Growing vegetables is never going to be cheap or free. It is, at its center, an exchange of energy for energy, elements for elements, food for food, life for life, life for death, death for life.
Gardens are built up at best with homemade or local compost, but more likely with food industry byproduct-based fertilizers (and that’s the organic stuff you should be using) and dirt that was probably unsustainably harvested or created, which you’re going to have to buy at a store and pour out of a bag that is made of plastic, the ultimate undoer of Earthly worlds. The wood we build our garden beds with came from trees that may or may not have been sustainably harvested, but certainly died either way. We think nothing of killing pests with our varied organic means, so long as we don’t have to watch them suffer.
Even if we find a way to live in a world outside of capitalism, we don’t ever get to live in a world outside of trade; and while it’s not a zero-sum game, eating and growing will always be about exchange. That said, the consumer market based off the cuteness of growing one’s own food has gone full post-postmodern over the last few years, and there are products out there that harp on our food-growing fantasies in a way that is severely detrimental to both our gardens and the souls we hope to help those gardens nourish.
Before I go deeper into what you don’t need to spend money on to grow food, here are the things you do need to spend money on (or otherwise make exist in your life) if you want to make growing food a part of your life: Seeds and/or plant starts, soil, a water source, a way to distribute that water, and fertilizer. Less necessary but very helpful addenda are organic pest management, mulch, maybe some basic gardening tools, and structural components like wood for raised beds and trellising for vegetables that need trellising.
No amount of planning will prepare you to garden, and at worst, playing out the fantasy of growing food will stop you from actually doing the thing. Buying things you don’t need will hinder you from doing the actual work you want to be doing. The worst of these things that you don’t need to buy, in my opinion, is the garden planner. These come in many forms, mostly digital, and cost too much money. That said, they are fun and they tickle a part of the brain most of us like tickling. But, like social media completely consuming our desire and competence to actually socialise with the humans we love and care for by feeding into baser cravings, planning one’s perfect, tidy garden on a neat sheet of digital paper can replace the urge to garden, either by satisfying the itch or by overwhelming the mind with the monstrous burden you have bestowed upon yourself with your idyllic ideations of a perfect permaculture urban homestead.
I think you should dream big, and feed those dreams by reading up on all the gardening resources. I think you should start to actualize your dreams by prepping your garden space before it is time to grow again, and that you should start to perceive, on the ground, in the real places you want to be growing, what you want to grow where, and the steps you will take to make it so. Sure, use your computer to make plans and draw sketches of the world you want to see in your yard. Go deep on your plant varieties, as there is a barely-tapped universe of bizarre tropicalia waiting to be discovered, and there are native plants begging to be utilized in home landscapes that have rarely ever yet crept out of the swamps. None of that can be found through a gardening app, but by melding your limitless imagination with the practically infinite resources out there on our bioregional possibilities, just waiting for you to synthesize them. There is so much more you can do than any garden planner will even begin to suggest, and you and your garden deserve to tap into the indefinite and undefinable to create a synergistic landscape of subtle whimsy and complex practicality.
I used to use one of those vegetable garden planners, not so much for myself, but for clients who loved the idea of seeing what a space might transform into once the appropriate amount of work or money had been put into the project. I can say, definitively, that no project I have ever drawn up on a computer for someone else’s garden has ever come to fruition. That is not because I am a terrible gardener; it is because these things take time to achieve and even the most pastoral nature will not bend to our whims, at least not for long, at least not without much force and plentiful money. It is also because my clientele generally were not wealthy enough in time to make their digital fantasies real, nor wealthy enough in money to pay me to make the same said digital garden a reality.
Meet yourself and your garden where you already are, and you can take it anywhere from there. Do not escape the reality of your garden with unnecessary objects and daunting plans. Make your garden an escape from your reality, where rules twist, curve, and die to be born again—where plans are laid only as seed falls to the earth. Do not walk in unprepared, but take it step by step and be there with it. What you reap will take you infinitely farther than a fantasy drawn up by a black hole of shopping therapy for garden goods ever could.
illustrations Rachel Speck