Gardening on a budget: Ways to save money whatever size your plot

Spring is in the air and whether you're a seasoned pro or a newbie this year, have a huge garden or a small balcony, I've plenty of ways to save on everything from seeds to trowels and even compost sharing.

Make a plan and keep a diary

Planning ahead when you're gardening on a budget is imperative – just like your supermarket shopping (read more about that in our Supermarket shopping tips guide), having a list and a plan is the best way to avoid impulse purchases and the classic 'grab what you see' shopping mentality. Without a plan, you can find yourself buying extra seeds and decorations for your garden just like you'd pick up those sweets at a till point.

This is true whatever the size of your garden – whether you have acres of land, a courtyard, balcony or just a few windowsills, planning ahead means you're in control of what you'll spend. This is a time to dream, too – what do you envision your garden looking like and providing for you? Is it about flowers, fruit, veg, or a bit of everything?

Here are some ways to plan:

The National Trust Gardener's Almanac 2024 lying on a wooden desk. The book cover has a range of flowers and trees on it.
  • Invest in an almanac. Gardeners have a book they call an almanac – it's a diary where you write notes about what you've planted as you go, so you can look back and see what you did, and what has gone well. That also means you can plan ahead as well as deciding what's worked for you, what you spent on, and what you saved and the impact it had in your garden. You can get specifically themed ones such as a wildlife gardener's almanac, or a veg grower's one. The one pictured on the right is £9.05 on Amazon.
  • A simple diary or notepad would also do the trick, for the note-taking, although almanacs also have tips and prompts to help guide you, which can be great for beginners.
  • A digital diary is another cheap way to take notes – you could do this in a notes app on your phone and take photos of what you do, or plant and save them in a specifically labelled folder on your phone. Photos are a gardener's best friend – they're free, and they have a date on them for reference. You can record details of the weather and soil as well as the stages of plant growth.
  • Draw it out. If you want to really get into things, draw out a 'map' of your garden space, and look at where you might want things to grow, where you'll place pots and furniture and so on. You can always get creative with coloured pencils like the designers do on TV shows.
  • Make a wish list and prioritise. Ask yourself what you want to grow and what you want to achieve. Is this about flowers galore, a veg garden, focusing on certain plants or a bit of everything? You can read about the MSE team's efforts to grow our own, too.
  • Ask in the MSE Forum. Our Gardening board has a lot of discussion for budding and established gardeners.

Choose where to shop – independent nurseries are often cheapest

Just like gardens, garden centres come in all shapes and sizes – sadly, the ones with cafes and departments full of posh handwash and scented candles might be the more glamorous but also the more expensive. Finding the right place for you is a trial and error experiment, but here are some ideas:

Independent nurseries. These grow and sell plants exclusively, so they don't stock items such as tools or decorations, which is how they keep their costs down. They can be less glamorous-looking with just rows and rows of plants, but they are where you'll get some cheaper prices.

Hardware stores. We have one of these in the town where I live and it has a small garden section – they are also good if you need construction items such as nails or screws if you're going as far as to build your own raised beds. Larger DIY stores will have garden sections – think B&Q or Homebase. B&M also has garden centres attached to its larger out-of-town stores and garden decoration sections in smaller stores. Be careful not to buy too many gnomes though!

Three key things to consider at any garden centre:

  1. Loyalty points. Sign up to any free bonus schemes at the garden centres you use. Many centres are local smaller chains, with one or two branches in a county, but Dobbies also has a loyalty scheme that offers among other things two free hot drinks a month, 10% off plants and seeds and points for every pound you spend. MSE often has Dobbies deals, too. Don't forget loyalty schemes at larger stores such as B&Q.
  2. Building relationships. Talk to the staff and, if it's a smaller nursery, really get to know the people who work there. These are often trained horticulturalists who will have a lot of wisdom to impart for free. You could try your hand at haggling for some of your plants or pots – read our guide to haggling on the high street first.
  3. 'Past their best'. Some garden centres have a past their best area, with plants that are less leafy or perhaps a bit less green. This can be a bargain goldmine. One friend's mum swears by this area.

Choose your plants and seeds wisely to maximise your crop

Part of your plan will be a shopping list of the types of seeds and plants you want to buy. It's all personal preference, of course, but there are certain things to plant at certain times of the year, and ways to save cash on what you buy when you're starting out or building on your existing garden.

Seeds. They aren't very expensive, but buying a lot can add up if you're on a strict budget. You also don't want to waste money, even if it's pennies. You can get seeds free with some gardening magazines, such as Gardeners' World magazine. Again, knowing your plan means you should only shop for seeds you want.

Seed swapping. This is fun and can make you new gardening friends. Ask mates or explore online to see if anyone in your area wants to swap seeds or seedlings.

Saving your own. It's possible, once you have gone through your first season of plants, to save the seeds, dry them out and try to regrow from them. This is a trial and error process, but can be very rewarding. For example, one of my friends grew pumpkins from the seeds of the pumpkins from the year before.

Bare root plants. These are shipped without soil, so they're much lighter and smaller, and therefore cheaper to ship. Bare root roses, hedges and trees are usually planted in autumn and winter, but you could give them a go in April if the weather is still mild. They need a bit of care and attention when you get them – you need to either soak them before planting or plant them immediately. Fruit trees are often cheaper when bought as bare roots, and if you're keen on nurturing fruit trees, check out this message from Forumite Strandedinaber, who asked about 'fruit trees, toms and greenhouses'.

Propagating. Just like with houseplants, you can 'make' new plants from existing ones in the garden. Taking cuttings needs care and attention, so it's best to research this more depending on the plant. You may want to buy some rooting powder, which you can get for £2.97 at Amazon.

Want to be first to know about garden discounts? Sign up to the MSE weekly email for the latest discounts and keep an eye on our Home, Garden and Pets deals page.

