Gardening can be accessible and budget-friendly, no matter your experience level.
Woman potting vegetable plants on a back patio
Credit: Getty Images / AleksandarNakic

Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.

As the weather starts to warm, I start to daydream about my garden. I love the process of growing vegetables, from sprouting seedlings to flowering plants and fruitful harvests. There are many health benefits of gardening, too, like lowering stress, reducing risk of dementia and heart disease and promoting weight loss and muscle tone. Not to mention, it's one of the most rewarding hobbies there is, and each year you get a little bit better at it (for more on that, check out the things I wish I knew before starting my first garden). Having a garden doesn't mean you need to have a tidy raised bed on a perfectly manicured lawn. It can be a plot in your local community garden or even containers on your balcony. The most important part about gardening is connecting to nature and appreciating the nutritious foods it can provide us. 

Gardening has a reputation for being expensive, especially when you're first starting out. But as a person on a budget, I'm here to reassure you that it doesn't have to be. There are several ways to grow your own food without having to break the bank at the garden store. Here are eight tips to save money when starting a vegetable garden. 

8 Money-Saving Tips for Starting a Vegetable Garden

1. Start your own seeds 

In my opinion, the best way to save money on your veggie garden is by starting seeds yourself. A pack of seeds is usually around $3-8 and contains at least 20 to 40 seeds, compared to seedlings at the plant nursery that cost upward of $4 each. But don't be fooled: what you save in money you'll make up for in time spent. Starting seedlings can be difficult and challenging your first time around, so do your research. Books and YouTube videos are super helpful to get an idea of a system that would work for you. But for something more personalized, most garden centers or universities have master gardeners who field questions from community members for free. I love the Growease Seed Starter Kit from Gardener's Supply Company. It's self-watering, has a transparent top to keep moisture in for sprouting seedlings, and it's only $11.95 for a 12-cell container. The only other equipment you'll need is a sunny window or grow light. 

2. Use strained potting soil 

If you've loitered around your local garden store (like I often do), you may have seen the bags of organic premium grade seed-starting soil for upward of $12 for just 6 quarts. If you're trying to save money, you can absolutely use regular potting soil to start seedlings instead (and you can get 20 quarts of soil for about the same price). To get the same results, be sure to remove any large wood chips or particles from the potting soil so that the seedlings have the space to sprout and their roots can easily grow. I just shake soil through a large strainer to filter out any pieces that are too big. 

3. Utilize old yogurt containers 

One of the greatest lessons I've learned over the years is to label and date your seedlings. As good as you think your memory is, it is very hard to tell cherry tomatoes from slicers and squash from cucumbers, especially if you repot them once or twice before moving them outside. Instead of splurging on fancy labeling supplies, old yogurt or ricotta containers (or basically any plastic container) make great labels. And they're free! I just cut them into 1-inch wide and 3-inch tall rectangles, then add the vegetable name and date. Don't skip adding the date; it will help you know how close the plants should be to maturity as the season goes on. 

4. Harden off your seedlings 

You started your seedlings and they're growing quickly. If the weather cooperates, you think you'll be able to move them outdoors soon—but not so fast! It's important to harden off your seedlings before moving them outdoors for good. This is the process of giving seedlings controlled exposure to the elements and can be achieved by setting them outside during the day when temps are above 60°F, but bringing them inside at night. 

Though this doesn't directly save you any money, it really helps with the success of your home-started seedlings. Hardening off plants helps ensure that they get stronger, grow better and produce more (and they are much less likely to die once exposed to the elements full time). After all your hard work starting your seedlings, this extra step keeps you from needing to frantically replace plants that don't make it. 

5. Make your own supports 

One of the most expensive parts of gardening is the outlay for support structures that plants need. Pepper and tomato plants need to be corralled with cages; squash and cucumber need to be guided by a trellis. If you buy these structures from the garden store or hardware store, they aren't cheap (many standard-size trellises are over $50). Instead, save some money by flexing your handiness. Chicken wire, wood planks or pallets, and large sticks or poles are all you need to craft a variety of DIY plant supports. Make a plan and ask for help at your local hardware store if you need it.  

6. Collect rainwater

All gardens need water, and usually lots of it. If you are gardening at home, you might notice an uptick in your water bill as the growing season kicks into full gear. To minimize your water usage, try collecting rainwater to keep your garden hydrated. It's free and more environmentally friendly than turning on the hose. Just be sure to cover your rainwater basin with a mesh covering to protect it from plants and animals that could fall in (if you have leftover chicken wire, use it here). 

7. Use food scraps as fertilizer 

Several foods that we typically waste can actually provide a dose of nutrients to our gardens. There are several food scraps that can be used directly in the soil as a free alternative to fertilizer. Whether it's eggshells, coffee grounds or fruit peels, try keeping a bag of food scraps and dispersing it around your garden to nourish your plants without spending a dime. You can even water plants with the cooking water that's left over from boiling vegetables for some added nutrients. 

 8. Learn to preserve

As the summer rolls on, hopefully you have an incredibly fruitful harvest. Remember that having more vegetables than you can immediately use is a good problem to have. Don't let excess produce go to waste. Learn to can, dry and freeze it to preserve it for long after the growing season ends. Also, share your bounty with friends, family and neighbors so that all of the fruits of your labor get put to good use.