Master gardener shares tips for starting a garden sustainably and on a budget

Heather Fagan, co-founder of Seed & Soul Society and master gardener.Heather Fagan is a co-founder of Seed & Soul Society and a certified master gardener who shares her advice on how to create and maintain a garden.

What gardening essentials would you recommend to build out a basic toolkit?

One of the first items I would consider essential for a basic tool kit is a pair of gloves. It is possible to find a pair of good quality gloves for moderate prices. I personally prefer leather gloves because they make my hands feel most protected but nylon and polyurethane have a protective barrier as well.

I think the second would be a hand trowel which is useful for digging small holes and breaking up small areas of soil. Stainless steel works best in my opinion and lasts longer.

Another tool I really enjoy working with is a hand cultivator which looks like a claw. It makes removing weeds and breaking up small roots much easier and is also great at helping spread fertilizer around the dirt surrounding the plants.

Last but not least of the basic tools are pruning shears. Pruning shears are used to cut off extra leaves and small branches that do not carry a flower which helps more nutrients get to the plant.

Are there any cost-effective fruits, vegetables, or herbs that you recommend planting?

Lettuce and anything leafy is typically pretty easy to grow. Cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and squash are usually the main staples in both beginner and seasoned gardens alike.

One thing to remember with peppers is that they grow best hot and humid. Peppers and tomatoes should both be started indoors while cucumbers and squash should be sown directly into the soil once the risk of frost is over. Lettuce can be started indoors or outdoors.

When it comes to herbs, they can be really simple to grow, and provide such a fresh and tasty addition to any meal. The easiest and most common kitchen varieties to grow are basil, thyme, parsley, chives, oregano, cilantro, and mint.

Once someone has decided what they want to plant, what key factors would you recommend they take into account before planting?

Before someone decides to plant their garden they should take several factors into consideration. The zone that you are in is the determining factor in what you can grow. The size of the space determines how many plants you can place in an area. Every plant has different spacing requirements depending on the way they grow.

Soil quality is incredibly important and I always advocate for soil testing. There are local organizations that offer soil testing if you are unsure. In Port Huron, we have Blue Water Conservation District which offers these resources. In this area, many properties have dense clay which makes it difficult for roots to get through, while a little bit of clay in the soil is helpful for water retention.

It is also important to test for heavy metals and impurities in the soil. Once the soil situation is determined, you can start amending, or look for alternative methods like raised beds.

The amount of sunlight a space gets is also important for healthy soil growth as some plants need more light where others can still thrive in shadier areas. South facing gardens get the most sun exposure (a full sun garden is 6 hours of direct sunlight). Surrounding buildings and trees create shadows that can block sunlight, so that is something to take in to consideration as well.

What methods could someone incorporate into their garden to make it more sustainable and eco-friendly?

Rainwater collection and composting are both great sustainable ways to gather essential resources for your garden. The topic of whether or not you collect rainwater has been debated in the past, and it varies from state to state, but in Michigan it is legal and encouraged to collect rainwater. If there are questions or concerns about rainwater harvesting, you can refer to the Cost-Effective Governmental Energy Use Act.

Composting is great and, in my opinion, serves almost like a science experiment in your own backyard. The organic matter created by composting improves both the structure and the health of your soil, helps retain moisture and nutrients, and attract beneficial organisms to the soil. What is important to know when starting your own compost heap is that you have to be conscious of what you should and should not include. Vegetable scraps, crushed egg shells, and cardboard are included in the list of things that are acceptable, but meat, bones, and dairy should never be added to the compost pile.

For renters or those with limited space to plant a garden, what are some strategies for making the most of small spaces?

If you live in an area where there isn’t much room for a garden, it can be discouraging, especially if you don’t have much of a yard or are dealing with a lot of concrete. In these situations, container gardening can be a great choice although one thing to remember is that they need sufficient drainage. Have fun with the containers, make sure they are clean and sterilized for use and have holes, and you can plant in almost anything!

Trellises are great because it encourages growth up instead of out, maximizing ground space. Since most plants will climb a trellis from a raised bed this provides an opportunity to plant smaller plants in the bed that are compatible with the ones being trellised. The best thing about gardening is the opportunity let your mind go. My philosophy is when there is a will there is a way, and trial and error is the best opportunity to find out what that way is.

For those on a budget, what are some tips to save money with your garden?

Gardening can be expensive to start which can be a big deterrent for beginner gardeners. Most of the basic vegetable seeds that one may need can be found in places like dollar stores, or in the garden sections of most hardware stores for cheap. If you want to get more into heirloom varieties, those are pricey and are typically available by special order. Some seeds you can harvest straight from the vegetables you buy from the grocery store. You just clean them and dry them out for planting.

The dirt used to start plants doesn’t have to be expensive either. Potting soil is great for starting seeds since most of the nutrients the seedlings need to pop are in the hard cover of the seed itself. Transplanting after a few weeks is when the nutrients can be added to the soil.

Plants also need sufficient light to survive and stay strong. Nowadays there are so many different types of lights that it’s almost difficult to know what to choose from. If indoor lights are not within your budget, you can find parts of the house that bring in sufficient light. Alternatively, you may find inexpensive options on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, Garden Supply stores, or even Amazon. These are all places you can look for any of your gardening needs.

Are there any resources you recommend for those looking for more information about designing a garden and ensuring it thrives?

The internet is clearly where we have all of the information in the world right at our fingertips, but that means that there are a lot more places where information that may not be so credible can be accessed.

There are many websites and organizations out there that can help with getting the best gardening information out there to individuals. My favorite is the Master Gardener Association. They have an affiliate office right here in Port Huron that has answers from everything planting to canning. I went through their Master Gardener Program and learned so much. They are now offering that program online which will make it more accessible to community members, and sometimes offer scholarships.

The organization that I represent, Seed & Soul Society, also offers community-building workshops, Tending Thursdays, and many other opportunities for community members to ask questions about gardening.
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Read more articles by Liz Fredendall.

Liz Fredendall is a photojournalist and communications professional with nonprofit experience. During her free time, she enjoys reading and exploring the Blue Water Area with her husband Erick and their corgi, Nori. Contact Liz at or follow her on Instagram @lizfredendallphoto.