I spent 14 wonderful years as a low-income single mother. A tiny townhouse apartment with a micro back patio and an equally micro front garden was our home all 14 of those years. Yes, we lived in poverty and riches at the same time. Our income wasn’t more than lower middle income at best. I have been disabled since I was 21. But riches are not just about income. Riches are the relationships we build, the sunsets we share and the gardens we grow.
I grew gardens in everything from retired kiddy pools to parking lot dividers. Wherever the management would give me permission to grow I would till and amend. My kids ate the freshest food possible and the neighbor kids learned where real food came from. While other tenants complained of vandalism I shared cherry tomatoes with latchkey kids. It is amazing how a garden can improve relationships with your neighbors in the toughest of neighborhoods. Our neighborhood was tough. We had trouble keeping a paperboy because he kept getting mugged for the cash he carried. Even rough guys covered with tattoos had an appreciation for fresh veggies like their grandmas used to grow.
Long’s Drug Stores used to have a seed sale every spring. They sold 10 packages for a dollar. It took me forever just to decide which ones I wanted. The selection was pretty good. There were a couple different varieties of tomatoes, lettuce, squash, cucumbers, peas, green beans and eggplant. The choices in flowers were bachelor’s buttons, alyssum, calendula, marigolds, zinnias, holly-hocks, asters and more. It was a poor gardener’s gold mine. For a dollar, in those days, I could reduce my grocery bill and treat myself and friends to flowers.
Yesterday I was in Long’s picking up a prescription and I walked through the seed isle. I’d already paid for my prescription and was on the way out when I saw them. Now the sale is five for $1, but I couldn’t just walk by. I picked five vegetables and five flowers. I’m gonna see what a $2 garden looks like these days.
I know gardening isn’t free. It requires fuel for my little tiller and fertilizer. I just happen to have three potbellied pigs that are short, stubby, loveable manure factories. Using a little sustainability never hurts. I now own a couple of acres. At the very most the garden will cost me $5 and a few hours of labor. Gardening is a labor of love to me. I was born to be a farmer, I just wasn’t born to folks that lived in the country. Fortunately my grandparents and aunts and uncles lived in the country so I received plenty of exposure.
Not everyone owns potbellied pigs but most folks can find free fertilizer. There has to be someone in your community that owns cows, horses, pigs, or poultry. Contact your local 4-H or FFA or your county agriculture department. Any of those agencies can refer you to someone who’d be happy to have you remove some manure. Even gardening clubs know where to get free manure. Manure often needs to age or compost. Collect the manure the season before you plan to garden or ask for composted manure. If the manure is fresh put it in a cheap composter for a couple months. An inexpensive or even free discarded garbage can will do as a perfectly good composter. All you need to do is punch drainage and aeration holes in the garbage can and you are ready to fill it with manure. Poultry manure needs longer to compost than other manures. Don’t pack it too tight, composting requires air circulation. You can add grass clippings or kitchen vegetable waste (but no meat or dairy products). In my neck of the woods even already composted manure is not hard to find if you’ll haul it.
You can start your vegetables and flowers before the planting season begins. This adds a little more cost. You’ll need to buy a good seedling mix. Seedling mixes are just potting soil with a higher percentage of peat moss, usually. I use recycled six-packs from garden centers for sprouting my starts. You can collect six-packs yourself and ask friends and neighbors to save theirs too. You can also start seeds in yogurt cups or other reusable plastic containers. You will need to punch drainage holes in them. I’ve started seeds in frozen concentrate containers too. Many types of containers will work, so there is no need to spend money on containers.
A seed germination mat is very helpful for starting seeds early. This increases the cost of your garden, since small germination mats run around $25. It requires electricity too. In my poorer days I used a sunny windowsill and I hear those still work. The germination mat raises the soil temperature only slightly but it keeps the temperature raised around the clock. Using a sunny windowsill may just delay germination by a couple of days. Some seeds are more temperature sensitive than others but most will germinate with soil temperatures in the 70s.
I use liquid fertilizer on my seedlings. I make it out of manure and water. I call it poop tea. I take an old nylon stocking and fill it with a couple ounces of manure and put it in a bucket of water. After a couple of weeks I take the nylon out and use the resulting tea as liquid fertilizer. Free liquid fertilizer! Sometimes I just use water from my Koi pond. One way or another fertilizer can be free. There are just too many critters around pooping to pay for fertilizer.
In no time I’ll have vegetables and flowers to enjoy! You can too. It is what makes us all rich.