How to Start a Garden from Scratch and on a Budget

Today’s post I want to share with you how to start a garden from scratch so that you can grow the very best vegetables.

how to garden

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There are so many good and positive things I could say about starting a garden.  I’ve been gardening for just three years now, and each year gets better and better.  There is something to be said for producing your own food in your own backyard. I hope that today’s post will encourage new gardeners in their journey.

During the pandemic years ago my garden had provided me an even deeper comfort.  To know that I would have vegetables available to me right here at home instead of needing to go to the grocery store was a big stress reliever.

In the three years since I’ve started gardening, each year we add on to what we did the previous year.  There are a couple reasons for that.

  1.  We didn’t get overwhelmed by jumping in too deep too fast.  This allowed us to be able to manage our garden more easily.
  2. We didn’t shell out a ton of money initially.  We’ve paid for a little more of what we needed each year.

When we first moved out to our homestead there was no evidence of an in-ground vegetable garden.  Therefore we had to dig a small garden ourselves.  There was no rototiller here, and at that time I wasn’t even blogging so we were a one-income family which meant to money to rent one either.

So, my husband dug it all with a shovel and some serious elbow grease.  It was a lot of work.  Here was our first little garden 3 years ago:

As you can see it’s surrounded by a small jungle.  I didn’t really know what I was doing at all but frankly, I was pretty impressed that even with my black thumb, my garden plants were growing!

Also, it’s amazing how a garden can look so small after you’ve dug it, but while you are doing the work, well, it’s insane how long it takes to dig up that space!

We started by planting some tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli (which failed), lettuce, and spinach.

It wasn’t much, but I felt like I was on top of the world when I would go to the garden each day and pick new vegetables that had ripened.

Then last year we decided to get a little more serious.  We rented a sod cutter (it removes just the layer of sod from the ground) and grew our garden to a much bigger space.

And then, we watched our dog run into the space we had just dug up and he started digging.

This wasn’t going to work without some garden fences, we realized.  So we built the fence too.  Here it is:

and later in the season when things really started growing:

On top of that we dug up a patch in the front yard for some pumpkins, along with another small patch for flowers.

This year we’ve added on again.  Our friends lent us their rototiller and we made our back garden a little bigger.  We also built a cold frame to plant lettuce in so we can have it growing a little earlier.  You can read more about that in last week’s post here.

And this year we are planting even more than we did last year.

My point?  Give yourself time to build it up.  Many times we look at homesteaders, or gardeners, and see their gorgeous garden and want that right now.

What we don’t realize is that it took them years to get to that point.  They aren’t first time gardeners.

Don’t compare your beginning to someone’s middle.  Give yourself the time to grow (pun totally intended. 🙂 )

I am so glad we took the time to start out small.  It gave me the confidence to grow a bigger garden in time.  It allowed me the time to learn how to preserve my food along the way, and plant seedlings successfully.

We wanted to use as minimal money as possible to build our gardens.  So what if you are starting a garden from scratch?  How should you get going?

Well, first you want to determine what kind of garden you want.  You can do raised beds, or directly into the ground, or if you have a super small space you can even do container gardening.

RAISED BEDS

Initially I wanted raised beds. Raised beds are just as they sound, a garden in a raised box.   Most people use wood for this but you can use other materials too.  Not only are they gorgeous in my opinion, it’s often less weeding.  Who doesn’t want to weed less?   They can also be great if you want something not so low to the ground, so less bending for you.  The other plus is that they can provide better drainage than an in ground garden.

We passed on raised beds mostly because of cost and time to build them.  Raised garden beds are great for smaller spaces, but if you want to grow a lot, you will need to make a lot of raised beds.  Some people go that route and love it, but I know for us we didn’t want to pay for the lumber and the soil it would take to fill them, not to mention the time to build them as we had a bunch of other projects that were priority to us.

You can get a raised bed kit, but they do tend to be a little more costly.  However, for some people that’s what works for them.

IN GROUND GARDENING

In the end we went with an inground garden.  We knew this would be the most economical way because we were making use of the soil that was already there.  The other plus is that inground gardens don’t dry out as quickly as raised beds and as I said above, we didn’t need to build a bunch of beds.

The other thing the inground garden allows for is tools such as rototillers whereas if you have a raised bed you will be doing all the work by hand.

When it comes down to it either option can work and it really is a matter of personal preference.  If you are looking for a low-cost option you will want to go with the in ground gardening system.

CONTAINERS

If you don’t have  a lot of space you can always use containers for gardening.  Just get some really big flower pots and grow vegetables in there!  Container gardens can be a gorgeous addition to any yard, porch, or balcony.  Anything from tomato plants to more edible plants like an herb garden can be planted in a container.

HOW TO START A GARDEN FROM SCRATCH

Once you’ve picked your method, you can start preparing the soil.  If you have a raised bed you will need to fill the beds.  You will want to fill the beds with bags of soil you can purchase at your local garden center. Some people like to mix a bit of compost in their garden beds.

