Introduction: Grow Organic Food Without Spending $

OBJECTIVE : Grow organic food producing plants without spending any extra money, while choosing the methods that close the loop between consumption and refuse by recycling household and yard waste, paper, cardboard, food containers, water, and urine.

I am fortunate enough to be living rent free for the year in beautiful and mysterious Roswell NM, I decided I would like to experiment with how to live sustainably and cheaply (two things that go well together), so that in the future I can implement these skills and tricks when I return to a renters life. Naturally this requires skills like gardening, greywatering, composting, and the raiding of dumpsters and recycling bins. I decided to bring all the small things I have learned/developed together into one all encompassing life altering instructable. Along the way I have found other peoples instructables to be very useful so I have linked to them as well. Be sure to look at all the picture notes for details and specifics on the smaller things I have done.

RESULTS: beautiful organic veggies, herbs, healthier richer soil, less water consumption, less household waste, muscles, a tan, admiration from your friends and neighbors (you will be a buffed green hero!) This experiment has changed my life, I kid you not.


TRANSPORTATION - You will need to do a lot of alley raiding and dumpster diving*, unless you have a great bike trailer (I sure do need a nice bike hint-hint) I'm afraid this might require a car, but with luck you wont have to go too far out your neighborhood, and to minimize gas usage -- just allot a little extra time when you go out on errands and incorporate as many alleys into your route as you can. Keep bins, bags, gloves, rope in your trunk so that you will be ready to salvage whatever may turn up, this way you wont be using more much more gas than you
normally would. See the pictures and notes below for what I found in about 1/2 an hour on my way to pick up my friend from work, train yourself to see the hidden potential in other peoples refuse, of course neighborhoods with yard will probably be more fruitful if you live in the city.

LAND - Anywhere thats has dirt and sun is a good place to start, don't worry if it doesn't have very good soil because we are going to fix that. If the soil seems really questionable you could take a sample to your local county extension for a free soil test. If you have no land check out community gardens, or abandoned lots, or consider container gardening if you only have a roof or balcony.

SEEDS - save from organic non-hybrid veggies, or go to a seed swapping website like:
or buy from a good seed company like:

Robyntheslugsays: "The problem with saving seed is that many plants are hybrids. The seeds from the resulting fruits are often either infertile (Think mules), or are genetic variants without the protections and flavor the parent plant would have. If you save seed, avoid hybrids! (For instance, heirloom varieties tend to work better)"

CLEAR PLASTIC BOTTLES - these are good for making mini green houses

PLANTERS - just look around the house, check the recycle bins

CARDBOARD or STACKS OF NEWSPAPER - Enough to generously cover your garden

MANY MANY BAGS OF YARD WASTE - grass clippings, leaves, spoiled hay try and get a good mix of green and brown avoid anything that might have pesticides on it, black walnut leaves, bermuda grass, anything too seedy). These are easy to find fall and spring if you go down the right alleys looking for them.

FOOD WASTE - nothing meaty or greasy, usually you can find a lot of "about to rot" produce behind small grocery stores.

3 LOADING PALLETS - About the same size

OLD GARDEN HOSES - leaky is OK, spring and fall people throw these out, often found with lawn waste.

MULCH MATERIAL - Here in New Mexico there is a pecan shelling place where one can just go out back and get as much of their discarded pecan shells as one can handle. Think what kind of local byproduct you might be able to get in your area, I've heard many landscaping places will give you free woodchip mulch if you pick it up.

RED WIGGLER WORMS - can be found in manure piles or ordered on line

OLD MATTRESS SPRINGS OR OLD FENCING - Go ask a mattress company, or just look around for fences people are throwing out.

BUCKETS - construction site dumpsters, they may have caked sludge to be scraped out

TIRES - behind tire places

BOOKS - Go to the library try and get the following books:
Dam Nation, Dispatches from the Water Underground by Cleo Woelfle-Erskine et all this is an amazing book about water, graywater, urine composting, composting toilets, and how we had better get our act together or we wont have any clean water anymore. Has great advice on greywater systems and a bicycle powered washing machine etc.
Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway
Anything by Bill Mollison (the guy who invented the term "permaculture")
if the library doesn't have those books you should ask them to order them, otherwise just see what else they have especially pertaining to your climate, and general organic gardening.

THINGS YOU MIGHT HAVE TO BUY IF YOU CAN'T FIND OR MAKE (I know I said no money, I just haven't figured out how to do these for free yet. Any suggestions other than the five finger discount?)

HOSE REPAIR KITS - also hose accessories like splitters and sprayers may be needed, but stay away from the soaker hose and fancy irrigation systems OK?

