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By April 23, 2012 Read More →

Budget Boosting Gardening

Yesterday, while at the landfill, my daughter and I were shoveling and forking mulch and compost into my enviro-terror beast, aka a 1980 S-10.  An older gentleman backed up next to us and began doing the same.  This same gentleman who caused me to grumble a bit at his sloppy backing turned out to be a gregarious, friendly guy who won me and my grumpiness over rather quickly.  He remarked on the wonderful weather and then how he loves mulching his flowers.

He chuckled as he talked about his stubborn brother-in-law who puts so much time and money into planting annuals and then never mulches and complains about the weeds while this gentleman had perennials and mulched every year with little weeding.  He then told me he was on his way to look at a side job to fix a porch deck and that with the price of gas, he had to combine the mulch trip with the estimating trip.  I agreed about the cost of gas and said that everything seemed to be going up.  He then remarked that he agreed and asked had I noticed the cost of food lately.  I said that I had and as the food prices increased so did my garden size. We finished loading and I left him saying that at least we couldn’t beat the price of the mulch and compost.  He adjusted his hat and whistled, saying, “That’s the truest thing I’ve heard all day.”
We in the urbs and suburbs gripe and wince at the checkout for our GMO and Big Ag groceries and we consider remortgaging the house to pay for gas.   But seldom do we realize how easy it is to save some money and eat healthier.  Gardening is a kind mistress who wants time and ingenuity, not money.  She pays us back in many ways.  We are not limited by our lack of arable land; we are only limited by our ingenuity.
So question becomes, how do we, who are serving our sentences out in crackerjacks, condos, apartments, and McMansions, become gardeners with the space constraints that we have and how do we do it cheaply?  I live in a townhome development in Baltimore and this is what I do.

First, I make my own soil.  Much of the soil in the cities and suburbs is clay based fill and may have some nasty stuff in it, especially if you or your neighbors are chemical yard Nazis’ who must have the greenest grass chemicals can produce.  My advice is that we need to default to raised beds.  Raised beds require soil, however.  Now we can do my brother-in-law’s approach which is to treat his soil like a lab experiment and mix the Square Foot Gardening ratios properly.   This works for them, or you can be a little more cavalier, like myself.  I throw in some fill dirt for stability and then fill my beds up with well seasoned, almost dry, compost that I get for free from the county.
Yes, I said free.  Here is my reasoning.  I have a free and abundant resource that is also recycled and by letting it sit at my house for even longer than it does at the landfill, the composting process is largely finished by the time I use it.  This leaves rich and almost “inert” soil that is light, fluffy and has plenty of oxygen and tilth.  Did I mention that this stuff is FREE?
Next, I troll Craigslist looking for horse owners who are looking to give away their manure.  I stay away from the composted manure.  I want the fresher and hotter stuff.

Why?  Because I have my OWN compost pile.  I pay my kid to round up trash bags of leaves and pine needles in the fall and all spring and summer we rake up the grass clipping and weeds, plus I shred bills, newspapers and cardboard to add to my compost.  Add in some tea bags, egg shells, veggie scraps, and fruit and I have a substantial pile for my little yard.  Now we put in the wonderfully stinky, hot horse manure.  I add this once or twice a year with all the horse hair, hoof shavings, straw, and south end product of a northbound trotter mixed together in a literal hot mess and those wonderful little magicians that love the stuff- red wigglers and voila!-magic happens.

