sun at this inopportune time for transplanting. Soon, they will be a gorgeous legacy of her visit. The second-eldest built liners for the remaining garden beds with salvaged lumber, and the young ones collected seed for next year, including peas, garlic, and spring bulbs that had naturalized during the years of neglect before we arrived. 
Heartbreaking, but inevitable: Our tomatoes and potatoes have late blight. It was reported locally in late June, and many here spent the July 4 weekend burning or bagging their infected plants. And yet, silver linings: Many weeks ago, we transformed the plastic and lumber bequeathed by friends who are leaving town into a pseudo-greenhouse. That partial protection from the summer's constant rain held infection at bay long enough that we have green tomatoes for jam and pickles. To save the 200 row feet of potatoes planted as part of an organic fingerling variety trial that provided free seed, we cut and bagged their foliage. This should keep spores from moving into the soil and destroying the tubers. Harvest can wait. If we're lucky, we'll have potatoes for winter storage, as well as data for the trial.