How to Container Garden Like a Boss (and Save Money)

Davina van Buren

I come from a long line of farmers, but as I grew up and moved to bigger cities with their tiny apartments and micro-backyards, I assumed having my own productive garden wasn’t possible. I only thought of growing produce as a large-scale endeavor. It never occurred to me to think small.

But over the past decade, I’ve interviewed hundreds of farmers and chefs as a food and sustainability reporter. Thanks to them—and the simultaneous rise of the locavore movement—I realized that if you put your mind to it, you can grow food anywhere.

Last year, on a small 36” x 10” backyard plot, I finally planted my first real garden as an adult. In one season, I grew about 120 pounds of produce. I was able to cut my farmer’s market trips from $20 per week to $5, saving $240 in four months. I canned and dehydrated a haul to keep me through winter. Looking at my supermarket receipt for inspiration, I experimented with growing pricier produce that I loved, like fingerling potatoes that cost $5 a bag at my local grocery. And I was able to offer colorful, nutrient-rich baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables to my family, friends, and neighbors.

This season, wanting to expand my gardening options (and my harvest), I looked for space in unusual places like dresser drawers and trash cans, and I’m already set to reap an even bigger harvest this year. Now I know for sure: you don’t need tons of room or years of gardening experience to grow your own food. In fact, anyone can do it on a patio, balcony, windowsill, or even on your rooftop. It just takes a little planning and know-how.

What to grow

When you’re first starting out, the temptation is strong to plant fancy heirloom tomatoes and cute little Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers, but to save yourself some money (not to mention the disappointment of dead plants), do your research first to figure out what will actually grow in your location.

Start by determining your plant hardiness zone via the United States Department of Agriculture’s map, which helps you easily identify what plants can handle your area’s average weather. From there, determine your sun and shade levels, i.e. the microclimate of your porch. You can go big with this and create a high-tech sun map, or you can go old school and just walk outside at different points during the day to see how much sun your gardening area gets. After a few days of casual observation, you should be able to tell if your area is full sun, partial shade, or full shade—which is plenty of knowledge to get you started. Once you know those basics, whether you’re buying seeds online or shopping the Lowe’s garden center, you can use plant tags to only pick up what has the best chance of thriving.

Next, take some time to consider how you want to garden. If you have the time and inclination to carefully water, weed, and fertilize for weeks or months waiting on a big produce pay-off, you may be happy starting with inexpensive seeds indoors. If you don’t have that kind of patience and devotion, look for starters, which are small, partially grown plants. And if you know you’re going to want to see results often, look for frequently producing plants. For example, I went with cherry tomatoes because they take less time to mature than heirloom varieties and are “indeterminate,” meaning they will continue to produce fruit throughout the season. (Pro tip: If you’re planning to use your tomatoes for canning, choose a “determinate” variety so most ripen at the same time.)

Some plants and varieties are just plain easier to grow, with plentiful yields that will bolster your burgeoning green thumbs. No shame in starting with those. Lynn Gillespie of The Living Farm in Paonia, Colorado, likes to start new gardeners with lettuce or Swiss chard. “They grow well in containers and are a fast-maturing crop,” she says.

What containers to use

You can spend triple digits on one container, but you don’t have to, and this is where it gets fun—almost anything can become a container. I’m growing lettuce in the drawers of a discarded dresser I found on the side of the road. The fingerlings are in a tall trash can since they need depth to grow beneath the soil. My cherry tomatoes are in five-gallon buckets I found lying around my house.

To turn practically anything into a container, it just needs two things: room and drainage. The plant tag will clue you in to optimal spacing needs, and don’t forget to consider root system depth as well. Every container should also have at least one hole at the bottom, something you can usually add yourself with a small power drill. The hole drains extra water, letting the roots breathe. Without good drainage, your plants will sit in water, suffer root rot, and quickly die.

If you don’t have the space for a dresser or large buckets, get creative. Victoria Hensley, urban farm facilitator at Growing High Point in North Carolina, suggests using hanging planters (great for most berries) attached to balcony railings. Stacking plants from biggest to smallest on top of each other creates a space-saving tower for vine growers like strawberries. Even an old baker’s rack off Craigslist can give you vertical room.

Get plants and supplies cheap

My all-around favorite place to find cheap plant thrills is the clearance rack. For instance, Lowe’s has its infamous “dead plant rack” toward the back of the garden center. Discounts are big, and a little care can often bring those plants back to life. Your local garden center might have something similar, but if not, you can always ask for a discount on puny-looking starter plants.

Universities’ agricultural departments typically run a sale or two throughout the year with lower prices. If your local high school has a National FFA Organization chapter (formerly known as Future Farmers of America), it’s more than likely they have a yearly fundraiser offering plants. This year I got about 60 vegetable starters for $18 on the last day of my local FFA sale, enough to plant my entire summer garden.

For the extra-thrifty, a great option is seed swaps, where local gardeners trade extra seeds. You can also regrow many plants from food scraps. For example, some lettuces, many varieties of herbs, pineapple, and garlic will all grow simply by replanting the tops or stems.

As for gardening tools, thrift shops, yard sales, and dollar stores are my go-to places for cheap but effective supplies.

Don’t skimp on soil

Your planting soil is the one place you don’t want to skimp on quality. “The soil is the key to gardening success,” Gillespie explains. “Put the plant in the environment that it wants from the start and it will perform—the container is only the holder of the great soil.” For most plants, I use high-quality organic soil from my local garden shop mixed with compost.

Still, there are deals to be had for high-quality soil. My city has a municipal program that offers mulch and compost to residents for a few bucks per truckload—check with your local parks and rec department for similar programs. You can also get deals on bagged soil at warehouse clubs like Sam’s Club and Costco. Major home improvement stores also run sales on soil throughout the year.

Once you’ve got your containers, your soil, and your seeds and starters, you’re ready to start growing. And don’t let that freak you out! Even if you’ve killed every houseplant you’ve ever had, there really is no such thing as a “black thumb.” Good gardening just takes practice. “You don’t have to have a green thumb to be a gardener,” says Hensley.  “You just need to be willing to get your hands dirty and try it. Every gardener had to start somewhere. Plant some seeds, water them, and see what happens—it’s as simple as that.”