Shoestring veg growing

Well, it’s been a while.  But frankly, who gardens in February?  A combination of a punishing work schedule plus freezing temperatures have made it less than inviting to step outside in the last few weeks.  Instead, I’ve been staying inside with a cup of tea and one of the many gardening catalogues that come through my door at this time of year, trying to find things to buy.

The problem is, even when I actively want to buy something, I am inherently frugal.  And it is true that there is a plethora of unnecessary items you could waste your money on when it comes to veg gardening, especially given that most of what you put in the garden will be obliterated by our climate in a few years.

With more people turning to veg growing as a way of cutting down on food bills, it’s easy to be enticed by the marketing material that would have you believe it can’t be done without investing in hundreds of pounds worth of equipment.  In fact, there’s very little you actually need to start a garden plot, so with this in mind, here’s my guide to how to garden on a shoestring:

Tools you may actually need:

A small hand fork and trowel - the reason for this will be obvious if you’ve ever set foot in a garden.  If not, trust me, it will become clear.

A large fork – even if you use the no dig technique you’ll need it for digging up tatties at least

A large spade – for digging planting trenches and moving compost

A hoe – hoeing little and often during dry periods keeps the weeds and workload down, but if you only have tiny beds with not much space between plants, you might be better with a hand held one.

Note – most gardening books will tell you to invest in expensive, sturdy tools.  However I’ve found that if you use them at all you are quite likely to leave them out in the rain, so cheap ones are just as good.


Loo roll pea tubes

Things you might need if you grow certain veg

Fleece and netting – if you plan to protect anything – which is a good idea for cabbages, brocolli, carrots and strawberries at least.  There is no need to buy expensive enviromesh, fleece is cheap and does just as well.

Twine – for tying things – you can also use plastic ties, but it’s harder to cut and I don’t find it any more sturdy.

A water butt – it’s not exactly essential, but if like me your plot is far from the house you’ll struggle without one.  Plus rainwater is best for plants, especially acid loving ones like blueberries, and apparently it’s better for the environment not to waste water (though it seems to me the sky does it most days in Scotland)

There’s no need to waste your money on –

Gardening gloves – I keep buying these and then taking them off as I can’t seem to do anything with them on.  A better investment would be a nail brush.  The only time gardening gloves are handy is for dealing with thorny and stinging things – so buy the thick plastic ones that go right up your arms, and save them for these jobs.  Or just wear thick rubber gloves.

Seed trays – I’m sure that the seed trays they sell in the shops have some special thermal properties that the plastic containers you get in the supermarket don’t, but considering the length of time your seedlings will be in them does it really matter? You could always try painting them black, or wrapping them in bubble wrap.  The containers for tomatoes and raspberries are great as the lid acts as its own fitted cloche.

Plastic Pots – You get them free every time you buy a plant, you are bound to have neighbours who want to get rid of some, and just look around your kitchen – old tins – yoghurt pots etc can all be used.

Root trainers – For peas and sweet peas I always use toilet and kitchen roll tubes.  They take slightly longer to break down than peat pots but the difference is negligible.

Specialist Watering devices – make a hole in a bottle top, cut the bottom off, fill with water, stick into the soil near the roots of the plant for a gradual release of water – ideal when you are going on holiday

Cloches – The ones you can buy are fine if you have one beautiful specimen plant to protect, but are you going to live on one cabbage for a year?  Cut coke and lemonade bottles in half, plus glasses, or use old greenhouse panes on top of pots and window boxes (watch out for broken bits).  You can cover pots with clingfilm, beds with bubble wrap and use the tops of plastic supermarket packaging (again).  Or just wait til it gets warmer.

Pegs – I have some of these as they can be handy, but you can also use big stones or recycled tent pegs.

Seed labels – pieces of card are fine – they’ll biodegrade but you only need them long enough until you recognise the plant – unless you are putting them outside, but my experience is even the plastic ones don’t last long outdoors before they snap or the writing fades

Fruit cages – You can use bamboo canes tied with twine – though if I feel flush I might try build-a-balls this year for less fuss.  If so, I’ll report back on whether they’re worth the money.

Bamboo canes – even these are not always necessary.  In fact for peas I find them next to useless, as the tendrils of the peas don’t catch on to them.  I use last year’s raspberry canes or buddhelia prunings instead.  Make sure they are dried or they can sometimes root.   This year I’m going to try chicken wire held up by a bamboo frame.

Plastic compost bins – I’ve had much better compost from my old wooden bins which are just an open box with no cover.  A heap also does just as well.  You can surround it with fencing panels if you don’t like the way it looks (and smells).  The important things to remember are heat, moisture and ventilation.  It’s also much easier to turn a traditional heap than the material in a plastic bin.

Heated propagator – Last year I left mine out in the rain (a common theme of mine) and had to cut the wire off it.  This year I’ve just used it as a tray.  I have a sunny windowsill, and saw no difference in the progress of my seedlings.  If anything they’ve done better due to not drying out as quickly.  If you don’t have a sunny windowsill, however, you might still need one.

No doubt I’ll think of more as the year goes on but the basic principle is this.  Before you buy anything, look at what you’ve already got.  The more money you save the more you can spend on things that really matter.  A couple of years ago, after getting sick of having to walk over our veg bed all the time, I invested in link-a-bord raised beds, and have been happy with them ever since.  But if you’re going to splash out on something like that, make it a long term investment.  Most veg can be grown quite happily in a combination of flower borders and pots.

If you do go in for the recycling theme, bear in mind your plot might at first look more like a rubbish tip than a kitchen garden dream.  Don’t stress over it.  You’re growing food, not posing for a place in Country Living.  If we all do it enough it might start trending.  Anyway, once the veg has begun to grow it will hide all the unsightly refuse and look beautiful in its own right.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this post