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Grow Your Food for Free (Well, Almost): Great Money-Saving Ideas for Your Garden

Grow Your Food for Free (Well, Almost): Great Money-Saving Ideas for Your Garden

by Dave Hamilton

Don't like spending money in garden stores? Think you can make it yourself for a fraction of the price or find a cheaper option? Dave Hamilton shows you how. By recycling and reusing materials creatively and making the most of what you have, you can gather all you need to grow your food on a budget. Whether it's building your own shed from scrap, constructing a


Don't like spending money in garden stores? Think you can make it yourself for a fraction of the price or find a cheaper option? Dave Hamilton shows you how. By recycling and reusing materials creatively and making the most of what you have, you can gather all you need to grow your food on a budget. Whether it's building your own shed from scrap, constructing a path out of recycled materials, or storing your harvest without a freezer, it's all here. This practical guide takes you on a frugal journey through the seasons, from planning your space and setting up a plot to raising, harvesting, and storing your plants. It offers money-saving tips every step of the way, and tips on the actual gardening.! It's crammed full of satisfying projects, from seed saving and making your own plant feed to building a fence or garden shed and gives step-by-step instructions, with easy-to-follow diagrams.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Packed with brilliant, money-saving tips that are perfect for the thrifty gardener.”  —Lucy Halsall, editor, Grow Your Own magazine

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UIT Cambridge
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Grow Your Food for Free (Well, Almost)

Great Money-Saving Ideas for Your Garden

By Dave Hamilton, Ellie Mains

Green Books Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Dave Hamilton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-900322-89-8



If I assumed that everyone reading this book had identical horticultural starting blocks, it would be akin to assuming that every reader is my height, weight and age, has a similar income, eats the same kind of food and wears the same kind of clothes as I do. Even my identical twin brother differs from me in his gardening style and where he gardens (he also differs in weight, food preference, clothes and income!).

So I have to assume that no two gardeners, or the gardens they tend, are alike, and any row of gardens is testament to this. As the years go by, gardens change dramatically from their original construction, depending on the gardener or gardeners who tend them. This is even more true of allotment sites, with their patchwork display of crops, trees, paths, sheds, flowers, fruit bushes and fences.

I've moved home a lot in the last few years, and everywhere I went I put down a vegetable patch – be it in a home garden, on an allotment or (by invitation) on someone else's land. It was sometimes only for six months, sometimes a year or two, but each time it was different and I learned something new. The gardens I inherited came in all shapes and sizes, from a tiny balcony or front yard to vast jungles that provided few clues to what lay beneath the thick undergrowth before I hacked it back like some intrepid explorer.

So, from experience, the most important thing to consider when designing a garden for very little (or no) money is that it has to be adaptable. As soon as you open your eyes to the world of DIY gardening and/or salvaging materials, things can get a little ... well, let's just say a little ... creative.

This kind of gardening is akin to cooking with what you have in the cupboard rather than buying in ingredients. Instead of buying in raised beds, you may begin with a deep bed system and then, over time, if the wood turns up, the raised bed can be put into place. Or you may even decide you no longer want raised beds as the deep beds seem to be doing a pretty good job! You might have wanted to lay a brick path but then discovered that a friend is digging up his or her patio. The patio slabs might be just the right size for the job, so why splash out on buying materials when suitable free ones are there for the asking?

It helps if garden plans are as organic as the plants within them – growing over time and adapting to changing conditions and budgets.

This kind of gardening is more resilient to changes in your lifestyle and income, as it is also to changes in climate and in society as a whole. No one knows what the future holds for us in these uncertain times, so having a garden that can not only feed you but also not require any further economic input will stand you in better stead than one that requires you to throw money at it year in, year out.

One of the aims of this book – apart from saving you money – is to start you thinking a little differently about how and where you garden. It is not so much about teaching you to garden per se. Many of you will find that you can just garden at home, which is fine, but not possible for everyone, and it is by no means the only option. All you really need is a desire to garden – then, in my experience, if you are determined enough, and if you keep your eyes and ears open and remain optimistic, something will come your way.

Some options when considering where to garden are as follows. Each is discussed in detail in the following pages.

• Home garden

• Indoors

• Allotment

• Garden share

• Landshare

• Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme

• Volunteering

• Guerrilla gardening


The ideal situation is a growing space where you live. A home plot means regular attention, fresh produce when you want it and no travelling time. For those with a busy lifestyle this has to be the best situation, as a garden benefits from the 'little and often' approach as much as it does from attention for hours on end. Once established, even a large productive garden may need only 20 minutes a day – and I've found that if those 20 minutes are not too far from a kettle and a well-stocked biscuit tin, somehow extra time is usually found and helpers are more likely to come by.

The style of planting in a home garden can sometimes be slightly different from that of a garden away from the home. The garden may be seen as an extension of the house, and its overall aesthetic can be as important as the amount it produces. Many people choose to have a more cottage-garden-style garden at home, with a mix of flowers and shrubs alongside their fruit and vegetables.