I turn it occasionally and let it sit for a year.  THAT, my friends is FREE; and it is pretty well balanced fertilizer, to boot.  This is the stuff I add, as needed, to dress my plants.
Well, the naysayers are now complaining about the cost of lumber.  Yes, my friends, lumber is expensive…or is it?  Take some time, stroll through your home improvement stores or troll Craigslist or Freecycle-the deals are out there for the plucking (AHHH see what I did there? Plucking? In a gardening article? Get it? Eh?! Ahh forget it!)  Last year, I was at a local big chain home improvement warehouse, let us call it Big Blue, and I literally stumbled over an awesome deal.  There were some boards jutting out that (I swear this to be true!!) just reached out and kicked me in the shin!!!  I was vexed!!!  Make no doubt about that, until I looked and saw that the poor dears just wanted a home and recognized me as a wood connoisseur.  I saw 1×6 and 1×8 CEDAR planks finished/rough for about $2 and $3.25 per 10’ board.  I HAD to take them home.  They NEEDED me.  They were a little overdry, but a few days outside and some pre-drilling corrected that when I made my boxes out of one of my favorite types of wood that require NO finishes or treatments to resist weather rot.  Heck, I STILL have some of them in my shop.
Additionally, Craigslist, Freecycle and your friendly neighborhood farmer can yield even better deals.  I see free lumber on Craigslist weekly.  I know some horse people so they have given me some barn siding in the past.  (The oak barn siding is NOT going in my garden, sorry, that 200 years old stuff that was used as SIDING makes some beautiful project wood, but the point is, I got it for FREE and could use it for raised beds.)
Next, what are we going to do about those weeds?  We are fast lane living sophisticated urbanites and suburbanites who have stressful jobs and little time for something as menial as weeding!  Well, here too, is a FREE solution.  Check out your local landfills or tree care companies.  My county shreds up the landfilled brush and trees and gives away the resulting mulch.  I picked up a load on Saturday and it was easily as good as the cheaper stuff you can buy at a landscape supplier.  Find it for free or for cheap and GET IT.  If you can, get the finest shredded mulches you can cheaply obtain.  This will break down and add to the soil volume over time.  Mulch cuts down on weeding, insulates your plants when the weather is cooler, and retains moisture when it is hotter.  Mulch is as much of a friend as your Red Solo Cup. (Pssstt, maybe even more. Just sayin’)
What are some other free gardening supplies?  Well if you have an area that you can direct sow in but that pesky clay is just a complete pain in the asparagus, (Hey?!! Did you catch that one?!! Ahhh never mind, I give up.) then I suggest that you go to the nearest construction site or home improvement store and ask for drywall pieces.  They give these away for FREE.  What do they do?  Well the gypsum, when tilled into the clay in the fall, breaks up the clay and allows some air and tilth.  Plus, you can plant some root crops, even if you don’t necessarily want to eat them.  Beets, potatoes, turnips, et al help break up soil, as well.
Want to boost you acidity levels a smidge?  Bio-char that is directly tilled into the soil in the fall adds much needed carbon and wood ashes, used sparingly, in your compost can help you, as well.  The best part about these two amendments?  You will never guess- they are also FREE.

Now, my fellow convicts of the urban and suburban penitentiaries, go forth and multiply…your harvest yields, geez!!



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9 Comments on "Budget Boosting Gardening"

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  1. Cheryl says:

    Love the article. I am just starting out in the Brooklyn Park areas with a ton of red clay. I was debating on the best thing to do. I have a large hill that I want to tear for my garden, and I think I have to do a little of both, digging and raised bed. I just started composting too. Chris, which location do you go to get your mulch/compost?

    • Chris Watson says:

      I get my compost and mulch from the Baltimore County landfill on Rt 40. I just discovered a great horse manure source for free at an equestrian center on Harford Rd in Glen Arm.

  2. Linda says:

    I have been composting, but have yet to use it because of all the red worms. How do I get them out of the compost so they can stay and make more?

    • Chris Watson says:

      Linda- There are two routes that I would consider. First pick them out as you remove your compost and throw them back into the pile. Granted, you will miss many but this is not an issue. The Wigglers will likely die when placed in the garden since the dynamics of the soil are not conducive for them there. (Nightcrawlers are better in the garden) However, their dead bodies will not hurt your garden soil, not a whit. In fact, they will benifit it as they decompose and are food for other positive soil creepy crawlies.
      Secondly, you could make a sifter. I am designing one now, actually. I would suggest sifting out materials over 1/4″ big and throwing them back into the compost pile. This will keep most of the worms out, too.

  3. Chris Watson says:

    I get my compost and mulch from the Baltimore County landfill on Rt 40. I just discovered a great horse manure source for free at an equestrian center on Harford Rd in Glen Arm.

  4. Chris Watson says:

    Linda- There are two routes that I would consider. First pick them out as you remove your compost and throw them back into the pile. Granted, you will miss many but this is not an issue. The Wigglers will likely die when placed in the garden since the dynamics of the soil are not conducive for them there. (Nightcrawlers are better in the garden) However, their dead bodies will not hurt your garden soil, not a whit. In fact, they will benifit it as they decompose and are food for other positive soil creepy crawlies.
    Secondly, you could make a sifter. I am designing one now, actually. I would suggest sifting out materials over 1/4″ big and throwing them back into the compost pile. This will keep most of the worms out, too.

  5. Thanks for the good writeup. It actually used to be a amusement account it. Glance advanced to more brought agreeable from you! By the way, how can we keep up a correspondence?