How To Start a Vegetable Garden on a Budget and Save on Groceries

A mother and her baby daughter pick fresh strawberries from their garden on a warm late summer morning at their home.
RyanJLane / Getty Images

Vegetables are a central part of a healthy diet, yet for many, these essentials are just too expensive to regularly enjoy. Solving this problem would take global efforts well beyond an individual’s capacity, but if you have a window sill or, better yet, an outdoor space, you can start a vegetable and/or herb garden. 

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Not only is tending to a vegetable garden at home a savvy cost-saving measure, it can be a fulfilling experience for the whole family

“Starting a vegetable garden is a fun and healthy activity that you can share with your family,” said Gabe Tilove, director of Adult Education and Outreach at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, where he oversees their Homegrown program, which installs raised-bed vegetable gardens at homes in underserved communities.Growing your own food can be very rewarding, and nothing tastes better than fresh-picked herbs and vegetables. Gardening is also a tradition that can be shared across generations and cultures.”

Make Your Money Work for You

Start With Seeds and Scraps

“Little more is needed to start your own garden at home than the seeds from the produce you buy at the store,” said Kristen Wood, cookbook author, food blogger, MOON and spoon and yum. “Bell peppers, onions, garlic, potatoes, avocados, you name it–all of these and more can be started from your own kitchen scraps. It is the easiest and most budget-friendly way to start a garden from scratch.”

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When you first start a vegetable garden, you need to buy packets of seeds, dirt and cell trays from the store. These seeds can be planted in small containers with drainage holes inside around two months before the warmer months. Make sure you put the trays somewhere you don’t mind getting a little dirty or on top of a paper towel. Most importantly, these seedlings need to have tons of light, so place them by windows that receive lots of sunlight. If you want to save even more money, you can use milk cartons or other materials to create your own containers for the seedlings, but most cell trays are under $20.

Invest In the Right Pots and Soil

To get your plants off to a thriving start, it’s best to buy proper pots and healthy soil. 

“As budget gardeners, we always try to do with what we have; however, the two things I would invest in are pots and soil,” said John Vo, a travel writer at Your Destination Is Everywhere. “If you have the space to do so, I recommend getting large wooden/plastic tubs that are at least one foot deep.”

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Vo added that petite plastic kitchen containers and traditional flower pots don’t typically tout the room necessary for your vegetables to grow to full capacity, and the soil in most backyards “doesn’t have enough nutrients for plants to reach their maximum potential. If you want vegetables that you can actually harvest and consume, you have to invest in some bags of soil.”

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Upcycle Toilet Paper Rolls and Soda Bottles

Though it’s recommended to purchase proper pots, you don’t need to go out and buy all new materials for them. You should also look around the house (or in the recycle bin), for items you can upcycle. 

“Instead of buying new equipment and apparatuses, you may want to use various things that can be found inside your home instead,” said Kurt Joshua, a horticulturist affiliated with Garden Guidepost, who adds that empty toilet paper rolls can be used as seed starters, and that cut soda bottles can be a makeshift pot. 

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“Another piece of your garden that you can upcycle are the pieces that you’ll use to add structure and height to vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers,” said David Angelov, founder and CEO of Plant Parenthood in Massachusetts. “Twine, sticks, branches, anything that allows you to secure your plant as it grows will give you an option to grow it upwards and save space, while reusing some older items from your home.”

Old Timber Can Be Used To Create Raised Beds in Your Garden  

“Raised beds are vital if you’re looking to grow vegetables in your garden, as they prevent pests from munching at your crops,” said Thomas O’Rourke, a gardener at Horticulture Magazine. “Unfortunately, the cost of wood has been rising exponentially recently and has made simple items like raised beds very expensive. Reclaimed wood or decking boards can be nailed into a simple rectangular shape in a convenient area of your garden, at very low cost. This can save as much as $500 in costs.”

Make a Windowsill Herb Garden

You don’t need a backyard to get in on the home grown action; all you need is a windowsill where you can grow herbs. 

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“Herbs add flavor and nutritional value to most meals but they are also an additional cost when grocery shopping,” O’Rourke said.A simple box on your windowsill with compost and seeds can cost as little as $10, but will save hundreds over the lifetime of its use. Most herbs are incredibly low-maintenance and will require no more than a little water each week.”

If you don’t have much of a green thumb, start with simple herbs. 

“From my experience, the two easiest herbs to propagate are mint and basil,” said Claudia Hleap MS, RD, LDN, owner of Hleap Nutrition

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You might also look into using hanging baskets and indoor containers to grow veggies. 

“Tomatoes, dwarf peppers, beans, peas and salad crops are all great choices for indoor containers,” O’Rourke said. “Best of all, these items which can add $50+ to an average weekly grocery shop, can be grown long term at a fraction of the cost.”

Watch the Savings Grow

“The average annual cost of having a home vegetable garden in the US is just $70 after you pay the first-year expenses that will hardly be over $260,” said Bryan McKenzie, co-founder at Bumper Crop Times. “The annual produce of an average home garden is worth $600 of vegetables from a grocery store: $600 – $260 = $340 of savings in the first year; $600 – $70 = $530 of savings during each next successful year of gardening.”

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Last updated: July 7, 2021

About the Author

Nicole Spector is a writer, editor, and author based in Los Angeles by way of Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Vogue, the Atlantic, Vice, and The New Yorker. She's a frequent contributor to NBC News and Publishers Weekly. Her 2013 debut novel, "Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray" received laudatory blurbs from the likes of Fred Armisen and Ken Kalfus, and was published in the US, UK, France, and Russia — though nobody knows whatever happened with the Russian edition! She has an affinity for Twitter.

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