Inflation looks set to stick around, so it’s up to us to think of ways we can save a few pennies. Growing some of your own food is one of the best ways you can fight back against spiralling food prices, and with the tips I’m about to share you can dramatically shrink your grocery bill and enjoy fresher, healthier food. Win-win!
Save on Seeds and Seedlings
Whether you’re new to gardening or an old-and-muddy hand at it, it all starts with the seeds and seedlings we’ll need to plant our gardens.
Seeds can vary in price, but there are tricks you can use to source seeds for very little. One way to get a head start is to look out for seed collections or multipacks. My local grocery store, for example, currently has a six-pack of different vegetable seeds available for a fraction of their individual cost. Some stores and garden centres offer a value range of seeds, which are often tried-and-trusted old-time favourites. And look out for seed swaps, where you can barter and exchange for seeds and plants.
Once you get started you’ll be able to save your own seeds too of course! Saving seed of favourites like beans, tomatoes, and peppers can help you to cut your seed bill even further.
Newly-planted seeds can often be encouraged into growth with a little warmth early on in the season. I’ll let you into a little secret here: I don’t own a heated propagator. Instead, I simply place my early sowings somewhere warm indoors – for instance, onto a warm indoor windowsill just above a heat source, or on top of the refrigerator. The gently radiated heat is enough to stir seeds into action. Check them every day and move them to a bright sunny spot as soon as they germinate - indoors, for warmth-loving crops like tomatoes and peppers, or for cool-season crops a greenhouse, cold frame or even a bright, sheltered spot outdoors is good.
It’s easy to make plant pots for free. I love doing this because you’re literally turning waste into something useful, and it really can save quite a lot of money. Empty yogurt pots or used fruit or mushroom trays with holes skewered into the bottom for drainage make excellent seedling containers. (Extra tip: yogurt pots can also be cut into strips to make your own plant labels!)
Alternatively, you can make your own biodegradable pots using nothing more than some newspaper and a cup. First choose a cup or glass, without any handles, that’s roughly about the size for the seedlings you’re growing. Tear or cut newspaper into strips just wider than the height of your cup. Fold the top edge over – this will give the pot a thicker, sturdier rim – then lay it flat again. Take your cup and wrap the newspaper tightly around it. Turn your pot upside down and fold the paper down onto it to make the base to your pot. Pinch round the edges to firm it up. Slide it off your cup, fold the top edge over again, and there you have your paper pot!
Paper pots are not very strongly individually, but when you’ve filled them with potting mix and pack them together in a tray, cheek by jowl, they’ll support each other, and should last until it’s time to plant them outside. You can plant the whole thing, so there’s no disturbance to plant roots.
Toilet paper tubes work well for bigger seeds and for any plants where you want to encourage deep roots, for instance beans and corn. Make snips in the bottom of the tube with a pair of scissors at the 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock positions, then push and fold these flaps down like a cardboard box to create a firm base. Again, just plant the whole thing and the cardboard will gradually rot away, adding a little extra carbon to the soil, and avoiding plastic waste too.
Larger containers can be eye-wateringly expensive to buy, but just about anything be pressed into service as a container so long as you drill drainage holes into the bottom. Be as cool and quirky as you dare!
Inexpensive Potting Mixes
I like to eke out my bought-in potting mixes to make them go further. This is pricey stuff, so there’s little point saving on seeds if you’re going to be spending a small fortune on what they’re growing in! I aim to get a couple of uses out of my seed-starting mix. Some gardeners may frown on this – what about plant diseases?! But let me explain.
I start many of my seedlings off in pots, which are then transferred into plug trays very soon after germinating. The seedlings are still very small at this stage but seem to settle into their new homes just fine nonetheless. This means that the seed starting mix in the pot has barely been touched – some fast-growers like brassicas are in and out within a week! So with the seedlings removed I can then refill the pot with the same mix and sow the next batch.
