Pig For Victory No.8: Free, Upcycle and Barter - gardening on the cheap

There is somewhat of a myth with domestic Wartime gardeners that they were spray happy. Chemical aids were first synthesized around 1941-42 but it wasn't until 1946 that 2,4-D (Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), a selective herbicide came into use and mainly for cereal crops. As in the war, domestic growers had to fall back on gardening knowledge handed down from their Victorian forebears; including mouse traps made from two bricks, a pea and a piece of wire to lime washes for fruit trees. This meant, like us, many domestic growers were organic because there was no other choice. This meant they had to get what they could for as little as possible, and in many cases, free. So here we will look at the free things, the upcycled ideas and the way to barter to make the best of your plot. You simply don't have to spend a fortune, you just have to remember that someone else's junk is your treasure.

Gardening doesn't have to cost a fortune, see a few simple tips.

Manure is sold in many garden centres across the country but even a cursory glance at the local listings for livery stables and farms throws up in urban and rural areas many different sources for muck. To give you an idea, when we were at Drovers, we phoned up three stables within a mile, when we asked whether they had any manure they wanted rid of we were offered some for free if we collected it, was told there'd be a small charge and the final stable took our address and within a hour a tractor had showed up with two tons of the stuff. No charge. It took that small cottage garden from a mere couple of inches of top soil to a healthy foot and a half just by digging it in every year for ten years. Many stables are glad to get rid of muck. Manure comes in two forms, well rotted and fresh. You can tell the difference, well rotted really doesn't smell but fresh is often full of straw and when put into piles generates incredible heat. We often see great mounds of it in the fields round here in summer on fire, a gentle steam turns to smoke and then whopping flames. In many cases they are simply left to burn out. Yet, this heat can be incredibly valuable to extending the season and getting more crops for free. You can try your hand at creating a hotbed:

1) Stack up fresh manure in metre squares (or 3-4 feet).
2) Tread down with your feet to a depth of 60-90cm (either just under 2 feet or 3 1/2 foot). The idea is to compact it to generate more heat and to prevent air pockets that could ignite.
3) You could do this in a deep coldframe too, in a greenhouse, in a pit or add wooden sides to stop the manure washing away when it rains but fresh manure tends to cling together, and we have never needed to build retaining wooden sides. We favour the coldframe and pit method as when rotted the manure is a valuable addition to the earth and can be planted with crops that are hungry but do not need the heat.
4) Add a 50:50 mix of compost and top soil to the top of the manure. It should be around 30cm deep (around 1 foot).
5) Sow your seeds thinly on the surface and cover with cloche.
6) A hotbed can be created from January onwards but will only last for two months, after which the manure will have stopped giving off heat.

Mulch, it may be a term that you have heard before. It's a term that confuses many people new to growing. A mulch is anything added on top of the soil in early winter or spring to suppress weeds. Top choices are leaf mould, wood chippings, shredded newspaper and dried grass. Leaf mould is easy to make in autumn. The simplest method is to collect leaf fall and bag them up into plastic bin bags, punch a few holes in the bags with a garden fork, water the leaves in the bag with a full two gallon watering can and throw behind the shed and forget for a year. When you open it again you should find some of the loveliest soil conditioner and all for free. Many growers overlook grass, we regularly stack our own cuttings and neighbours to dry out. We turn it every few days and use as a mulch around fruit trees and bushes. It retains moisture and prevents weeds competing with fruit. Wood chippings can be found for free from many tree surgeons, who have to pay to dispose of it at any landfill site. Often they will ask for some money but if you are driving past and see them chipping, don't be afraid to ask (we always travel with a couple of empty compost bags in the boot of the Land Rover, you never know what you will come across - our neighbour gives us his chicken manure which is a fantastic addition to any compost heap - if we didn't ask, we wouldn't have got. It's not being cheeky, it's having common sense). Shredded paper, though seen as unsightly is a useful commodity, as long as it is just standard newspaper and not glossy supplements. There are arguments around the inks used in newspapers damaging soils and in the end it has to be your own choice. There are other mulches too, from sheep fleece to spent hops from breweries. Remember, a mulch is added to suppress weeds and it is your decision to use what you want that can be got for free.

When growing make do and mend, learn to nurture the soil and not the garden centre.

Compost, if you have the space, make it. There are plenty of books and blog posts out there to help you in this but here's how the RHS do it. It will lessen the waste in your bin and it's only time before councils start charging for waste that could have been recycled on site.

Seeds do not have to cost a fortune. Swap, save and barter. We are growing Rowan at the moment (we'll do that in a separate video blog), it may take a year, it may take two years to germinate but it grows up here and we know we can sow it, swap it or barter with it for something we need. Sometimes sowing something that is easy to get your hands on is the first step to joining a wider gardening community. Likewise, cuttings from friends gardens. Thousands of buddleias are sold every year but they are incredibly easy to propagate from cuttings. 

