Gardening doesn’t have to be expensive. But tell that to your pocketbook after you’ve made a trip to your local nursery or garden center.

Between the bags of special soils, tools, hoses, fertilizers, seed packets and, of course, plants, your plan to grow edibles or even a modest balcony of flowers was never going to be a budget project. Even worse: when all those new acquisitions result in a poor-performing garden, or it never even gets planted.

We’ve all been there, especially as beginners. Take a deep breath, forgive past indiscretions and read on for some practical ways to put more joy and less money into gardening.

Make a plan and start small

Break your garden plan into several easy-to-accomplish steps. You’ll be less likely to spend impulsively on cool-but-unnecessary equipment or kill the plants you bought because you didn’t have time to plant them. Be realistic about your space and goals; do you really have time this weekend to prep your garden bed and plant 60 seedlings (that’s 10 six-packs of flowers and vegetables)? Do you even have room for 60 seedlings? Spreading out the work will make things easier on your wallet too.

Gardening experts say soil preparation is the most important thing you can do (after figuring out the sunniest spot in your yard or patio). Make your first task and purchases devoted to soil prep, whether it’s buying good organic potting soil for a few containers or adding organic amendments, such as compost, aged manure, coffee grounds and seaweed, to a garden patch in your yard.

Typically, you have to wait a week or two to plant after adding organic amendments because they raise the temperature of the soil as they decompose and “cook.” You can’t plant until the soil cools, so wait a couple of weeks to buy plants.

Save on startup costs by planting seeds, rather than seedlings, and investing in just a few simple tools, such as a hand fork. (Getty Images)
Save on startup costs by planting seeds, rather than seedlings, and investing in just a few simple tools, such as a hand fork. (Getty Images)

Start with a few tools

You don’t need many tools to have a good garden, said Yvonne Savio, creator of the Gardening in LA blog and a retired director of the Los Angeles County Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program. She recommends starting with a sturdy hand trowel, a hand fork for scratching fertilizer and mulch around plants, and a large garden fork for incorporating organic amendments into the soil. Using a fork instead of a shovel is easier on your back and better for the soil, she said.

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You might also invest in a good shovel to dig large holes for trees or shrubs and a pair of sturdy hand clippers. Scout out garden tools at garage and estate sales. It’s wise to buy sturdy, well-made equipment, but high-quality tools don’t have to be the most expensive. For instance, Swiss-made Felco 1-inch hand pruners are the gold standard for garden tools (and cost about $60), but Corona Tools also makes excellent 1-inch hand clippers for about half the price (around $33).

Check out local gardens

Before you plant, find out what grows well in your area. Visit nurseries (many have websites or can take phone orders while social distancing is in effect) and take notes about what plants you love and the conditions in which they’re grown. Protect your heart and your wallet by seeking plants in harmony with your growing conditions.

And don’t forget your nearest resource: your neighbors. Many gardeners are eager to talk about what they grow (online neighborhood forums are a good resource right now), and may even be willing to share seeds or volunteer to give you some seedlings or show you how to propagate plants from cuttings from their yard.

Be realistic

Make a list again, this time of the plants you want and where you will put them, to keep impulse spending at a minimum. If you’re planting an edible garden, grow vegetables your family will eat, Savio said, and look for plants that provide the biggest bang for your buck. For instance, you might love cabbage or cauliflower, but they require lots of space and produce only one head per plant. Broccoli keeps producing smaller bunches of tender edibles even after the main head is harvested.

Grow with seeds

That doesn’t mean seeds only, Savio said, but some plants — such as beans, corn, squash, leafy greens, radishes and cucumbers — grow easily from seed. Instead of buying several lettuce seedlings, for instance, buy just a few to get a head start on your harvest and sow the rest from seed for a staggered crop.

Make your own compost with a home worm bin; the table scraps, leaves, newspaper and other materials will enrich your soil. (Getty Images)
Make your own compost with a home worm bin; the table scraps, leaves, newspaper and other materials will enrich your soil. (Getty Images)

DIY compost

Compost is vital for healthy soil, and you can make it cheaply and easily from kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, fallen leaves, shredded newspapers and other materials that would otherwise go to landfills. Many municipalities offer free composting workshops and discounted compost bins.

If you want more hands-on instruction, call your county or city public works department or go online to find composting classes and special deals on bins. Short on space? Lots of municipal and other government agencies offer instructions for worm composting, as well as free workshops and discounted worm bins, which are small enough to fit on a balcony.