No folks, this isn’t about paying the price for extended credit, the value of your home, the destruction of your 401K, or the economy. I resisted the hoopla recently about Earth Day, since there were so many good ideas out there posted by other people.

This is in response to a nice article in the Wall Street Journal, “How Much Green Can Growing a Vegetable Garden Save You?” Neal Templin always comes up with good ideas, and I enjoyed the notion that even the WSJ crowd might sometimes get their hands dirty, but in a good way.

I have a few ideas for you folks who want to get into gardening, but do so with a small expense. I’ll kind of break it down going from some simple prerequisites, to the all important focus on seeds.

Step one. Sunlight. You’ll need a spot in your yard, on your terrace, or on your window sill that gets sunlight. yes, that most basic of all basics, energy.

The folks over at wikiHow show you how to make a sun chart that will help you determine how much direct sun your potential plot receives during the day. Most gardeners suggest 6-8 hours. here are the steps outlined in their post.

  1. Draw a map of your yard. Include the relative locations of anything large enough to cast a shadow such as buildings, fences, and trees. Scale is not important.
  2. Draw yellow lines one half inch apart, parallel with one edge of the paper to represent where the sun shines on your yard in the morning, about 9:00 AM more or less.
  3. Draw blue lines right next to your yellow lines to represent where the sun shines on your yard at midday, about 1:00 PM more or less.
  4. Draw orange lines right next to your blue lines to represent where the sun shines on your yard in the afternoon, about 5:00 PM more or less.
  5. Pick the best spot in your yard for your garden.

Now, if you have primarily low sunlight, you’ll need to think about plants that will do well. These might include many of the lettuce varieties, and spinach.

The land, man. You’ll need to think about how you will be fertilizing your garden, and continuously building up the quality of your soil. Now is the time to consider composting your grass trimmings, leaves, household scraps (only thoose not eaten by your chickens, right?) and such. Do you chemically treat your lawn with synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides to get that rolling expanse of green, previously reserved for only the rich estates of England? Well guess what, you shouldn’t use your grass trimmings in your compost. And those leaves from your trees and shrubs? Guess where the runoff from your patch of green goes? Time to start thinking about some changes here. My daughter can safely eat a dandelion from our yard. What about yours? Is this a chance for you to think about gardening as a lifestyle shift?

Tools. You can break the bank buying the tools you’ll need to create and maintain your garden. I have a few suggestions that might work for you. First of all, if you are starting a new garden, you will want to consider using a tiller to do the initial hard work. I’d recommend renting one or better yet borrowing one from a friend.

Hand tools. Buy them used. Yard sales, flea markets, and such are great places to buy used tools. You’ll probably find better tools that have already proven themselves. I recently bought two shovels and a metal rake at a local outdoor flea market for six dollars. If you have to buy new tools, and you are really serious about using them, buy good quality. And be sure it fits you. An English d style handle shovel is often better than a long handled variety.

Seeds and started plants. This is the part that can get really expensive for gardeners. But here are a few tips. If you are starting some of your garden plants from seeds, buy them at the end of the season, when they are on sale. I bought lettuce, arugula, and sweet pepper seeds for twenty cents a pack in late 2008. The seed companies want you to buy new packs every year, but except for sweet corn, parsnips, and onions, most will easily last for 2-3 years.

As you stroll through your local gardening shop, you’ll see lots of started plants. Tomatoes, peppers, herbs, etc. I would encourage you to shop around, since prices can vary quite a bit. Also, remember that one or two tomato plants that are doing well will always win out over half a dozen that are struggling. So get your garden in order before you buy seeds or started plants.

As you get more comfortable, you really need to consider starting your own plants indoors. And many plants will provide seeds for you in the fall. Tomatoes, many herbs, etc, and it is just such a kick to know you are starting new plants from seeds you harvested last fall.

Water. I would also recommend that you think about using rain barrels to catch runoff from your downspouts to use in your garden. Imagine that, free water. Don’t go out and spend a hundred bucks at a local “green” gardening shop for the barrel. Hey, even “green” can be a ripoff. Buy a plastic or metal drum/barrel at Rural King, Tractor Supply, etc. If you are an urbanite, buy a plastic trash can.

Back in the day, many homes were built with cisterns that did this for you. I once lived in a house built in the 1920’s in the heart of Indianapolis, in what was considered at the time a fairly posh neighborhood. It had a cistern. The basement even had a hand pump that once connected to the cistern.

In many parts of the world, cisterns are still a fact of existence. Pick any Carribean island, and you’ll find that they collect that rainwater for later use. Why aren’t modern builders in the US doing this?

I have one other idea for you. If you are lucky enough to have trees that drop seeds, and you see them sprouting in your yard, dig them up, and move them somewhere that doesn’t get mowed. Let them grow. We usually have several dozen oak and maple trees that we give away every year.

So, get out there, get your hands dirty.  Show your Mother Nature some love.