Collect pots. You can find pots on Freecycle, Freegle and local listings. Don't underestimate the local garden centre who may have thousands of pots they want rid of. We will look at making your own pots out of newspaper next month but have you consider cutting the bottom off a bottle? Or using a yoghurt pot, egg box, toilet roll or egg shell? These are all free to you after you have used them. It will cut down your waste, even the plastic trays that tomatoes come in make a great little seed tray.

Now consider other things thrown away by neighbours each year into skips. That bath that number 47 threw out would make a great waterbutt, wildlife pond or great pot for blueberries. Those pallets being tossed in the skip by the builder at number 6, grab them, they can be burnt if you have a wood stove, they can be made into shelves, cupboards, planters or living wall planters. It's so easy, stand up against a wall and slot two bags of compost between the two panels, one in each compartment. Now between the slats you can cut in to the compost bag and plant up with flowers, herbs or trailing veg.

Local Markets. Do you have one? Do you use it? If not, why? Like supermarkets, markets cut their prices as the day goes on, by the end of the day you can pick up large amounts of veg and fruit, in season, to process at home. We picked up 50 punnets of strawberries for less than £5, they came home with us and became a simple jam.

Community knowledge is free and ideas you may never have considered are waiting at www.facebook.com/lifeonpigrow

We are not alone in our desire to grow for free, to barter and upcycle. On our Facebook Page, many of our community have been offering their tips:

Rach Bould has a great way to make comfrey tea without the smell:

' I make comfrey tea in a tube not a bucket - it smells less revolting but the end result is the same. Dilute at least 1:3 with water and good for foliar feed as well as in the can. You can also stick in nettles and seaweed but be sure to check your allowed to take seaweed from beaches. To make the tube, get a reasonably large diameter pipe, mine is a sewage waste pipe about 4ft long. Attach a long piece of string to a pop bottle that fits in the end and will drop down. Fill the bottle with water or sand to weight it. Make sure you have the other end of the string. Mine is tied firmly to the shed. Drill or melt a smallish hole* in the flat end of a pipe stop end and attach this firmly to the pipe so it is closed at one end but with a drip hole. Attach the tube vertically to a wall or fence post. Fill with leaves and stems and add in your weighted bottle with enough slack in the string that it will drop freely. Wait. Depending on conditions you should get 'tea' dripping out of the bottom in just a few weeks
*I heated a screwdriver in my gas flame and used this to melt a 3-4mm hole. Don't make it too big or the comfrey/nettle etc will fall through and not decompose properly'.

Stan Ford pointed out 'Not free, but most people do not realize that you can plant the soup beans that you buy at the store. To keep their eating quality they are never allowed to "heat" which would ruin their ability to germinate. Don't know what they cost you there, but I can buy a pound of beans for less than I can buy a package of seed. I have done it with pintos, Black Turtle Beans and Navy Beans. And I know they will work with garbanzos (Chick Peas)'.

Claire Golemboski-Byrne also told of a group we didn't know: 'Grow It Yourself International groups, they started in Ireland, we have lots in Northern Ireland and they are spreading worldwide, that link should take you to the facebook page for anyone looking for a local group or starting one up themselves', and; 'Look on freecycle for stuff as well, I give away tons of pots as my work clients give me theirs too, and we got a lovely coldframe from someone. You can always to ask politely for things'.

Richard Leadbitter resurrected an old Victorian Gardening favourite: 'Taking the tops off fresh mole hills leaving the bottom couple of inches so that you dont pick seeds up is a way I get good sieved soil for potting on mature plants like toms etc'.

Emma Pearce told us, 'My local garden centre has a couple of 'recycling' areas where they put out old pallets and pots and seed trays and the like, and customers can help themselves. Pallets can be used to make compost bins or hold down mypex etc. The wood is probably too thin to make raised beds but still useful'.

Claire Rawlinson told us to 'Save egg cartoons/ mushroom trays for chitting spuds and sowing seedlings. Use old milk cartoons to cut out plastic name tags and can also be used to make a seedling watering can. Save old soft drink bottles to make cloches for protecting seedlings, old cds tied to string as bird scarers. Toilet rolsl tubes can be used to sow peas/beans in..will decompose and won't disturb roots. If you encourage wildlife into your garden, they are the best free pest control you can get. Invest in a small wormery, that will produce free compost/feed in the long term and non of your veg scraps then go to waste. There are a number of veg that you can use and then re grow or grow ...onions/celery/cabbages/cut and come again lettuce etc.'

There's many more tips on our Facebook Page.

You can view more on our #wartimegarden plans on twitter and through the following links:

Wartime Garden: Harvest Festival

Digging for Victory: The Guardian Blog