The 2009 No-Cost Garden

April 24, 2009 at 12:28 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 53 Comments

This year we are taking a vow: We will try to grow at least half of our food in a garden that costs us nothing to create and maintain.

In order to achieve this we are initiating a new concept: No-cost gardening.

There’s a lot of talk these days about reviving the “victory garden” as a way to help Americans get through the current economic hard times. But there’s a serious flaw in this proposal: As currently practiced in much of urban America, gardening is no longer a way to save money on your food budget. Instead, gardening has evolved into a rather expensive upscale hobby similar to golf or sailing. All the different necessary accoutrements of the backyard garden can be quite pricey. The reason many people don’t try to grow food in their gardens is that they assume that the overall expense of gardening will cost them more in the long run than it would to simply buy all the same produce in the grocery store.

And while that assumption is accurate if you take into account the way most home gardening hobbyists operate, things don’t need to be that way. Using the principles of scavenging, it is possible to create a neverending cornucopia of vegetables, fruits, herbs and legumes in a garden that costs you essentially nothing at all to create and maintain.

This post will show exactly how we do it. Want to join the fun and learn how to eat year-round for free? Read on!

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This is the main gardening plot in our backyard. As you can see, it’s not particularly huge. Because of that, we also have various smaller side-plots here and there around the house. In fact, let’s consider that our first recommendation:

Maximize your growing area. Whether you rent or own your home, try to clear out and make use of any potential gardening beds. The sunnier, the better. Because the more space you have, the more you can grow. And the more you grow, the more you eat home-grown food and the more money you save.

(And if you don’t have a yard of any kind that you can use, try some guerrilla gardening on unused public land.)

It’s still spring, so most of our seeds are still germinating in the ground or have just recently sprouted, so the garden doesn’t look too impressive yet. But come back this summer for an update when the produce-heavy season is in full swing!

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This is our gardening tool shelf. As is pretty obvious, we have accumulated a ramshackle assemblage of decidedly unglamorous tools for gardening. All of which were obtained for free, through scavenging. The bowls and buckets, used for holding pulled-out weeds, and also for holding harvested vegetables, were found in various FREE boxes and/or were being thrown away after garage and rummage sales. The short-handled triangular hoe in the front is just the end of a broken full-size hoe that someone had tossed out; we salvaged it and have found that this mini version is even more useful than the long-handled original. (Same applies to the short flat-edged hoe next to it.) The various snippers and trowels and sprinklers are all slightly substandard discards rescued from the all-too-common piles of gardening leftovers that people tend to leave out for the trash collectors at the end of each gardening season. (The only tool in the picture that cost us anything is the high-quality red-handled snippers, which we bought for 50¢ at a yard sale.)

So the next piece of advice is:

Don’t buy chi-chi gardening implements to impress your friends and neighbors. That’s totally unnecessary. The free or nearly-free ones you can scavenge generally work just as well. Gardening is not about showing off; it’s just about getting down and dirty. And a dinged-up slightly rusty trowel will do the job just as well as the shiny brand-new one.

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Now we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty: Where do we get all our seeds from, and how do we get them for free? As you can see from this photo (and the one below) showing just a small percentage of the over 100 types of seeds we have accumulated, we have an amazingly wide variety of familiar and exotic garden vegetables from every imaginable source, including home-collected seeds (in the packets with the hand-lettered labels) as well as seeds from dozens of commercial seed companies, both well-known and obscure.

We get our seeds from many scavenging-type sources, including:

- Saving the seeds from store-bought produce. It’s amazing how often this works and yet how few people do it. Save out a few seeds from a cherry tomato in your salad, plant them, and — alakazam! — you’re likely to get a tomato plant. Same is true for bell peppers, melons, eggplants, and many other fruits and vegetables that might be in your refrigerator right now.

- Buying expired and old seed packets at garage sales for very little money. Old seed packets don’t crop up too often at sales, but when they do, you can often get them for ten cents or twenty-five cents a packet. If the seller is trying to overcharge you, turn the packet over and point out that the seeds expired years ago and are thus essentially worthless; that usually works in helping to drive the price down to pocket change level. (Yes, this violates our “no-cost” rule for gardening, but every now and then we have to bend the rules a little. Ten cents for a hundred seeds isn’t much of a bend.)

- The Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL), which is a local nonprofit group which runs a no-cost seed “library” where users can “borrow” seeds for free and plant them, with the tacit agreement that the following year, if some of your plants have bolted and gone to seed, you return them eventually. In practice, however, the BASIL library — a corner in the local ecology center — is basically used as a permanent “seed swap,” at which anyone can bring in and donate seeds, and then take away some different seeds in trade. Which is generally what we do: Whatever seeds we find that we have an excess of, or which we can’t grow particularly well in our exact micro-climate, we bring and donate, and then see if there are any new seeds in the (engagingly messy) library for us to take away in trade. Luckily, some commercial seed companies have taken to occasionally donating to the library substantial quantities of their expired seed packets that are past the sell-by date (which are thereby normally discarded), so sometimes very interesting and unusual seeds can be found at BASIL. For example, the last time we visited, we donated some arugula seeds and melon seeds, and discovered hundreds of packets of expired “Ecoseeds” for exotic peppers, cucumbers and herbs, a few of which we “borrowed” for planting back home. (If you don’t live in the San Francisco Bay Area and can’t visit BASIL, there are similar organizations in other places around the country; do a Web search for your area.)

