Gardening Can Improve Your Mental Health—Here’s How To Do It for Free

Photo: Stocksy / Jovo Jovanovic
There’s a good reason seeds and plants sold out all over the country this past spring: We seem to have an instinctual understanding that working outside, in the sunshine, surrounded by green and growing things, is good for us. Faced with the prospect of being stuck at home indefinitely through one of the most stressful periods in modern history, people occupied themselves with gardening. Research has shown gardening improves physical and mental health, so much so that some doctors have prescribed the activity to help with anxiety and depression. And in this unsettling year, we could all use a little bit of help calming our minds and strengthening our bodies.

Worried you can’t afford to nurture your green thumb? It can be easy to get thrown off by fancy seed catalogs and elaborate displays at your local nursery. But gardening doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, it can be one of the cheapest hobbies there is. If you’re out of work or otherwise financially affected by the pandemic, growing a vegetable garden can offset grocery bills while giving you something productive to do. And as long as you follow a few tips, you can do it on the cheap. Here are some of the ways you can become a gardener for free:

Learn to love the plants you have

Whether you’ve recently moved to a new place or have lived in the same one for years, if you have a yard, it likely has some plants in it. You might not love them, but they’re a starting point. Can you move them to another location you like better? Clump them up in a mass for a more stunning visual effect? Spread them out in between other plants? Figure out a way to make the greenery you already have more enjoyable.

Then get curious about your "weeds." Some of them may be invasive, but many could be native plants you're unfamiliar with. An app like Plantsnap can help you identify what you're dealing with. And before you rip out any of nature’s gifts, consider using them in another location, or barter with another gardener to get what you're really after.

Let your plants make more plants

One of the great things about plants is that they propagate. Once you have established a garden, find out if you can divvy up some of the plants you have. You can trade what you divide with other gardeners or replant the excess in other locations.

If you can’t divide easily, some plants can be regrown from cuttings. (It’s also a lot easier to convince a friend or neighbor to give you cuttings than to part with a whole plant.) To help your cutting root, dip it in rooting hormone before planting (some plants need to be rooted in water before they're planted in soil). Rooting hormone is a powder that helps cuttings take root and costs just a few dollars. And if you can divide or root a few special or rare plants, you’ll make yourself a more attractive prospect for bartering.

If you’ve grown plants with easy-to-collect seeds, don't let them go to waste. In some cases, you can buy vegetable seeds once and never need to again, because you can collect and dry them every year. Not only does saving seeds allow you to get more plants for free, but if you select seeds from your garden's healthiest produce, you’ll begin to develop crops that are uniquely suited to the growing conditions where you garden.

Avoid costly gardening supplies

Raised beds are a huge trend right now for the hobby vegetable gardener, but there are many benefits to planting in-ground as well—one being cost. If you plant in raised beds, you have to buy the materials to construct the beds and, in some cases, additional soil. Believe it or not, dirt and soil amendments can often cost more than plants. Planting directly in the ground allows you to skip all that effort and expense. And don’t assume that planting in-ground means you can’t amend the soil: You can add compost and fertilizer wherever you’re planting.

In general, think about the least-resource-intensive way of doing whatever it is you want to do. Tomato plants are traditionally grown in cages, but can also grow right on the ground. The same goes for cucumbers. And instead of buying netting to protect produce from wildlife, try cutting an empty milk jug in half and using it to cover ripening fruit.

You can always adopt a more expensive method later on if something isn’t working. Gardens are forgiving and there's a simple pleasure in knowing you screwed things up and then adapting.

Find your community

Gardening is great for mental health because it’s a meditative and solitary activity, but gardening also becomes easier, cheaper, and more fun when it’s done as part of a larger community. Facebook and Nextdoor can help you find local gardening groups. If you can’t find a group, consider starting one so you can meet people who want to trade seeds, plants, and advice. Freecyle, Craigslist, and Buy Nothing groups are other fantastic places for a new gardener to get plants and gardening equipment for free.

The yards of friends, family, and neighbors are another source for supplies. Stopping in to drop off some groceries for grandma? Doing a socially distanced happy hour with your buddies from college? Ask if you can dig up some plants or take cuttings while you’re there. If you live in a neighborhood where people have enough yard space for gardening, make it a habit to regularly wander around and see what other people are growing. You can learn more about what grows well in your region this way, and if you stop and chat with your gardening neighbors you may develop enough of a relationship to share more than tips.

Remember, your community of gardeners is not just about scoring free stuff: Ideally, you’ll give as much as you get. You’ll share your seeds, knowledge, and the bounty of your work, including the produce you cannot possibly eat on your own, extra flowers, and the divisions of plants you don’t have room for. This cycle of giving and receiving is part of what makes gardening so rewarding and helps connect you to others, even when you can’t get close.

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