Grow flowers you can pick and/or dry so you save on cut flowers, too

There's no greater joy in my book than being able to go into the garden with a pair of scissors (I use florist's scissors) to pick some flowers to pop in a vase in the house. My absolute favourite is dahlia season, but there are a lot cheaper and easier-to-grow flowers that you can grow from seed or buy and plant to then become a budding florist or flower arranger. Some flowers can be cut and dried for year-round display, such as alliums.

'Repeat flowering' is the ideal for regular flowers. Sweet peas (pictured below) are simple, classic flowers that grow more when you pick them – in fact, you need to pick the flowers to keep the blooms returning on the plant.  Cosmos, cornflower and zinnia are others that will grow easily and could be dried too.

One-off blooms. There are other flowers which will look amazing when cut, but are 'one-offs' (for example, when you've picked the flower, that's it, no new flower will grow). Peonies are a good example of this.

There's also plenty of inspiration in becoming a tenacious plant parent in MSE Laura's blog on how she turned her flat into a jungle.

Consider your compost options, which could include sharing!

Making your own compost is of course a great way to get 'free' soil, but it's not an overnight process and also requires space for a compost heap which can be up to a square metre. If you do want to do this, then you should consider building a compost heap (to save money, you could use old pallet wood) or buying a special composter where you'll put used plants and food waste. The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) has good info on composting if you want to commit to making your own.

Types of compost can vary, which may come as a surprise. Soil is soil, right? Well, not quite. There is different compost for seedlings, for veg and for different types of plants. If you're a beginner, then regular peat-free compost will be good enough. You might also want to consider mixing it with a substance called vermiculite, which improves aeration and can help retain moisture. Vermiculite isn't heavy at all, so you can carry a bag home – like this one from The Range, which was the cheapest price for the 10L bag I could find online.

Buying compost in bulk. If you think you'll want a lot of it, you could look into ordering your compost in bulk. This requires space (for example, having it delivered on to your driveway or garden) and planning ahead. A way to save even more is to see if a green-fingered neighbour wants to share the cost and the load. For example, Mr Muck does organic manure from £22.95 for a 40L sack, Compost Direct has 850L for £140 (was £160) and Wickes has 500L for £85.

Keep an eye out for freebies on the street

While you're setting out your plan and budget, you need to begin keeping an eye out for freebies. Now, this doesn't happen in every town, but it does happen in many – where people leave things on the pavement near their house, or the wall on the front of the house. It's an unwritten social rule that something left out means 'please take me'. Some people will even leave a 'free' sign on the item.

Some gardeners leave plant pots outside their houses near my home in the Cotswolds and I've found that a stroll around the block can find you everything from chicken wire to some new wellies. I even spotted some garden chairs the other day and this Hozelock hose cart (pictured below) just five minutes' walk from my home. The price on Amazon is £46.74.

This is more about the items you need to do your gardening, rather than decorations, but keep an eye out for those too. Sometimes people will leave out decorations they no longer want, and one friend told me that some people leave plant cuttings on the street too. The Wombling thread on our forum has some amazing stories to inspire you, from a wheelbarrow to 1930s stained-glass windows.

Three things to consider when picking up a street freebie for the garden:

  1. Go back to Martin's Money Mantras, because while it's free, will you use it? Otherwise you'll just end up with someone else's unwanted items.
  2. Be brave before taking the item, have a look at it and make sure it's in good working order.
  3. Ask if you're not sure, as there's nothing worse than taking something someone has by their door which they were about to put in a car.

Search for cheap and free decorations and furniture

Now the seeds are growing and the plan is made, the final touches are all about your decorations. While those garden centres are full of wonderful, pretty and kooky decorations for your garden, and they might seem like a jolly idea, the cost can really add up. They're another impulse buy that's good to try and avoid, as this year's 'must-have' decoration could be next year's item for the rubbish pile. I've lost count of the sets of fairy lights I've bought for the garden that are now in a bucket, tangled up.

There are some great places to scout for decorations that will be cheap or free:

Charity shops. Check out the bric-a-brac and homewares section for different pots or items that might fit with the theme of your garden. Don't be put off if something isn't a garden item, either. For example, most charity shops sell mirrors that you could put in a flower bed for decoration and to give an illusion of space.

Vinted. I entered the keyword 'Garden' and found everything from a 'Welcome to our garden' sign for £3 to a mooning gnome for £4. Adding other keywords will help your search, for example, adding 'lantern' or 'lights'. Be mindful to check if the item is still available online for new, and compare the price before you commit.

Facebook Marketplace. There's so much to be found on Marketplace, and if it's local, you may even be able to carry it home. A tip here is to look outside of the garden search term, as some people list furniture for the home that needs some upcyling that you might want to use in your garden. One tip that's worked for me is to look when you are visiting family or friends. I've spied wooden garden furniture for free in a parent's neighbourhood (just make sure you don't spend the whole weekend searching for items rather than catching up with loved ones or they may get annoyed).

Reclamation or salvage yards. It can be great fun going round a reclamation yard (personally I always wish I could buy a stone whippet from one), and they often have very unusual items like stone bird baths or statues. Some I've visited have old doors with amazing stained glass, or old pub signs. Prices can vary and some items will be an investment, but they are also great for inspiration if you're doing some forward planning.

Car boot sales. Not only great for all the above, but many people also sell seedlings at a car boot sale, which saves you the stress and cost of growing from seed if that's not your bag or you've left it too late for a certain plant.

Reusing your own 'junk'. When it comes to the garden, always ask: 'How else might I use this?' before you chuck something away. Can a broken pot be used in a bug hotel, for example? My friend Jo made this amazing planter from a watering can that had seen better days (notice how she's propped it up too, so it can drain from the bottom).