How to Garden on a Budget in NYC - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
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How to Garden on a Budget in NYC

I moved into an apartment last spring with a large raised bed that was full of mugwort and chickweed, with a little patch of irises and daffodils. The soil was very compacted and sandy, but the area gets great light, and I was excited to have a growing space for the first time. 

A narrow strip of green weeds and daffodils is contained within a concrete median against a white concrete wall.
Hester’s raised bed before planting. Photo courtesy of Hester Griffin.
A woman in a black sleeveless shirt and blue gardening gloves reaches over a brown concrete median towards a bed of bright orange flowering plants that are being sprayed with a metal hose.
Hester's raised bed after planting. Photo courtesy of Hester Griffin.

Gardening can be surprisingly expensive, especially when you’re starting from scratch. Between soil, plants, containers, tools, and more, it’s possible—though not necessary—to spend a lot of money on even a modest plot.

In my case, I spent about $200 on 15 small native perennial plants to get the flower bed started. I plan on staying in this apartment for a long time, so I bought the smallest (i.e., least expensive) plants available and let them grow, planting the rest of the area with seeds. I look forward to watching them fill in the space over the years, and adding more plants as I can afford to.

Rest assured, however: You can garden for far less. I was able to source most of my other materials cheaply or for free, from seeds and tools to local compost.

Whether you have a backyard garden, community garden plot, pots on a stoop, or a street tree bed you’d like to take care of, here are some tips to help you get started without draining your bank account.


The first thing you need to start gardening is soil. (Unless you’re working in a street tree bed! Adding soil can damage the tree.) Soil can be expensive to purchase in large quantities, not to mention a logistical challenge for city growers.

People stand next to a very large stockpile of light brown sand against a cloudy sky.
The Clean Soil Bank stockpile in East New York, Brooklyn. Photo by Sara Perl Egendorf.

The NYC Clean Soil Bank offers free soil for certain recipients, including construction projects and community and school gardens. If you’re part of a community garden or school garden, they will deliver up to six cubic yards of soil to your site. Community gardens can also register with GreenThumb, the NYC Parks’ Department urban gardening program, to request many free resources from the city, including bulk soil, compost, and mulch.

If you decide to buy soil, I recommend buying in larger amounts, which is always cheaper. Check with your local nursery to see if they will give you a discount for buying in bulk. If you don’t need or have space for that much soil, you could coordinate with neighbors or friends to split an order.

If you don’t have a car, getting a lot of soil will be tricky—but it’s another great reason to connect with other gardeners, some of whom may also need soil (and have access to a car). You will only need to get a lot of soil once. After that, you can just add small amounts of amendments every year.

If you are starting a garden and using existing soil, it’s important to test it for lead and other heavy metals, as well as pH and nutrient levels. One of the most affordable ways to get your soil tested is to send samples to the Urban Soils Lab at Brookyn College, which costs $20 for a lead screening and pH test.


Compost is an incredible soil amendment that makes use of all of your food scraps and saves a valuable resource from the landfill.

Several large white bags piled in the back of a car trunk.
Bags of compost from a compost giveback event. Photo by Hester Griffin.

If you have the time and space, you can start your own compost pile. There are many ways to compost at home that can work for different spaces. Some are more DIY, like making a chicken wire compost bin or building a box with old pallets. If you don’t have space for outdoor compost, you can start a vermicompost bin inside.

One way to get free compost in New York City is to look for a compost giveback event through the Department of Sanitation. If you go this route, make sure to reserve early, because spots fill up very fast. Nonprofits and community gardens can request deliveries. Local organizations like Red Hook Farms also sometimes offer compost givebacks for community members and greening programs; check their Instagram page for events this spring.

An important caveat: New York City recently eliminated funding for community composting, affecting New Yorkers’ ability to access free compost, food scrap drop-off sites, and other invaluable services. Sign the GrowNYC petition to help restore funding for community composting!


There are many sources of free mulch in New York City. You can pick up wood chips at Green-Wood Cemetery (go to the entrance at 500 25th Street and ask the guard for directions) anytime during open hours. Bring your own shovel and bags.

Some local tree pruning companies will also deliver large quantities of free mulch upon request. And at Mulchfest, an annual December–January event, you can exchange an old Christmas tree for a free bag of mulch.