Another option is to fill your pots two-thirds full with old potting mix, then top off with fresh seed-starting mix. This approach can also be taken with larger containers too, which works well for shallow-rooted crops like lettuce. Fill the bottom half of your container with old potting mix and raked up leaves, then top up with fresh new potting mix. Why fill the whole container with pricey potting mix when you can get away with less?
Money-Saving Mulches and Soil Improvers
One thing you don’t want to skimp on is the organic matter you add to your garden beds, because that’s what feeds the soil and, by extension, your plants. One of the best free plant foods and soil improvers is compost, but for most of us there’s only so much compost you can make using waste materials from your own garden, so it’s worth looking for other sources of organic matter to. Ask neighbours for leaves they’ve raked up, or if they’ve been having a spring tidy-up in the garden but don't do any composting themselves, it’s worth asking if you can have it all! (Make sure that they haven’t used any weedkillers or pesticides though.)
Plain cardboard is an excellent source of ‘browns’ for the compost pile to help balance ‘greens’ like grass clippings, so check locally for old cardboard boxes etc that you can salvage. Rip it up as you add it to the compost heap, to speed up decomposition.
Make friends with your local tree surgeon. They often have chippings they are only too happy to get rid of. Search online too – search ‘free wood chips’ and see what turns up. There are also websites that connect arborists and tree surgeons with end users like gardeners. You sign up, register your location, and then local arborists will get in touch if they have a load of wood chips to drop off.
One of the best compost accelerators is the droppings from small herbivorous pets such as hamsters and guinea pigs. See if anyone you know uses wood shavings for the bottom of their pets’ cage – if so, you’ll be doing them a favour by disposing of it, and will simultaneously give your compost heap a huge boost.
It’s also worth growing some plants specifically to produce material for mulching and composting. Comfrey for instance draws minerals up from deep down in the soil using their long, deep roots. These ‘bioaccumulators’ absorb all those nutrients up into their leaves, and then release them when you cut the leaves to add to your heap or drape around your crops as needed. Be sure to source the variety ‘Bocking 14’, which isn’t invasive like the wild comfrey can be.
Penny-Pinching Plant Supports and Protection
I grow a clump of bamboo which I cut to use as supports for climbing beans. I’m always surprised by how much bamboo canes cost to buy, especially when it’s so easy to grow bamboo in most gardens and just take what you need, when you need it. If you’re planting bamboo, make sure to choose a clump-forming variety rather than an aggressive spreading type.
If you haven’t got any bamboo in the garden, there are alternatives. Hazel is great if you coppice it by cutting it right down at ground level so it sends out more straight, long stems. Other shrubs like buddleia (butterfly bush) produce nice straight stems too.
Many crops (for instance cabbage family plants) need to be protected from pests like egg-laying butterflies, moths and pigeons, so you’ll need some sort of protective cage. A cheap way to do this is to just insert canes into the soil, top them off with empty bottles or old tennis balls, then drape a cover over the top and secure the edges so nothing can get inside.
Insect-proof mesh makes a great barrier to insect pests. It’s sturdy and its light transmission is excellent. I buy it by the meter from my local garden center, which works out way cheaper than buying it as a pre-cut pack. Alternatives include tulle, net curtains, or any finely netted fabric – search sites like Gumtree, Craigslist or eBay for second-hand bargains.
You can extend the growing season with covers, cold frames and mini hoop houses too. The simplest and cheapest option is to use a salvaged window laid atop four cut-to-size planks of wood that are held upright between short lengths of bamboo cane on each side and at each end to create a box frame. It’s an instant cold frame to pop over the likes of winter salads – and it works a treat!
Don’t forget the wonderful world of propagation. So many plants can be had for free using simple propagation techniques. Take cuttings of fruit bushes or herbs, or divide perennial herbs like chives, mint and oregano to fill out your garden without ever going near a garden center.
I’m sure many of you will have your own money-saving gardening tips to share as well. If you do, please don’t be shy – drop a comment below and let us all in on the secret!