Skip to main content

The Frugal Flower Garden: Building a Beautiful Garden for Almost Nothing

Dolores has landscaped for private clients, maintained one client's small orchid collection, and keeps 30 houseplants.

Flower gardens can be started without very much, if any, money!

Flower gardens can be started without very much, if any, money!

A Free Flower Garden

The free garden is more than just a garden. You won’t have one of those instant weekend projects like in the magazines. The free garden is so much more rewarding! It takes time and creativity. It will put you in contact with other gardeners from whom you’ll learn and with whom you can share your bounty. In the free garden, every plant and decorative object has a story, a memory, and great sentimental value. Your garden will develop spiritual overtones and become a haven from the harsh realities of the modern world.

"My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece."

— Claude Monet

Plan the Garden

Remember to consider how much time and effort you wish to spend taking care of your garden. A larger garden will, of course, take more time in the future as well as in the beginning.

  • Use free resources like the library and the internet (well, that’s not free, but if you already have it…) to research. Find a plant zone map to help you understand how to adapt to your particular climate.
  • Round up some garden tools. Shovels, rakes, hoes, spades, wheelbarrows, etc., are easy to find at yard sales. Not free but cheap. If the old folks are leaving their bungalow for a condo, they’ll probably give you their old garden stuff. If the tools are in bad shape, sand and finish the handle then sharpen and oil the blade.
  • Consider your yard and decide on the area that you wish to decorate with a garden. Make sure the space is free of tree roots and gets adequate amounts of sunshine (6 – 8 hours constitutes full sun). If the garden will be shaded part of the day, remember that morning sun is best with shade in the afternoon.
  • Consider your drainage. Dig a hole and fill it with water. If the water takes about 30 minutes to drain, you’ve got a good spot. Of course, you can work on your soil, but it would be great to have a good start.

Build the Garden

  • Outline the area with a hose. Remember that curves are more appealing to the eye than straight lines.
  • Cover the grass with several layers of newspaper. Hose it down and keep it damp.
  • Cover the newspaper with shredded mulch which is often available at your local landfill (dump) for free!
  • Dig a mowing edge around the whole garden to keep grass from invading.
  • After several months, turn the whole mess over. The grass will be dead and the newspaper pretty much decomposed. Free necessitates a lot of hard work with the shovel. But that’s great exercise, and you can save all that money on a gym membership.
  • As you turn it over, chop up lumps and use a heavy-duty rake to make the soil nice and fine.
  • Mix in some of your free compost. (See below.)


A good compost pile takes time but will save you money on fertilizer. Commercial fertilizer is not just expensive, but the run-off devastates our waterways and does nothing to improve the soil. Start with large, light material like dried plant trimmings and layer:

  • Grass clippings
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Shredded leaves
  • Coffee grounds and shredded tea bags
  • Vacuum bag dirt
  • Wood shavings, sawdust, wood ash
  • Eggshells: rinsed and crushed, and peanut shells
  • Manure
  • Bone meal: You really need bone meal. It provides the phosphorus needed to produce nice flowers.

Build your compost in layers. Aerate often: turn the pile with a pitchfork every week or so. Well-aired compost encourages the growth of beneficial microorganisms.

A well-maintained and aerated compost pile will not emit foul odors. When you first add raw manure, of course, you will have to endure somewhat of a stink factor, but only for a few days or so. I add raw manure in late winter when the neighbors aren’t spending a lot of time hanging around in the yard. By the time they start spending time outside, the pile has heated up, been turned a few times, and lost the odor.

On pH

The pH content is calculated on a scale of 0–14 with 7, the midpoint, being neutral. Soil above 7 is ‘sweet’ or alkaline. A pH below 7 is ‘sour,’ or acidic. You can test your soil‘s pH by placing a few spoons of it in a mason jar. Add an equal amount of white vinegar. Shake it up and give it a listen. The louder the fizzing, the higher, (more alkaline) the pH.

  • Most plants like it a bit acidic: 6.0–6.8 pH.
  • If soil is too acid and needs sweetening, you can add wood ashes (from wood stove or fireplace), bone meal, crushed eggshells, ground or crushed oyster shells.
  • If the soil is too alkaline add pine needles, coffee grounds, and oak dust, peat moss or cottonseed meal (I guess you’d have to buy that, I don’t even know what it is).
  • Many people believe they must send their soil away to get it tested for ph. Others purchase kits at garden supply shops. Since ph affects the well-being of all plants, it may be a good idea to check it properly. I do not. I assume my soil is acidy because of the area where I live.
  • If I add a plant that needs an alkaline soil, I try to augment the area around the plant. A bit of crumbled or broken cement can add alkalinity to the soil near a particular plant.

Welcome to My Garden

My own flower garden.

