Tips from a Frugal Vegetable Gardener

There are lots of garden items that we need throughout the year. Whether they are trellises for climbing plants or tomato cages, compost bins or even just name tags for your transplants, it all adds up and can get quite expensive. So here are some cheap, or even free ways to create items you need for your garden.

1. Trellises – Tom works for an electrical supply company. They usually end up throwing out all sorts of items that are damaged, including dented 1/2″ conduit pipe. It’s galvanized to keep it from rusting and it makes great stakes and tepee type trellises. We use nylon contractor’s string to keep it together because it doesn’t break down like twine and you can use it year after year. Get in contact with a local electrical company and see if they are willing to give you their bent or dented conduit. You can also use PVC irrigation pipe, but if it’s white, just realize that it will eventually break down with UV exposure (ending up in the landfill) and that it should NEVER be burned (it releases dioxin, a highly toxic compound). We also use old metal railings that a friend took off of their porch to replace.

Conduit Tepees with contractor string
used here for peas
2. Tomato Cages – The tomato “cages” they sell at most nurseries and box stores are a complete joke. They completely self destruct when a tomato gets above 12″ tall. I’m actually surprised they still sell them. There are other brands of cages out there but they are usually pretty expensive (ranging from $8-15) and when you grow more than 20 plants, like us, they are definitely not economical. So instead we use concrete reinforcement mesh. A sheet of it runs $7-8 but lasts for years and doesn’t collapse under the weight of the tomatoes. They are large enough that you can put 2 tomato plants in each cage. You simply wrap it into a cylinder and connect the ends with baling wire. It’s simple, it’s cheap and it’s strong enough to hold up to even the most loaded of tomato plants. And more importantly the spaces between the welded wire are easy to slip your hand into to pick giant tomatoes. You can pick up concrete mesh at most hardware stores. When you don’t need it you can simple cut the baling wire and lay it flat. I’ve also heard of people cutting the panels into thirds and baling those together so that they fold when not in use. 
Concrete Reinforcing Mesh Tomato Cage

3. Compost Bin – Have you ever been flabbergasted by the price of those black compost bins? $75-150 for a box of black plastic. Well, you don’t need something that fancy. Go to a warehouse and ask them if you can have their old pallets. These work great. Just stand them up, lash or nail them together and viola! You’ve got a compost bin that allows plenty of airflow. Now, they don’t last too long because the wood will eventually rot, however, it’s free and you can easily replace it. For us though, we create too much compostable waste. We had two of those bins and filled them both within a couple of months. Not to mention we keep forgetting to turn them. So now we let our chickens do it. We just pile everything into their run and as it breaks down it gets lots of bugs and worms that the chickens scratch for, turning the pile. It’s a win-win. They do all the work while they get all the goodies. 

4. Name Tags for Transplants – If you have kids or just like popsicles as much as we do, then you know you can end up with quite a few popsicle sticks. So we reuse these as plant tags. They aren’t permanent, but they do work for a season. Make sure to put the plant names on them with permanent ink (I like to use Sharpie) because otherwise, when they start to get a little old and waterlogged it gets to be impossible to read them if you use pencil or a ball point pen. Another option is to use old mini blinds cut into 6-8″ long strips. Write on them with pencil, which won’t run.

Plant tags made from popcicle sticks in reused pots
5. Seedling Pots – Contact a local nursery and many of them will have extra plastic pots. Also hit up all your friends and family. Ask them to hang onto pots for you to use.You can also use yogurt containers. Just remember to put holes in the bottoms for drainage.

6. Mulch – Mulch is expensive. It usually runs about $25-27/cubic yard. When you have a large area that can just be too much. We used straw for a long time, but it breaks down too fast and can sometimes have a lot of seeds in it. So now we call our local tree service. They dump whatever they have on hand in our driveway and we move it to where we need. It’s completely free and it keeps it from going to the dump – saving the tree service money. It’s a win-win for both sides.

7. Compost – Bagged compost is ridiculously expensive. Our city takes yard refuse and then composts it. We used to then make a trip to the dump and get our truck bed filled with compost for a whopping $3.81. Check out your local refuse company and see if they have a similar program. If they don’t let them know that they should. They won’t do it if they don’t think there is a demand for it. Nowadays our chickens, goats and rabbits give us all the compost and manure we need.

8. Garden Cloche – Little greenhouses for your individual transplants when the night temperatures are still a bit chilly. The traditional ones are made of glass and can be very pricey. The cheap version is plastic milk gallon jugs. Cut the bottoms off and just place over the plant. Remove the cap in the morning to allow air flow and to avoid overheating during the day. Replace the cap in the evening. If where you live is breezy you can use a straightened out coat hanger (but leave the hook end) and stick it into the ground through the center of the jug (avoiding the plant below) and have the hook part go over the lip of the jug to help hold it down. The downside though is you won’t be able to use the lid. Another option is to use the hook end on the handle of the jug, but it’s not as good at keep the jug in place.