Frugal NationFrugal Nation

No land? You can still garden

Even if your 'back 40' is actually a balcony 40, try veggies or herbs in containers.

By Donna_Freedman Mar 6, 2012 11:31PM
It's time to plan this year's garden, even if you're a Manhattan condo dweller. With a little work and a little love, you can harvest miniaturized lettuces, tomatoes, cukes, herbs and other crops from a deck, a balcony or even just a sunny windowsill.

The Renee's Garden seed company even offers container zucchini, which means that now city dwellers can have squash surpluses, too.

Your "harvests" won't be giant, but they'll likely pay for themselves -- have you priced lettuce lately? More to the point, have you ever tasted freshly picked greens? A mesclun mix with a light vinaigrette, say, or beet greens and chard braised with a little olive oil and garlic? Just-picked produce is so succulent that you may not care whether you have a meat course. (Post continues after video.)
And don't get me started on what tomatoes should taste like. I grew up in New Jersey.

Frugal produce

Entire books are written about small-space gardening, so obviously I can't cover everything in a single blog post. For starters, I'll suggest a few resources:
There will be startup costs, but frugal hacks can keep them manageable. If you already have flowerpots, use them. I've seen pots cheaply or even in the "free" box at garage sales. For larger plants, ask the deli manager for empty potato-salad tubs, then drill drainage holes and add a layer of gravel before filling with soil.

About that soil: Containerized plants do best with commercial potting soil versus "dirt" poached from the park. I've seen the stuff at dollar stores.

You must fertilize regularly; see the garden links above for tips. Or improve your soil (and recycle kitchen scraps) with gleanings from a homemade worm composting box. (They don't stink. Honest.)

A few other frugal ideas:
  • Cash in some free gift cards to Home Depot or to pay for supplies.
  • Search online coupon sites like Retail Me Not, and for hot sales and free shipping codes. Search cash-back shopping sites such as Extrabux and Mr. Rebates, too.
  • Ask if you can have the pots from church flowers after Easter. You'll likely be keeping them out of the landfill.
  • Watch for seed sales. I've seen packets as cheaply as five for a dollar at Walgreens.
  • Make a self-watering container garden for less than $5 with a video how-to from Lieberman on the Urban Organic Gardener website. 
I've interviewed people who grew decent amounts of food in small, small spaces. All broke even on their investments, and some actually saved money on their grocery bills.

They enjoyed watching their gardens grow and savored some of the best produce they'd ever eaten. They knew what went into the production of their food (chemical fertilizer or organic? bug spray or insecticidal soap?). And they knew exactly how fresh it was because they picked it themselves, right before they ate it.

You can, too.

Do you garden in containers? Have any tips to share?

More on MSN Money:

Mar 8, 2012 11:17AM
Hi Donna!  

I learned from a "professional hi-rise balcony gardener" that you should fill the bottom of the containers with shipping peanuts or anything you happen to have that's similar and then you only need to have half the potting soil.  It also makes them lighter to move.  

Grab as many cheap seed packets as you can from dollar stores or supermarkets when they're on sale (Shop Rite just had 5 for $1).  The seeds are all basically the same.  And don't be ashamed to ask others for seeds this Fall after their plants have gone to seed.  

One thing I don't skimp on is fertilizer - get a good liquid one like Miracle Gro.

And don't forget to plant flowers - You soul is just as hungry!!!
Mar 7, 2012 10:14PM
Crazy Cat Lady Here: you can use a heated nail to poke holes in the bottom of those big plastic buckets cat litter comes in, fill with soil and grow tomatoes, peppers and anything else you might want--each has a handle for transporting. If you are concerned with esthetics, you can paint them.  Since they have attached lids (which can be removed)  they can function as  cold frames, or mini greenhouses. Very handy and last several years. You get the idea! Run with it.
Mar 7, 2012 10:10AM
Donna, you can always make great container gardens out of those plastic storage totes for larger plants.  Once you declutter and no longer need 15 Rubbermaid containers you can use those the same way you do plastic pots and grow tomatoes, eggplant and all sorts of other goodies!
Apr 29, 2012 10:33AM
One of the problems inherent with using plastic containers is that they hold heat.  The internal temperature of the container can be up to 15 degrees higher than ambient temperatures and can cause the plant to "cook", it also makes maintaining proper moisture levels problematic. Using second hand woven fabric tote bags can solve that problem.  They allow watering without fear of drowning the plants and the increased air flow will eliminate plants becoming root bound and dying before their time.
Mar 26, 2012 9:42PM

Old used styrofoam cooler boxes make great containers for vege gardens...have some depth, insulate the roots and are light to carry.

Mar 7, 2012 3:02PM
~happy sigh~ gardening ~happy sigh~

(and a shared back patch of a row house in brooklyn to boot)

if you are looking for cheap cheap, now is the time to take long walks the night before trash pick up.  as people get their patches and balconies ready for another warm season, they will toss all sorts of garden related stuff...trellis', sun-faded but fine flower pots, upside down planters they didn't want to clean out and reuse, garden furniture that needs a little paint, plant trays that came with the flower transplants for apartment buildings' grounds.

Best weekend of all is the weekend BEFORE memorial day weekend...when everyone is putting on spit and polish for the summer's first BBQ.
Mar 7, 2012 3:01PM
You can actually take a bag of top soil, cut a slit in it & plant a tomato in it!  Have tried it & it does work.  All container gardens require a bit more watering than regular gardens.  Suggest you water your tomatoes & peppers with about a tablespoon of epsom salts added to a gallon of water before they start to bloom or when they first start to bloom.  Won't effect the taste of the fruit but will absolutely stop blossom end rot!  We've all picked a nice looking tomato only to find that is completely black & rotted on the bottom side.
Mar 7, 2012 3:06PM
Great ideas, all. Thank you for sharing them.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.