Creating a Dream Garden on $100 Per Year: Part 1

by Melissa J. Will

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When I started gardening, I had very little practical knowledge. I just knew I wanted something wonderful and I wanted it now!

I had visions of gorgeous trees and shrubs, flowering perennials, masses of fresh fruits and vegetables, nesting birds, wonderful garden art, and a small pond. In other words, I wanted my perfect secret garden.

But with all this desire, I was lacking two key ingredients: patience and money. Not knowing what things actually cost, I set my budget at $100 per year, and with some learning experiences (mistakes) and determination, I did end up with a garden I really loved.

The secret? It took creativity, a willingness to work hard and adapt, and time. A low budget isn't going to cover big structural changes like correcting a major drainage problem or building an elaborate greenhouse, but you can create a sustainable food and flower garden that will have your neighbors knocking on your gate to see more.

Here are my tips for creating a dream garden on $100 a year.

1. Collect realistic ideas.

My number one suggestion for new gardeners is to go on local garden tours to see what is possible and realistic in your area. Take photos and notes. Talk to the host gardeners. Find out what's involved. Depending on the type of garden you create, you may develop something that requires almost no upkeep (that's my style) or many hours a week. Most gardeners are very generous with their knowledge and will share their triumphs and failures to help you make better choices.

Related: French Intensive Container Gardening

2. Make a plan.

As you collect information, make a plan for your space. Include the big stuff like trees, fences, sheds, decks, gazebos, and ponds. You may not be able to afford these things now, but it's wise to allot space for them. Your plan will probably change over time, but having one gives you somewhere to start so that each step you take contributes to the bigger vision.

3. Learn about native plants and adapted species.

Save yourself a lot of regret by learning which plants are appropriate to grow in your area. You don't want invasive species (that take over your garden and cause numerous problems), and neither do you want plants suited for warmer gardening zones that require too much special treatment to keep alive. Native and well-adapted species require no watering and attract beneficial butterflies, birds, and insects.

4. Go natural.

A garden with a variety of native plant species becomes its own sustainable eco-system. Rather than treating symptoms, consider the cause of any plant or pest problems and adapt accordingly. I find that by planting diversely and rotating my vegetable crops, pests get confused and move on.

5. Grow your own.

There are many ways to start new plants. I grow my vegetables and many perennials from seed. Many established perennials can be divided after a few seasons, which is beneficial both for the health of the plant and provides new ones to fill in other parts of your garden.

Related: Gardening Tips from Yesteryear

6. Think long term.

I know you don't want to hear this, but it is reality. Whether you're patient or not, growing a great, sustainable garden does (and should) take time. Short-term efforts like growing a lot of flowering annuals (plants that live their entire life cycle in one growing season) provides wonderful bursts of color, but that's it. They're done. Focus on perennials (plants that live many years, and can be divided into more plants) for rewards over many seasons. And give things space. When the tag on a shrub says it will grow to eight-feet wide, believe it and plan accordingly.

7. Start where you live.

When we moved to our current home, I was daunted by a large, bare yard. Where to begin planting? The answer is to plant where you live and will really enjoy things. Don't put that flower bed or little pond way at the back of the yard where no one can see it.

We started our new back garden by our outdoor sitting area, facing the house windows, because realistically, much of the time the garden is enjoyed from these two areas.

Front gardens are both for curb appeal and a welcoming experience on the way to the front door. Pick a priority area (front or back) and start there. You can't do it all on a low budget, but you can work your way around, one bed at time.

8. Be willing to work.

Opportunities come up all the time that could mean free stuff for your garden. Don't be lazy! Seize the moment. At my previous garden, I had steep slopes that needed retaining walls. A housing development was underway nearby and they were collecting masses of rocks to be hauled away. With permission from the contractor, I came by the work site every evening and filled my car with rocks. I did this for weeks with my baby happily playing in the car seat while I carefully distributed the rocks throughout the car! I ended up with over 2000 free rocks that made my garden look great and kept the garden beds from washing away in rain storms.

Read Part 2 of this article that describes seven additional tools to create that great affordable garden.

Melissa J. Will (Empress of Dirt) is a blogger and writer living in Middlesex County, Ontario, Canada (garden zone 6). She likes any excuse to be outside gardening, hiking, and making garden art from repurposed items. Please sign up for her free newsletter here.

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