(…Free seed tips continued below the next photo…)

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- Seed swaps. Various clubs and cliques of gardening enthusiasts hold “seed exchanges” or “seed swaps” in which a group of like-minded individuals get together to trade seeds, in an effort to increase everyone’s biodiversity. We’ve only done this a few times, but each time has been an interesting experience.

- Seed sales at discount stores. If you’re lucky, you can catch the right moment when some discount supermarkets drastically lower the prices of already-cheap seed packets as they approach their expiration dates. Last year a local discount store was selling packets at 10 for a dollar. Again, not quite free, but almost free.

And of course:

- Saving the seeds from the plants we planted last year. We always try to let at least one plant of each type “bolt” and go to seed, so we can save its seeds and start the cycle all over again the following year.

A key principle to remember about many of these techniques:

Expired seeds are not like expired food. Once a packet of seeds is “past its expiration date,” it doesn’t mean that it has spoiled and needs to be thrown out. All it means is that the seeds have started to get a little old and as a result begun to lose some of their potency. A new packet of seeds will have somewhere between a 70% and 90% germination rate. A packet that is one year past its sell-by date will have a 60% germination rate; after two years it falls to 40%-50%, and so on. Generally, after about four or five years past expiration, seeds are pretty much kaput, though it depends on the type of vegetable. We still have some seeds from 2000 that still germinate pretty reliably, but that’s a rare case. So our tip for this aspect of no-cost gardening is:

Get old packets of seeds for free or cheap, then plant more than you need, taking into account the fact that only half of the seeds at most will ever sprout.

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We’re still at the beginning of our gardening season, but we already have this lettuce growing quite healthily. It sprouted from seeds that appeared on a few heads of last year‘s lettuce which we had allowed to bolt.

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Back in the garden: We plant beans along the wall, and then when they reach a certain height we contruct haphazard trellises from scavenged scraps of wood. Notice how each bean sprout is of a different type: We purposely planted a very wide variety of beans (purple runner beans, lima beans, Asian “long beans,” yellow beans, etc.) to see which would grow the best. Turns out this year they’re all growing pretty well, so we’re going to have a wild assortment of beans to eat later.

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This picture shows some of our many cucumber sprouts. They might look all the same, but each sprout is of a different kind of cucumber: some are normal “Straight Eight” standard garden cucumbers, some are Armenian cucumbers; others are lemon cucumbers, pickling cucumbers, Japanese cucumbers, Persian cucumbers, and more.

That’s always our goal with our garden: Variety. Which leads us to our next tip:

Plant as wide a variety of vegetables, herbs, fruits and legumes as possible. It makes the harvest so much more interesting, and makes your home-grown meals less repetitive.

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A good example of this principle: Ajwain. What the heck is ajwain? you might ask. We had never heard of it either until we found several expired packets of ajwain seeds at BASIL, and took some home just on general principles. Turned out they flourished, as you can see. So within a couple months we had more ajwain than we knew what to do with. A bit of online research revealed that ajwain is the secret ingredient in Indian food that makes it taste uniquely Indian, which is why when you try to make curry at home it almost never tastes quite as good as in a restaurant. You can eat the frilly green ajwain leaves or cook with the seeds later in the season. One way or another, we add it to all our Indian dishes now, and are amazed at how it enhances their flavor.

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There’s more to growing a successful garden than just seeds, trowels and dirt. Often you’ll need some kind of fertilizer and other soil treatments; various stakes for the growing plants; larger buckets for hauling things around; and of course a hose for the water. All of which you see in this picture — and all of which we scavenged. (The hose was given to us by a relative who was replacing it and getting a new one.)

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Fertilizer is actually fairly easy to find at estate sales and garage sales. Because, unlike seeds, it never “expires” or goes bad. Often people will move or retire or simply lose interest in gardening, and when they do all their old supplies generally end up for sale or for free. Most of the fertilizer we’ve accumulated is positively antique. The “49’er Rose Food” bag looks like it’s from the 1970s at the latest , but it was still sealed when we bought it for 50¢ at a garage sale. The fertilizer spikes are at least 25 years old and were being tossed out when a foreclosed house was being emptied, as was the “Vitaman B” concoction which is quite handy when transplanting sprouts (something we have to do often due to the irregularity of old seed germination). The two clear plastic tubs are simply re-purposed containers holding some generic fertilizer that we found in a disintegrating bag someone had set out for the trash.

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The only “new”-ish product in our arsenal is the box of Miracle-Gro, which we bought half-empty at an estate sale for $1, and is just about the most expensive thing in our entire yard. But we made up for it by creating a “sprinkler” for the Miracle-Gro by poking holes in the lid of an empty plastic juice bottle.

