When it comes to creating a green oasis of your own, it pays to be frugal. Here are our top tips on starting a garden on a budget.
I meet Sue outside her garage on a crisp, clear morning. She's wearing thick glasses and a tattered bomber jacket. Flaps of fabric fall away from the arms like flimsy plasters - a victim of her rose bushes, she later explains.
Sue had responded to my call-out on Freegle, (an online sharing website) for free plants and she didn’t disappoint. After greeting every neighbour within earshot she leads me through the garage - an exercise in organised chaos - and out into a vast woodland garden, which she has nurtured for the last 39 years.
Don't be disheartened if you don't have a huge budget. As Alice Fowler says in The Thrifty Gardener: "gardening isn't something you buy, it's something you do."
In between taking generous cuttings with a rusty knife, she pauses. Though she can't quite see the vocalists, she identifies every feathered visitor with precision.
Sure enough, I spot a charm of Goldfinches hopping between bare branches while a quarrel of sparrows flit across the gardens. Sue points out the collared dove perched above us before continuing to nudge herbs, plants and bulbs from the rich, crumbly earth.
Sue generously donated some plants from her garden after responding to my call-out on Freegle.
Not a day goes by when I'm not thankful for my own little garden. But London rent alone leaves scant funds for sturdy planters, fancy furniture sets and the kind of instant garden that comes with regular top-up trips to the garden centre.
Yet Sue had proved to me you don’t necessarily need these things to create a haven. Her planters were old sinks, mismatched containers and chimney pots, her mulch the shredded prunings from her own trees. She was an avid seed collector, regularly held plant sales and helped garden neglected spaces locally.
There are some jobs where old cutlery does the job just as well as any expensive tools
While lockdown has meant that those with gardens finally had the time to use them, many others were forced to be thrifty. Nearly a quarter of households in London don't even have access to outside space - be it private or shared, but that hasn't stopped some from engaging in 'no garden gardening'. Veggies have sprung from balconies, plants packed out pallet planters on patios, window ledges adorned with flowers and in some cases, new shoots burst from tree pits and neglected public spaces.
So, with a head full of lockdown garden transformations and fed up with my own concrete-on-concrete view out front, I set out to see if I could really create a garden on a modest freelancers budget, one that would attract wildlife without offending my landlord. Sue was one of many generous and inspiring characters I would meet along the way.
Lots of plants will grow in the cracks of walls. Think Sedum, Campanula and Erigeron.
Here are my gardening hacks for low budgets
1. Start small
As The Less is More Garden author Susan Morrison said in a podcast recently "a small space is more satisfying as it forces you to pare down." In fact, if you have a front garden (whether it's a window ledge, a tiny concrete square for your bins or a sprawling drive), I'd urge you to start there.
A recent study by the RHS and a trio of universities found that greening your front garden can reduce stress levels as much as eight weekly mindfulness sessions. By putting the garden back into our front gardens we can calm our minds, provide a vital habitat for wildlife and create a soothing place to natter with neighbours.
Old chimney pots make great planters if you can find any!
Don't skimp on your research
You might be itching to get up to your elbows in soil but doing some initial research is an instant money saver, particularly if you're a newbie to growing. Figuring out where the sun falls, where the rain pools and how exposed your space is, means there's less chance of wasting money on impulsive purchases that might not be suitable for those conditions.
Vertical Veg is a shining example of what you can do with just a balcony or concrete patch outside your front door. Founder Mark Ridsdill Smith claims to have grown 90 kilos of veg totalling nearly £900 after just one year and his website is bursting with creative upcycling ideas. Alice Fowler’s The Thrifty Gardener has some great suggestions on picking the right plant for your plot, while the Seeds from Scratch audiobook is essential listening for tentative green fingers.
Money saved: £100s
2. Make a plan
Employing a garden designer can run into the £1000s, so save your dough and get bookmarking. Gather (realistic!) DIY projects, plant combinations and colours you’re drawn to on Pinterest. The Candide community is bursting with ideas too. Follow our writer @dogwooddays for stylish and sustainable garden inspiration and use the resource below to help you.
Money saved: £1000s!
3. Find the best deals on plants and supplies
How to save money on plants
Forget-me-nots, Wild Strawberries and Oriental Hellebores are some of the plants I was able to source for free locally.
- Be active in community groups. Put callouts on Candide as well as local gardening groups, sharing sites such as Freecycle, Freegle and Nextdoor and keep an eye on the non-food section of Olio. I’ve managed to collect large plant pots, slate tiles and plants for free without setting foot out of Tottenham, all thanks to a few thrifty locals with clutter to clear.
- Up your swap game. Seed and plant swaps might not be happening face to face just yet but seeds can easily be posted through a letterbox. Growing from seed is way cheaper (and more satisfying!) than plug plants. And once your garden is established you can begin saving seeds too.
Browse Candide for cheap seeds, garden supplies and more.
How to save money on materials and tools
- Turn your daily walks into windowshopping opportunities. Look out for ladders, CD racks and mattress springs (hello instant vertical garden) and watertight containers for a miniature pond. You'll save the pennies while adding bundles of personality to your plot. Where possible ask permission before swooping in or do as Alice Fowler does and leave a simple ‘Can I take this? Y/N’ note.
- Use what you have. Floral toolsets and woven trugs are nice to look at, but spoons will do fine for digging, chopsticks are perfect for planting out seedlings, plastic containers can double up as seed trays and plastic wallets can create greenhouse conditions.
- Borrow what you don't have: The Library of Things is a growing concept allowing people to rent out stuff they need for a fraction of what it would cost new. Perfect for one-off projects and those without the space to store bulky equipment.
- Mates rates: If you ask nicely enough friends and family might lend you their tools too. Just make sure you give them back in the condition you received them.
How to save on planters
- There is no shortage of pallets in urban areas like Tottenham. The hard bit is getting them home and pulling them apart - (get hold of a wrecking bar to speed this job up). Even so, with large planters going for anywhere between £100 and £500, a well made DIY job will definitely save you a small fortune.
- Think outside the box. Keep your eyes peeled for drawers, tires, old chimneys, barrels and sinks - the larger the better. You stand more chance if you request these things on neighbourhood groups over 'planters'. With any luck, someone will read your post who is about to do a renovation.
- Check alleys behind shops and don’t be afraid to ask shop owners if they have crates to give away. Wine boxes, bulk tins of tomatoes and oils can give your space a quirky vintage vibe.
- Line planters with the plastic from your compost bags (remember to poke holes in the bottom).
How to save on compost
Sue's compost bin was rescued from a skip. She enlisted a neighbour to help her get it over the back garden wall!
- Make your own or freeze your scraps and see if a local allotment will take them in return for some of the compost it produces - worth a shot!
- Look locally. London used to have two 'eco parks' that gave away free compost - perhaps your local council has a similar scheme?
- Most home improvement stores now have an own brand, peat free compost, otherwise, New Horizon is the next cheapest I've found.
- Contact local tree surgeons for woodchip mulch. Email around and you might be surprised - I am in conversation with one Tottenham tree surgeon so watch this space.
- Fill planters partway with bricks and rubble to save money on compost while providing drainage. Also, the extra weight lessens the chance of anyone running off with your new-old pots!
After perfecting your Pinterest board, sourcing your materials and sowing your seeds, it's time to put those plans into action. Look out for my next article on budget-friendly projects for your outside space.
And don't forget to share your best money-saving tips with the Candide community in the comments.