Having a garden at home, no matter how small, is of course a lot easier than travelling to one. Lack of soil need not be a problem, as pots can be placed on patios, on concrete, on gravel or on small balconies. I've even made large planters out of pallets and sat them on a gravel garden that otherwise had no soil.

Try to think positively: what has the space got going for it? Is it south-facing? Private? Low maintenance? How can you make the most of what's there? If there is no room to spread out, can you go up? Can raised beds be built where the soil is poor or non-existent? If there is an ugly old patio, is there sufficient soil underneath for alternate slabs to be taken up and the soil underneath planted?

Even the most artificial, concrete-covered of gardens can have something going for it.

Tips for tenants

As a tenant gardener you really have to read the seed packets and gardening books to work out how many days you have between sowing and harvest. There is little point in sowing crops that might take a year to mature, such as parsnips or purple sprouting broccoli, if you will be gone by the time they are ready to harvest. Quick crops, such as fast-growing salad leaves, are best, since even in a six-month tenancy you will be able to make a number of harvests.

There is also the option of growing in pots and taking these with you when you move. This only really works for small pots, as larger ones, once they are full of soil, water and growing crops, can be nigh-on impossible to move. I was devastated when I realised there was no way I could lift my old Belfast sink planted up with herbs. The sink weighed enough before it was planted up, let alone afterwards!

You also have to consider how you are going to move and how far (if you know in advance). If moving somewhere in the same town you should have no problem making a number of trips to pick up your plants. But moving out of an area may mean one trip and one trip only!


You may well grow indoor houseplants, but perhaps seldom think about growing indoor vegetables. Yet a surprising amount of produce can be grown indoors, on windowsills, in well-lit porches, in conservatories and under skylights. Modern homes are quite often full of natural light in the daytime and are heated in the winter, making them the perfect growing place for an indoor vegetable garden.

Of course, large vegetables such as trailing squashes won't be suitable for indoors, but plant breeders are cottoning on to the fact that people are growing in pots and are constantly bringing out new compact varieties of our favourite vegetables. I saw first-hand the variety of things people grew inside when I worked as a postman in Oxford. As I delivered the mail I couldn't help but nose around and see what people were growing – jungles of vegetables reached up towards the light in top-lit stairwells; south-facing porches were proudly housing tomatoes, chillies and aubergines. On the rare occasion that I saw the back of people's houses I saw conservatories brimming with more veggies than the average greenhouse!

It helps to find areas with the most natural light possible, preferably with that light coming from above. On windowsills some plants can become etiolated, that is, stretched, elongated and contorted as they reach towards the light. Regular turning can help, as can raising the plant up if it's on a low windowsill.

Crops to grow indoors

Tomatoes, chillies and aubergines Small bush varieties are suited to windowsill growing; larger and trailing plants to porches and conservatories. They will need to be grown where the temperature doesn't go below 10 °C (50°F). They can become etiolated (see above) so are not suitable for windowsill growing unless on a very well-lit sill.

Herbs These can be grown on a kitchen windowsill so they are to hand when cooking. Basil, mint, chives, thyme and parsley are all suitable for home growing.

Salad leaves Try either whole lettuces in flowerpots or a tray of mixed leaves. Winter leaves such as rocket, mizuna and mibuna can all be grown on a windowsill.

Mini root crops Compact varieties of beetroot and carrots have been developed, and Japanese varieties of turnips are no bigger than a ping-pong ball. They will need to be in a large trough rather than a small pot.

Citrus fruits Dwarf varieties of citrus fruits can be grown indoors in pots. Bear in mind that growing from seed can be unpredictable – the resulting plants may grow up to 3m (10ft) tall.


For the benefit of those who have never heard of one, an allotment is a small parcel of land, usually public but sometimes private, rented out to an individual or a family to grow their food. In parts of the world outside Britain they are often called 'community gardens'.

I've found allotment growing to be one of the nicest ways in which to grow my own produce. A lot of resources, such as communal muck and leaf piles, can be shared, and there is nearly always someone on hand to give advice (whether it's needed or not!).

Waiting lists are long, and it's worth putting your name down for an allotment as soon as you arrive in a town. Two-, five- or ten-year waits may seem interminable, but in two, five or ten years' time you will be grateful you decided to put your name down. Besides, people's circumstances do change and a predicted five-year wait can sometimes be just two or three years.

Available plots often seem to be the most neglected and, tragically, I've seen many people come and go very quickly as they get overwhelmed by the amount of work they feel they need to do. The best advice I was ever given was to not do it all at once. Instead, I cut all the vegetation down to ground level and covered what I could with weed-suppressant material or cardboard (the latter needs topping up as it rots). I worked half the plot in the first year, only reaching full cultivation after about two years. My brother always likes to tell people to work backwards – looking at what you've done rather than what you need to do.

Alternatively, if the work does seem all too much, there really is no need to take an entire allotment. Full-size allotments can be split into half, thirds or quarters and shared out amongst friends or offered to others on the extensive waiting list.