If you have an inground garden you’ll want to get the soil ready as well. If you haven’t dug your patch at all you can either get a rototiller or a sod cutter to make your garden plot.  I recommend a sod cutter if you are cutting up a brand new spot.  This will take the top layer of grass off instead of mixing the grass seed into the garden.  The more grass seed gets mixed into the soil, the more weeds you will have growing.

TO FENCE OR NOT TO FENCE?

I’ve seen many gardens without fences, and many with fences.  It comes down to how much money you want to put into it, and also where your garden is located may play a role.

Like I stated above, we needed to keep our dog out.  I also wanted to keep the bunnies out.  We had some fencing lying around, so aside from the poles, there wasn’t much expense for us.  We used the fencing we had here that had bigger openings to keep the dog out, and then we lined the bottom of the fence with chicken-wire to keep the bunnies out.  Bunnies can cause a lot of damage to your garden!  They are cute, but hungry.

I also wanted a fence up because our garden is way at the back of our property, so away from the noise of our home which means it invites more bunnies – or even deer.

However, our pumpkin patch/squash garden is right in our front yard, just a few meters from our front door.  We didn’t feel the need to fence this one in and we had no issues with things eating our garden, or even our dog getting into it.  Apparently it wasn’t as inviting as the back garden.

When we created our first garden up above we basically put up a temporary fence.  We used the fencing we had here, and then some t-posts that were easy to remove.

That being said, we live in an area where a lot of Mennonite and Amish have big gardens which are not fenced in.    I have noticed, though, that their properties are near busier roads and are less likely to have animals in the garden due to the noise.

For me, I just didn’t want to do all the hard work of gardening and then watch some little critters eat it!

OTHER EQUIPMENT YOU NEED FOR YOUR GARDEN

You’ll also want to think about trellises or supports for what you are growing,  like green beans or other tall plants.  If you are growing tomatoes you can use tomato cages or you can stake them.  Honestly, I was not successful with tomato cages.  The weight of the tall plants just bent over the cages.  I now use some solid pieces of wood we have here and I tie the tomato plant gently to them.

If you are growing pole beans or peas you will want to trellis them so they can climb.  Here are some great ideas on various trellises.

STARTING SEEDS

But what about your seeds?  Should you start them in the house?  All of them? Just some?

So, let me start this section out by telling you about my first year.  I planted all my seeds indoors.  I then proceeded to kill all my seedlings.

Yep, I’m that good.

At first I thought my gardening season was over.  I had failed.  I might as well pack it in.  But then some friends told me just to plant the seeds in the ground.  To skip starting them inside.

So I did.  And guess what?  Things grew. A LOT.

Now, it did mean I had a shorter growing season, but I still enjoyed a lot of fresh produce.

So, let that be known that depending on where you live (and I’m in cold Canada where our growing season is shorter overall) you can probably just plant seeds in the ground and things will grow.

However, starting them indoors will give you a longer growing season.  For me I start some indoors and some outdoors now.  Oh, and I don’t kill them like I used to. 🙂

What I do is I read the back of all my seed packets.  The back of a seed package will tell you when you should start them.  Some will say 6-8 weeks before the last frost dates (for my location that’s around the May long weekend), others will say 3-4 weeks, and still others will say to plant directly into the ground after the threat of frost has passed.

For the seeds I do plant indoors, I plant them in some potting soil making sure the seeds are in damp soil, and then I cover them all with plastic bags and put them in a warm dark area for the first few days until they germinate.

Once they germinate (so, you can see things growing above the soil) I move them to a metal stand I have with grow lights on them.  You can find grow lights here.

I use a mix of different seed pots.  I love the biodegradable ones here, but I also use things like the red solo cups and just pop a hole in the bottom of them for drainage. I’ve also made my own out of toilet paper rolls or newspaper.

If your seedlings start getting too big for their little pot you will want to transplant them into a bigger container.

I keep the grow lights on all day, and turn them off over night.

HARDENING THE SEEDLINGS

So, you’ve cared for your seedlings for weeks now, and you are ready to plant them into the ground.  But wait!  You need to harden them.

Yeah, I didn’t know what that meant either.  Basically, you need to slowly expose your plants to the harsh elements of the outdoors slowly.  If you just plant them without helping them get used to the sun and the wind then they can die.

To harden off your seeds you want to take them outdoors a little each day, extending the time as you go along.    So, for the first day take them out in the sun for an hour, the second day – two hours, the third day – three hours, and so on.  Do this for a week, or seven days.  After the seven days you will be ready to transplant them.

You want to make sure they have adequate water throughout this process, and especially when you transplant them.

PLANTING YOUR SEEDLINGS INTO THE GARDEN

When you transplant your seedlings you want your garden soil to be moist, but not soggy.  So either water your garden or transplant your seedlings after a rain.   Also make sure the soil in your seedling pot is also moist or it may fall apart as you try to transplant them.

You want to dig a small hole in in your garden with a trowel to place your seedling in. Gently tap the seed pot bottom to loosen up the soil and let the seedling AND soil come out in your hand.  DO NOT pull the seedling out by the plant or you can ruin it.  Sometimes I like to use a spoon to scoop it out a little bit.

