Here are my top ten best books on gardening for beginners who want to eat better and save money with a garden.
If you want to pad your budget, get healthier, and reconnect with your environment, starting a garden is a no-brainer.
The actual dollar amount you can save by growing your own produce depends on how much you’re currently spending on food. If you were eating cheap, pesticide-laden grocery store veggies (or none at all), you’ll save less upfront than if you were buying expensive organics at the store or farmers’ markets – but you’ll be investing in priceless long term health benefits either way.
It’s helpful to list all your monthly expenses to put this in perspective. Track your spending on fruits and vegetables, as well as what you spend on unhealthy foods which could be cut out of your diet. The money you would have spent on candy and soda can be rolled into your garden budget. These numbers will give you a baseline budget you can use to start your garden. As long as you spend less on your garden than you would be buying food at the store, you’re safe.
To save money with a garden, start small.
The bottom line is this: gardening will save you money over the long run but can be expensive in the beginning if enthusiastic novices go crazy and buy fencing, soil amendments, decorations, trellises, etc. If you go overboard, the first year could actually cost you money.
All those things are usually not necessary. You really just need a tiny bit of space, dirt, sun, and water. Those are free. You will have to buy seeds, but those are cheap. And in the following years, you can use seeds that you saved from what you grew in your garden (as long as you use heirlooms or organic, non-hybrid vegetable varieties).
This leads us to our #1 book choice for beginner gardeners who want to save money growing their own food:
1. The $64 Tomato by William Alexander
This is an amusing tale of a novice gardener’s struggle with the elements, gophers, and ridicule from family and friends, as well as a detailed exploration of how he wound up spending $64 for each tomato his garden produced. The book is as entertaining as it is cautionary for the budget-conscious gardener. Pick it up here.
2. The Cook’s Herb Garden: Grow, Harvest, Cook – Jeff Cox
A kitchen herb garden is one of the cheapest, easiest, and most delicious ways to get your hands dirty and gain confidence as a new gardener. Anyone who has ever experienced the joy of just-picked basil simmering in a home-made tomato sauce will tell you that there is absolutely no comparison between store-bought herbs and the produce of your own kitchen herb garden.
I like to think of herbs as the gateway drugs of gardening – once you’re hooked on fresh home-grown herbs, you’ll be moving on to tomatoes in no time. Pretty soon you’ll be hosting giant pumpkin contests and overalls will be a staple in your wardrobe.
Anyway, this book teaches you everything you need to know about growing and cooking your own simple culinary herb garden.
3. Gardening 101 by Martha Stewart Living Magazine
A true beginner’s handbook, this book will teach you the most basic foundations of gardening, and encourage you to learn by doing. Engaging and educational but refreshingly brief, without the exhaustive technical detail of many other gardening books. The text is accompanied by the quality photographs and illustrations you would expect from a Martha Stewart publication.
Get your copy here.
4. Field Guide to Urban Gardening by Kevin Espiritu
For those who want an all-inclusive primer for growing in tight spaces: indoors, on balconies, in raised beds, container gardening, and more. Also includes very useful in-depth garden plans you can use straight out of the book or tweak to your needs.
This is a great book on gardening for beginners with little space to work with. Whether or not you have a yard, I encourage you to start with a very small space to avoid taking on more work than you bargained for.
5. Vertical Gardening by Derek Fell
Teaches how to grow up, not out, to maximize any space, indoor or outdoor. This book focuses on shrinking floor space required for a garden by using climbing plants, as well as adapting plants we might not otherwise think of as climbers.
If you want to learn how to grow melons on a trellis (spoiler alert: it involves something called “melon bras”) this is your book.
6. All New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening
An excellent and fairly exhaustive reference book for all things organic gardening: fertilizers, planting methods, growing seasons. It explains what’s required for a truly organic garden, and why it’s worth it to move away from less natural methods.
The book is organized in an A-Z encyclopedic fashion, rather than with chapters devoted to specific topics. This is not a “gardening for beginners” book, but as you gain skill and mastery it is excellent for use as your go-to gardening reference.
7. Lasagna Gardening, Patricia Lanza
Lanza learned her craft over decades spent coaxing abundant harvests out of the rocky soil of the New York Catskills. She teaches a no-till, no-dig method of gardening that beginners and people who want to save their backs can use. You don’t need to be dug into a mountain hillside to benefit from her methods, though – lasagna gardening works for growing in spaces as small as 4” pots, which is perfect for beginner gardeners!
Pick up your copy here.
I guess I can save money with a garden. But why bother?
You may or may not be aware of how different today’s food systems are from those of the past. There is a growing consensus (no pun intended) that the way we grow, package, store, deliver and consume food today is no longer sustainable or healthy. Our health, ecosystems, and society are headed for an unpleasant reckoning if we don’t change our “foodprint” soon.
The last three books on this list are intended to give readers a big-picture view of the modern industrial food system; what works about it and what doesn’t; and where we as consumers fit in. Gardening for beginners can seem like a lot of work at first, with a small reward (until you’ve tasted that first harvest!). After reading one or all of these works, you’ll have a huge appreciation for the magical experience of eating simple food grown with your own two hands.
8. Fast food nation by Eric Schlosser
This classic is not specifically about gardening or even vegetable farming, but it’s an expose of what many consider one of the worst parts of the modern industrial food complex – the rise of fast food, and the cascading effects of our continued love affair with cheap convenience in our diets. It will make you think twice about the alternatives to growing your own food.
Get your copy here.
9. The World According to Monsanto
GMO (genetically modified organism) plants are a big part of the modern miracle of industrial agriculture, which some argue is responsible for the unprecedented explosion of the human population in recent decades. But this new style of farming has a dark side.
Through an eye-opening story of how one corporation has forged a near-monopoly on the world’s GMO corn and soy production, this journalistic piece sheds light on the modern industrial food system as a whole.
10. Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin
Joel Salatin delivers an equally humorous and pleading exploration of what used to matter in life, through the eyes of a modern-day farmer.
The author asserts that by transforming food production into an industrial process, we’re cheating ourselves out of more than our own health and the health of our planet — we have cut the lifegiving bonds of community that have historically been rooted in our care for the earth that sustains us. Read the book here.