How to start a garden on a $50 budget

The dream of sitting in a backyard paradise may seem far away, but starting a beautiful garden sanctuary of your very own doesn’t have to be expensive. You just have to start thinking outside the garden centre.

Sourcing gardening essentials on a shoestring budget may be easier than you think

A drought-tolerant garden in Edmonton featuring a variety of plant species including terracotta achillea, veronica purpleicious, agastache foeniculum, and salvia nemerosa Caradonna. (Tanara McLean/CBC News)

This summer, CBC Edmonton's Tanara McLean is doing a special column focusing on gardening in our Zone 3 climate. Everything from knowing your planting zone, to ditching the lawn for a water-wise garden, we'll explain why certain garden practices will help you get the best out of your Zone 3 garden.

The dream of sitting in a backyard paradise may seem out of reach, but starting a beautiful garden sanctuary of your own doesn't have to be expensive.

Once you start thinking outside of the garden centre, a world of opportunity opens up.

Here's a shopping list of items to get your dream garden started with a $50 budget.

Patience = $0

An immediate wow factor may seem thrilling, but nature does its best work over time.

When you accept slowing down, you become more in-tune with your space and make smarter choices about what should go there and why.

Juvenile echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) plants. (Tanara McLean/CBC News)

Assessing what you already have = $0

Take note of what your space already has, such as trees, shrubs, or existing garden paths. Then ask yourself, "How am I going to use this space?"

A shady spot is great for a seating area, while a sunny spot is perfect for growing vegetables.

If you have overgrown shrubs, lifting the canopy will expose the architecture of the branches and trunks below.

Indoor furniture can be used outside, weather permitting. Statues can be crafted from driftwood, stacked stones can make shapes between plants. Large rocks and thicker tree branches make excellent garden edging.

Edmonton Freecycle can be a goldmine for additions to the garden, including plants, organic fertilizers, furniture and topsoil.

Regardless what size your space is, consider splitting it up into different zones or outdoor rooms that have different functions or seating.

A relaxing seating area was created in this Edmonton garden by recycling an old wagon wheel frame found on site, an old planter pot as a water garden, and a formerly unused chair. (Tanara McLean/CBC News)

Acquiring plants = $0-$20

Filling a garden with plants of a relatively mature stage can cost a small fortune.

Gardeners often have plants that need to be divided for their health, so ask friends, family and neighbours if they have plants to share.

Otherwise, starting from seed is the most cost effective way to get more plants. A basic packet of perennial flower seeds, which contain 50 to 100 seeds, costs about $2 to $4.

Big-box store garden centres usually have discount racks with plants they didn't take care of well.

The plants may not look good, but it's a potential steal if they just need proper light and watering.

Be sure to check the plant carefully for pests or signs of disease, like mildew or small dark spots, before purchasing them, though.

Planting a garden from seed is one of the most cost effective ways to acquire plants. (Tanara McLean/CBC News)

Seed growing equipment = $0-$10

A quality 1.4-litre bag of seed starting mix costs about $10. That should help reasonably start at least 50 seed pots.

You can also make your own soilless seed starter with a mix of perlite or vermiculite and coconut coir.

To start seeds indoors, try sowing them in:

  • Toilet paper rolls
  • Egg cartons
  • Plastic bottles, margarine tubs or yogurt containers with holes at the bottom for drainage

Some seeds need heat to germinate. You can make a mini greenhouse with a cake tray and dome like those from a birthday cake at the grocery store. Pop bottles cut in half also form a dome for a pot.

You can sow seeds directly into the ground outdoors or into a planter pot. Just read the seed packet to learn whether they need cold stratification — a period of cold and moist conditions before germination.

Dwarf French Bean (Phaseolus sp.) 'Ferrari', seedlings, growing in cardboard toilet roll tubes on garden vegetable plot, Mendlesham, Suffolk, England, May. (Shutterstock)

Amending your soil = $0 (in Edmonton, at least)

Amending your soil simply means adding materials that improve its physical qualities, like drainage, water retention and structure.

The City of Edmonton is giving away free compost to people who show interest in its waste reduction programs.

Residents can get up to 100 litres of free compost at a time — though it's best for ornamental plants, not edible ones.

A good attitude = $0

Gardening can seem intimidating, but there's a shared secret among seasoned gardeners: you will fail sometimes and that's OK!

Don't agonize over what others think a garden should be.

Ask what you want your dream garden to be, then make it happen over time.

Starting a garden doesn't have to be expensive; you just need to think outside the garden centre. Our summer gardening columnist explains how you can have a beautiful garden on a $50 budget. 7:20


Tanara McLean is an award-winning producer and journalist based at CBC Edmonton. She grew up in Red Deer and has spent her entire career in Alberta, working in print, radio and television.