A pile of small evergreen cuttings surrounds a small red woody plant.
You can also chop up your own (or a neighbor's) Christmas tree to use as mulch. Photo by Hester Griffin.

Another source of mulch is chaff from coffee or chocolate roasters. If you live near a roaster, ask them if you can take their leftover chaff. They may be happy to see it getting used. The chaff is great as mulch, or it can be added to your compost, providing lots of nitrogen.

Finally, leave the leaves! Leaves are a great free source of mulch, and they might already be where you need them to be. This is a good option if you don’t have access to a car.

Collect fallen leaves from your block in the fall and spread them on your containers or garden beds. (It’s best to chop or shred them before spreading, if you can, so they don’t mat when they get rained on.) You can also leave annuals to decompose in place for instant, effortless mulch.


Starting plants from seed is always cheaper than buying seedlings or larger plants.

A hand reaches for a packet of seeds against a table piled with other packets of seeds.
A recent seed swap hosted by the author. Photo by Hester Griffin.

For free seeds, look around for seed swaps, which are sometimes hosted by libraries, nonprofits, block associations, and individuals. If you can’t find one, start your own with friends and neighbors. Community gardens also offer plenty of opportunities for seed-sharing.

Swaps are great not only for exchanging seeds, but for making connections with other gardeners, which can lead to sharing other resources, help with heavy projects like spreading wood chips, and general camaraderie.

You can also save seeds! When your plants go to seed, collect the seeds and store them in a paper envelope in a cool, dry, dark location to start indoors or plant outside the following year. This can be done with annuals or perennials.

Note that saved seeds may be different from the parent plant, unless you grow the plant especially for seed saving and ensure that no cross pollination happens.


Many plants can be started by taking cuttings of another plant. This technique works well for shrubs, trees, many types of herbs and perennials, and houseplants.

A hand holding a dark green stem of a plant against a light brown wooden background.
A fig tree cutting. Photo by Hester Griffin.

If you decide to start plants from cuttings, look up what time of year is best to take cuttings from that plant and check which type (stem, shoot tip, leaf, or root) works best. Another way to create more plants from what you already have is to divide them. Many herbaceous perennial flowers and herbs can be divided every year.

If you decide to buy plants, the smallest plants are always the most affordable. Smaller plant starts, especially perennials, will also grow to be healthier plants. Larger, more mature plants can become root-bound and have a harder time acclimating to being replanted. In general, perennials are usually a better investment than annuals, which need to be replaced every year.

It’s also worth noting that the very cheapest source of garden plants (like big box store sale racks) may not have the healthiest stock. Check out farmer’s markets, local nurseries with knowledgeable staff, or not-for-profit nurseries like Lowlands Nursery.

Community gardens and block associations also often host annual spring plant sales with GrowNYC, and Brooklyn Botanic Garden hosts a plant sale in the fall.

Above all, go for plants that are suited to your site conditions, and look up their growing requirements. Experimentation is great—but if you’re buying plants on a budget, a bit of research can help ensure longevity.

Containers, Accessories, & Tools

There are lots of fancy containers out there, but pretty much any container can be used to grow a plant as long as air and water can freely move through it. Milk jugs, crates, burlap sacks, buckets, pallets... even old boots! All of these can be acquired for free, and easily fitted with drainage holes.

Two old black and brown boots with browning plants inside of them.
A pair of old boots can be upcycled into a micro-planter. Try small plants like alyssum, pansies, or thyme (and remember to drill holes in the bottom). Photo by Hester Griffin.

It’s also easy to spend money on things like stakes, trellises, and tomato towers, but you can often fashion these yourself. Try using sticks or old broom handles and twine, or borrow used ones from fellow gardeners.

If you are just starting out, you will need a few tools. There are many things you can do with your hands, but these tools will make the work easier and faster. Here are my recommendations:

  • Gloves
  • Watering can and/or hose
  • Pruners
  • Soil knife
  • Shovel
  • Rake
  • Bucket or trug

The only things I would buy new are gloves and pruners. Otherwise, many of these tools can be bought used on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, or found for free on your local Buy Nothing group. (Be sure to clean them.)

Happy gardening!

Hester Griffin is the Discovery Garden coordinator at Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

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