SEED STARTING MIX - it's pretty important to have a good sterile potting mix to start your seeds use coir blocks which are made from coconut fiber (instead of peat moss which is a non renewable resource) vermiculite, perlite. If you think your soil would actually be conducive to seed starting you can sterilize it in the oven at 375 for 45 minutes in a big pan.

NATURAL FERTILIZER - like fish emulsion (anybody have a recipe? nevermind here it is, and bat guano -- know any friendly spelunkers?.

NATURAL PEST CONTROL - like neem oil or insecticidal soap spray, but some say just let the insects be, in order to attract whatever likes to eat them, just grow more of everything, a very interesting idea that encourages the natural ecosystem to right itself.

GOOD SOIL/COMPOST - Only if you didnt start composting early enough.

GARDEN TOOLS - if you don't have any already try to find some second hand (or just steal out of your neighbors yard . . . JUST KIDDING!) check out this home made hand trowel

  • There is certainly a gray area to alley raiding and dumpster diving, I have never had a problem with assuming that if its in the alley next to trash it's up for grabs, but if you have any doubts you can ask before taking if that sets your mind at ease.


The first thing to do after initiating full scavenger-ama mode -- would be to make compost, there are numerous websites out there on the subject, so I will just show you mine which I made by screwing three loading pallets together. The great thing about this is that its also a handy garden tool holder. A drum type hot-composter may work faster, but you would need to find an old 55 gallon drum (I never did). Or use this instructable
You could add your worms to this or have an additional vermicompost bin indoors for smaller scraps

Ask all you neighbors to add to your bin if they don't already compost, or go to the dumpsters of restaurants and small grocery stores looking for not so fresh produce (you will even find some still fresh produce to eat while you wait for your own), mix all this with some yard waste that you will inevitably produce when clearing your garden area.

You may want to urinate on your compost if you want to speed up the decomposition of dry brown materials as it contains a lot of nitrogen. Now don't be squeamish, urine is sterile, and doesn't seem to smell on the compost. You could also compost your feces for allegedly the best fertilizer possible, but do that in a composting toilet! never ever in this kind of compost pile. The best thing about reusing urine and fecal material is that you are saving a lot of clean flush water, not adding to the pollution of rivers and streams, and closing the loop between consumption and refuse.


Make a list of all your favorite foods to grow and eat, flowers, herbs, etc. Find out if any are not suitable for your area, or if you would need a greenhouse. Get a sense for how much sun and and water they need, and what other plants make good companions, allies and which plants should stay away from each other. Talk to other gardeners, ask what kinds of pest problems they have had, what grows really well in the area you are in (can they give you some seeds?).

Now make some drawings of how you want to plant things, keep in mind the height and width of plants, do some plants need something to climb on? What kind of soil do they need? how much light does your site get? plan accordingly.

I used a variation of the keyhole bed system to maximize growing area. Also since my garden is ring shaped I can just stand in one place and water (or use circular a sprinkler) If you plant in long rows you won't be able to see what is going on all at once, and you will have to take a walk to water. In case you cant tell I am very pleased with my garden design, but of course smaller yards will need to be more creative in the use of space.

Here are some useful sites for figuring out companion planting:


If its too cold outside still, and/or you have a shorter growing season you may want to start seedlings indoors. I started many of my plants in seedling flats I made with those plastic thingys that hold tomatoes from the grocery store. See pics below for instructions.

Or make origami cups for the kind of pot you could bury right into the ground:
(again see pics below for my details).

You will need to make a waterer so that you don't flood the seed cells, some people use a spray bottle but I was starting to get RSI. See the one I made from a big juice bottle in the pictures below.

Seed Tapes: It was still cold and I was still impatient to start gardening even after I began all my indoor seed starts, so I made seed tapes for the seeds that must be direct seeded.

To make a water soluble glue.
Use 1 tsp of cornstarch to 1 cup of water.
Stir over heat until thick
Use a small paint brush to dab seeds in the appropriate spacing onto strips of toilet paper (use a bandsaw) or tissue paper.
These tapes are very easy to plant and the seeds come out consistently spaced, think about the shapes and letters you could plant!


Now we are going to begin making the beds, this methods requires no weeding, digging, or tilling, instead relies on lots of composting in place. You are also adding to the soil from the top instead of taking away nutrients every season you dig and till the soil, plus you are saving lots of yard waste from ending up in a landfill.

When I first read about sheet mulching I was a bit skeptical, but I can personally attest that within a week there were worms where the soil used to be had pale alkaline clay, and the worms will mix the sheet mulch with what is underneath.