We also of course have a compost pile, to let nature’s scavengers (earthworms) turn our discarded vegetable matter into topsoil.

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Our buckets were salvaged from the trash bin outside a Japanese restaurant: an empty five-gallon Kikkoman soy-sauce container and a bulk container for pickled ginger.

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Our stick collection — used as stakes and “dividers” marking off the various planting areas in the garden — is a typical scavenger’s horde: warped dowels, broom handles, bamboo sticks, broken golf clubs, random metal poles, chopsticks and basically any long slender scrap of wood we happen upon.

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The sticks in action.

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Springtime is the season for “volunteers” — plants that grow accidentally in your garden, either sprouting from old roots, or from seeds that fell to the ground accidentally or which were brought up to the surface when the soil was turned. Here a small forest of volunteer Chinese broccoli (which is sort of a cross between bok choy and regular broccoli) competes for space with some volunteer Buttercrunch lettuce.

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Meanwhile, in a sunnier spot, an intentionally planted zucchini seed has successfully sprouted and looks destined for a long, healthy and productive season. A single zucchini seed can grow into a plant that can make literally 50 pounds of zucchini in a year, if properly nurtured. With four zucchini plants you can feed the whole neighborhood.

Of course, we can’t grow all our food in the garden; that’s why we only propose to grow half of our food. We are vegetarians, but things like wheat, rice, tea, sugar, milk, bananas and any processed food will have to come from the store.

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Whenever we find that some seeds have fallen out of their packets, and we no longer know what is what, instead of throwing them away we collect them all together and toss them into a “miscellaneous” zone to see what comes up. This year’s miscellaneous zone seems to be dominated by arugula and various mystery greens.

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Some plants are so hardy they work as perennials: this cluster of collard greens and red chard was planted over a year ago, and no matter how many times we harvest the leaves, they keep growing back.

This brings up a good tip that’s important for any kind of garden, no-cost or otherwise:

Plant each type of vegetable in the appropriate part of your yard’s ecosystem. We planted these collard greens in a semi-protected shady area, and as a result they survived the summer heat; but the peppers and cucumbers we planted in the hottest part of the yard. Know your garden’s sun and shade zones, and plant accordingly.

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We planted some old tomatillo seeds in the full sun, and marked the seed locations with scavenged popsicle sticks. None of the seeds we planted sprouted — but dozens of volunteer tomatillos popped up nearby anyway, the descendents of last year‘s tomatillo crop, some of which had fallen to the ground.

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Every year we try to plant basil; every year they sprout, and then every year snails and slugs eat the baby basil plants almost immediately. We still haven’t figured out a scavenged solution for this problem. Snails and slugs seem to love basil above all other delicacies.

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We’ve designated this end of our garden the “herb zone”: a huge flourishing bush of oregano, some parsley at the front, chives at the back, and some thyme and basil struggling to get a foothold.

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Our microclimate is sometimes just a tad too cool for peppers, but a recent brief heatwave caused these exotic pepper varieties to germinate wonderfully. Let’s hope the summer stays warm enough for us to get some fruit off them eventually.

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In the coolest, shadiest back corner of a side area we planted some bok choy. It does well in the winter in our garden, but summer heat often causes it to bolt prematurely. But since seeds are basically free for us, it doesn’t cost us anything to experiment and plan for every contingency. So our final tip is:

When using free scavenged seeds, plant both hot-weather and cool-weather crops in the same garden each spring; that way, whether the summer season turns out to be sunny or cloudy, you’ll at least have something that grows successfully.

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It’s not all about vegetables. This is one of our flower areas, but we’ve been lackadaisical and haven’t finished de-weeding yet to plant our scavenged salpiglossis, marigold and petunia seeds. Notice the garden ornament at the back, which we found buried in a tangled thicket when we first cleared out the backyard.

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Here’s a dose of reality. Not everything we try turns out well. This is the area where we planted dozens of Thai eggplant seeds. Problem is, there was no expiration date on the package, so we didn’t know how old they were. Not a single one sprouted. This is an inescapable part of any scavenged no-cost garden: Not everything you try will succeed.

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And here’s why: this photo shows the back sides of various randomly selected seed packets from our collection. As you can see, the expiration dates range from 2002 up to 2007. Some of them are getting pretty old, and have lost almost all their potency. When that happens, we just dump the entire packet in the soil and hope maybe one or two seeds will germinate. If not — it’s time to start scavenging some new seeds!

One last note: water.

Yes, our water comes out of the hose just as at any other home, and as such it isn’t exactly scavenged, nor is it free. We do have to pay the water company. But a careful examination of our bimonthly bill reveals that only a small percentage of the charge is for the actual water itself. Most of the bill is for administrative and standard charges that would remain the same whether or not we used any water. Turns out we’re being charged only about $6 for every two months of water usage, which works out to $3/month, or 10¢/day. And only about a third of that at most is used for watering our garden (as opposed to household uses). So we’re paying only about 3¢/day for our garden water, which may not be free, but it’s pretty close to free.


We hope this tour of our scavenged garden has inspired you to try no-cost gardening yourself!

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