In the very early stages of this book I hit quite a major snag – I didn't have a garden! Although my partner and I did have some outside space, it was not enough to grow the sort of things I wanted to, or to build some of the projects necessary for a book of this kind. However, help was at hand from a neighbour of ours who lived a stone's throw away from our maisonette.

Our neighbour was a very keen gardener, but like many people these days didn't have time to keep his garden the way he wanted to. He jumped at the chance to share his space and the produce it would hopefully give. So, with our growing experience and his land, we suddenly found ourselves with not only a space for growing but also a good friend just around the corner. I was lucky to know our neighbour quite well before he offered the garden, and he knew us enough to trust us both with his back garden key. This is of course the most convenient way to start an informal garden share, but if you wish to find a space, or offer yours out, becoming a member of a garden-share scheme could be the most logical approach.

Many towns and cities run garden-share schemes, the details of which can be found in the usual sources of local information, such as on local noticeboards and/or on virtual or online notice boards such aswww.gumtree.com. If you find that your town doesn't have one, then you could consider setting one up – See the Transition Town Totnes website for more details (http://transitiontowntotnes.org/gardenshare/startupscheme).

Garden shares can help bridge the gap for those who have no garden of their own or are on a long waiting list for an allotment. There are also many benefits for the garden owners. Some elderly people find that keeping a garden maintained is too much of a challenge and they are forced to put in low-maintenance measures, such as gravel or decking. In extreme cases gardeners may even move away from a family home as the upkeep of the garden is simply too expensive.

So having someone tend to an overgrown garden can make a real difference, both financially and to the well-being of a garden owner. A friend of mine tends the garden of a woman in her 90s and finds himself also checking on her health – both out of compassion and in view of the risk of losing his growing space!

As with all human relationships there can be setbacks and misunderstandings in garden shares, but Lou Brown, the garden-share scheme coordinator in Totnes, believes that these happen far less than you may imagine.


Aside from garden shares, landshare schemes are on the rise. In the UK a land-share directory has been set up atwww.landshare.net, where members can post if they need or want land. This can include everything from large pieces of agricultural land right down to small private gardens. The directory covers all of the UK and it seems to be growing daily.

Some areas of the country are much better represented in the directory than others, and, unsurprisingly, it seems that cities have an abundance of growers looking for land rather than people offering it.

Landshares can range from plots as small as a back garden to fields of considerable sizes. The pros and cons are similar to those of a garden-share scheme and are as unique as are the people who offer the land. There seems to be a lot of positive feedback on the scheme, so with luck its success will continue – and I'm sure that even if this particular scheme doesn't, something similar will take its place in the coming years.


According to the Soil Association there are well over a hundred Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes in the UK, at various stages of development. Some are very small, comprised of a few allotments where members do all the growing themselves. Others are large farms with over 200 members, producing large quantities of meat and veg. Some have been led by farmers who seek a dependable market; others by communities where social and environmental concerns about food have been motivating factors.

Community Supported Agriculture is one of the most recent and perhaps best examples of groups working together. James Adamson, Founder and Coordinator of Sims Hill Shared Harvest, Bristol, tells us more about them, drawing from his own experience in North East Bristol – see opposite.


It often seems that those with time on their hands generally have no money and those with money generally have no time. In many ways a lack of time can lead to a much more impoverished existence than a lack of money, and giving time to someone can be much more appreciated than giving them cash (although I wouldn't object if anyone reading this wants to send me a big cheque).

One of the most enriching things you can do with your time is to volunteer, and there are countless gardens and organisations with gardens in need of someone to give up their time. I found that as soon as I made the choice to volunteer there was so much around that I could pick and choose where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do.

The sort of work I did was as varied as the people I met – I ended up doing everything from constructing a green roof with a group of filthy-mouthed but very entertaining long-term unemployed to building a cob Wendy house with a professional photographer and an out-of-work actor to potting seedlings with a wannabe rap artist.

On the whole the sort of people I met were intelligent, funny, well-rounded individuals who wanted to make a bit of a difference to their community. Volunteers, especially those keen to work on the land, can make a huge difference to an area. In Detroit, USA, derelict housing blocks are being turned into productive gardens to feed locals who otherwise have no access to fresh vegetables.

I'm still in touch with many of the people I volunteered with and would strongly advise anyone moving to a new town or city who is finding it hard to make friends to go and find a community project, city farm or local public garden that would benefit from his or her help. Many places will have evening sessions in the summer and weekend sessions all year round, so even those in full-time employment can squeeze in a few hours.

I've found that quite often these organisations are so glad to have you on board that you'll receive a generous share of the produce in return for your volunteer hours. These are often organically grown, well-cared-for vegetables that would cost a fortune to buy.


Excerpted from Grow Your Food for Free (Well, Almost) by Dave Hamilton, Ellie Mains. Copyright © 2011 Dave Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Green Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dave Hamilton is a professional forager, food and garden writer, and occasionally appears on TV and radio. He is cofounder and creator of Selfsufficientish.com and is the coauthor of The Self-Sufficientish Bible.  

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