My own flower garden.

White coneflowers are native plants

White coneflowers are native plants

Free Flowers

You can’t be picky when you want something for nothing. That’s where creativity comes in. You’ll be adding, thinning, and transplanting year after year, so your garden will always be changing which can be very exciting. Just remember to plant the taller stuff in the back. You can get all hung up on colors or ‘garden styles,’ or you can go willy-nilly and wind up with a beautiful cottage garden.

There are many sources of free plants. Once you get the hang of hit, you’ll have so many free plants; soon, you’ll be giving some away! The best sources are family, friends, and neighbors. A lot of people need to thin their perennials or divide bulbs. They’d much rather give the excess away than throw it away.

We still have my husband’s grandfather’s yarrow, and I still have Auntie’s spearmint. I don’t care what they say about spearmint taking over. (Actually, Auntie was kind of bossy.) Auntie’s mother, my great-grandmother, cultivated this spearmint. Auntie was born in 1878. Nuff said.

  • Seeds from perennials, biennials, and annuals. Most folks let a few flowers go to seed and will be glad to give you some. Marigolds, zinnias, cleomes, flax, and alyssum are easily grown from seed.
  • Gifts: Ask anyone who wants to give you a gift to give you a perennial plant or gift certificate to a garden center or nursery.
  • Cuttings: when I pruned one of my rose bushes one year, I shoved a couple of tips in the soil, nothing fancy. Lo and behold, it grew, and I had several lovely little rose bushes to trade! Learn to take cuttings properly and go to town. Keep a sharp eye on your neighbor’s pruning habits.
  • Plant societies often offer free plant exchanges.
  • Cheap plants: Public gardens, local farms, community plant sales can be a source of inexpensive plants.
  • Divide your own plants so that they appear in several sections for a nice repeat in the design.
Mexican sundrops and  and sea holly.

Mexican sundrops and and sea holly.

Free Mulch

Mulch breaks down to enrich and texturize your soil. It keeps moisture in during dry seasons. But mulch can be quite expensive if you buy the average number of bags that people need, even for a relatively small garden.

Many municipalities offer free mulch as well as compost to area residents. Once discarded leaves, tree debris, and brush are ground up and used to improve gardens. The last time I went to the dump, there was quite a crowd of happy people shoveling mulch into their pickup trucks. I drive a minivan, so I took out the back seat and lined the area with heavy plastic.

Mulch - our local dump offers free mulch to residents.

Mulch - our local dump offers free mulch to residents.

Decorative Elements

A flower garden is so interesting when decorative elements are added to complement the design. It may take years to locate the items you like, so, every item has a bit of a story to it. I wanted to sweeten a bit of soil around a particular plant and decided that a piece of cement might leach lime (okay, maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t) and low and behold, found a hunk of busted-off sidewalk curbing on Surf Ave. in Coney Island. How cool is that?

Sources are endless to the creative person. Once other like-minded folks discover your interest, you’ll be surprised at their generosity. One morning I went into my yard to discover an old salvaged channel marker (which looks kind of like a mine and is almost scary) deposited there as a surprise by a friendly salvage maven as a wacky surprise!

Other sources:

  • Rocks – As hard as it is to believe some people don’t want rocks! You can do them a favor by taking them off their hands. Rocks can be useful as edging, steps, small tables, or bases for containers. Larger rocks can almost be viewed as sculptures. Developments and building sites often have large piles of rocks shoved aside and will often let you take some.
  • Bamboo – As a decorative element or plant. Bamboo often overgrows. People want to get rid of it or at least thin it out and won’t mind you digging up shoots to plant or saw some down. Just ask first. You can make beautiful fencing, dates, or trellises with cut bamboo.
  • Lumber – Excess lumber leftover from projects can be put to use. I took a couple of 4x4 posts, and two 2x6’s cut a curve at the ends, and stained them a lovely dark blue. The resulting trumpet creeper covered arch stands at the entry to my yard,
  • Fence sections make nice trellises.
  • An old folding ladder looks charming with a flowering vine growing up the step
  • Baskets – Everybody has an old basket or two lying around. It makes a homey container. Or, break out the bottom and set it in the garden as a support for leggy plants.
  • Found objects are the sculptural ornamentation of the free garden. Old tools, architectural salvage, any old thing can be used to add interest to your garden.

Once you get into the whole free garden way of thinking, new ideas abound. It becomes almost a game, and the joy of finding a new freebee far exceeds the pleasure derived from just going to a store and buying something. So, happy free gardening, get mooching!

This is an old channel marker.

This is an old channel marker.

Art made of salvage building materials.

Art made of salvage building materials.

The things you can find on the beach!

The things you can find on the beach!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Dolores Monet