On a nice day soon after you have collected your cardboard, your many many bags of yard waste and a good amount of "raw compost" (uncomposted compost). Start laying out your beds, garden hose is a good way to delineate the shapes of your beds, or use rocks, sticks, chalk lines, etc.

hack down any weeds and leave them there, use a garden fork to make some holes in the ground but dont dig it up (that disrupts the soils structure)
water well and toss down a bunch of the raw compost, don't worry that it is un-rotted, it will be by the time any roots get to it, this makes a great place for worms and beneficial microbes to thrive
now cardboard, make sure the edges overlap at least 4 inches, or one inch stacks of news paper. This block weeds from coming up. Water the cardboard till its soggy
cover with green grass clippings, not to many like a good half inch.
LAYER 5: 9" to 12" of bulk organic material, like leaves, pine needles (no too many of these as they are pretty acidic) seedless straw, spoiled hay, clippings. The best is to layer all kinds of things. Toss in a few handfuls of finished compost if you can get some, this will ensure that there are beneficial microbes in there to begin the composting in place process. Water very thoroughly.
2 inches of garden soil mixed with some finished compost. This is so you have something to plant seeds/seedlings in.
Mulch: Nut shells, woodchips.
this traps the moisture in the whole business.

EDGING: rocks, bricks, broken concrete, wood, bottles, old tires cut in half for a scalloped edge. Tin cans driven into the ground a few inches. this will keep weeds out and your bed materials from spreading.

You can begin planting right away but it will be even better if you can do it a few months ahead of time.


When the seedlings are strong and not yet root-bound (and the moon is new if you are into all that) and all other factors such as frost dates fall into place, time to put those seedlings into the ground, water it all really well, just push aside the top mulch layer for direct seeding of seeds. Remember to not put things too close together. Planting can be a continual process, so repeat as needed and you will have a more continual harvest. Keep seeds you expect to sprout well watered especially if you have a brutal sun like I do. If something fails to come up just try again perhaps in a different spot, the soil PH could be off, the light could be wrong, or your seed bad. Then don't forget to thin out the smallest plants, leaving only the healthiest to flourish.


The best would be to have a greywater system, even if as simple as removing the trap from your kitchen sink and keeping buckets around to switch out. I have these depressions in the garden dirt encirlcled with rings cut from tires and lined with wood shavings that are perfect for dumping graywater. I also pour graywater on the compost pile, or use them to flush the toilet. Ideally this would be plumbed and there would be a graywater pond (see Dam Nation in my book recommendations), but as I am not going to be living here next year I opted for the muscle building "hands on" approach of carrying the buckets.

If you have gutters consider turning an old 55 gallon drum into a rain barrel.

Instead of buying a soaker hose or expensive irrigation system you could take any old hose you you rescued from the dumpster (hose repair:, snake it through the garden and poke little holes wherever you want water to come out. Experiment with different size holes depending on how much water a plant will need, it's best to irrigate slowly with water dripping out as opposed to squirting rapidly, you could also use GPH drippers in regular hose if you wanted to be fancy. Once it is in place and well tested you can nestle it down into the mulch for aesthetics.

I have one of my hoses buried in my tomato bed which is not far from my bathroom window, when I can afford it (or figure out for free) I want to get a pump so that I can pump my bathwater directly to it. Even better when I take a bath with epsom salts as the plants love them!


All previous steps will probably become a continuous process while your plants grow big and strong, you will no doubt learn what your plants like and adjust accordingly.

PESTS: Frequently check for pests (especially undersides of leaves) Hand pick pests or spray off with water, if pests become a real nuisance you may have to BUY neem oil, insecticidal soap, or some other organic control. Some say just let the insects be, in order to attract whatever likes to eat them, just grow more of everything, a very interesting idea that encourages the natural ecosystem to right itself.

Urine (diluted 3-6 parts water to 1 part urine) or use worm compost tea, bat guano tea if you can find a bat cave, or use this fish emulsion recipe :

Pull out weeds when they are small. For edging beds use boiling water (instead of "Roundup") if weeds are well away from "good" plants. Pull the rest out by hand. For large weedy areas smother with lumber or plastic.


As you start eating what your garden produces you will feel so good that you turned trash into food! Spread the word and show your friends and neighbors how you did it. Don't forget to save the seeds from the best veggies.

For more pics of my garden

In the future I want to add:
a greywater pond, making a solar cooker, and a dehydrator, covering the round garden to turn it into a green house, starting my fall crops . . . and next year a duck tractor, and maybe even get a couple of goats. So stay tuned, and keep the constructive advice coming. Let me know if you would like to be added as a collaborator, and many thanks to the others whose instructables I used.