If you are using biodegradable seed pots you will be able to put the whole seed pot into the hole.

Next, cover the rest of the hole up with more soil so it supports the seedling.  I like to end by giving it a watering.

PLANTING SEEDS DIRECTLY INTO THE GARDEN

For some plants you will want to just plant the seed directly in the garden.  To do this, make sure the threat of frost has passed for most plants.  There are a few plants you can plant before the last threat of frost that are cool-season crops, but it will say so on the package.  For the most part you’ll want to wait till the threat of frost is over.

Again, you’ll want to work with soil that is moist.  (Also, I’m one of those people who just doesn’t like that word, with no real explanation why, but there’s no other way to say how the soil should be, so moist it is. )

Make a hole where you will put the seed in.  On the package it will say how deep you should plant it.  I always use this as a rough guidance.  I’ve only had a problem once with not planting something how deep it should go, and that was garlic cloves.  Apparently garlic cloves need to be quite deep.  I plan to try that one again this fall.

Gently cover the seed up with soil.  Give your garden a watering.

ONGOING CARE FOR YOUR GARDEN

As you go forward you will want to keep your garden well watered, but not to the point that your plants are drowning.  You want the soil to be damp, and you want to make sure that it is not just damp on the surface, but below as well.  When I water it I wait till there are little puddles forming in the garden.  Once that happens I feel the garden is watered adequately.  Those small puddles will quickly disappear if you haven’t added TOO MUCH water.

I know, it’s confusing, right?  Don’t water too much, but don’t water too little.  Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it as you go.

During really, really hot seasons your garden will need more attention with the watering.

You will also want to make sure you keep up with weeding.  There are a ton of different methods you can use. For the past few years I’ve just done the old-fashioned, go out and weed as often as possible method.  I’m going to be straight up honest with you, I definitely have not weeded as much as I should have.  Yet, even with my lack of weeding my garden produced a lot of food!

Now as I am entering my third year I have decided to find ways to decrease the amount of time I will spend on gardening.  Because I have sawdust at my disposal from our wood pile for our wood stove, I decided to use that between the rows.  Now, if you go this route you want to be careful as you can’t use walnut or cedar tree shavings, but other than that I am hopeful that this will work.

You can also use mulch you purchase at the store, straw, or even woven weed fabric.  We were quite interested in the woven weed fabric as it can last a good ten years and people seem to really love it, but I wasn’t up for paying for it at this point.

BOTTOM LINE IS TO JUST START

Wow.  This post is a LOT of information.  If you made it to the end, kudos to you!  🙂  While all this information may feel a little overwhelming, it just comes down to one thing – just jumping in and doing it.  You’ll learn as you go.  You’ll learn from your mistakes.  Each year will get better.  And you will be more self-sufficient.  There’s nothing like eating a tomato you just picked from your garden.

Think about how amazing it will feel when you go to your beautiful gardens, pick a bunch of your favorite vegetables and fill a basket like this:

I”m telling ya, you will be filled with gratitude and excitement like you’ve never known before from your gardening experience.  You will feel like you can conquer the world, all because you were able to grow your own food.  It is one of the most rewarding things you can do. Even if everything doesn’t go as planned, you can have a successful garden with some effort, some rain, and a lot of sun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “How to Start a Garden from Scratch and on a Budget”

  1. Congratulations , on growing your garden larger every year with little cost and by scratch.
    Obviously this year a large garden is needed to support our large family .
    Recently my husband has lost his job and we have decided to somehow grow a lot of vegetables. Our budget is tight.
    According to your article for a large garden it is handy to have a rototiller and fencing, a good rototiller costs around $600-$1100 and we do not have fencing lying around.
    Unfortunately, we don’t have friends who have this equipment either, how do we keep the costs down in order to make this work.

    1. I understand the struggle to not be able afford a rototiller. We were there our first year. there are a couple options you can do. You can dig it by hand, which, honestly is not an easy task and is why we had a smaller garden the first year, but it is possible, if done in chunks. The other option takes time to prepare so it may be too late this year, but always an option for next year. You would lay down cardboard over the area you want to have your garden. On top of the garden put compost materials, along with grass clippings, leaves, or things like shredded newspaper, sawdust (don’t use cedar or walnut sawdust), straw, or wood ash. Wet it down well with a hose. If you have some black plastic tarp cover the whole thing with the tarp. In the spring time you should have some soil to work with.

      As for fencing, i have many friends who don’t have fencing in their garden. They do just fine, it just requires more work. The best thing I can suggest first is to have it close to your house, or even the road if there is more noise that place. I have a friend who uses a homemade scarecrow, along with hanging shiny pie plates in her garden to keep pests down. You can even use human hair to help deter critters in your garden! You can also mix some dog and cat hair in with human hair. The only issue with the hair method is that it needs to be replaced weekly. That might mean a lot of hair cuts. 🙂

      I hope this helps. Good luck!

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