Seeds save you money in the first place, because they cost so much less than buying seedlings from the garden center. On top of that, there are so many ways to cut corners on seeds. Let's start by considering two general schools of thought on how you can save money, then we'll get to some specific tips.
The first school of thought is pretty short-term: buy cheap seeds. You don't have to spend a fortune on heirloom varieties from organic companies to have a nice garden. Just the other day, I saw a small rack of 20 cent packets of seeds for veggies and herbs at Wal-Mart. It was a small selection, but one could have certainly designed a decent vegetable garden from that rack alone... and probably for no more than a couple dollars. I have also seen similar deals at The Dollar Tree and am sure they will have them again this year. It's really nice when you can support small businesses with good philosophies, but sometimes nothing beats a huge discount chain when you're honestly not even sure you'll be able to pay the electricity bill.
The second school of thought is more long-term: invest in quality heirloom varieties and save seed from your plants every year. Unlike many of the cheap seeds, the seeds you save from an heirloom variety will usually grow true to type the next year. (Edit: As a commenter pointed out, some of those dirt-cheap seeds will grow true to type when you save seed because most hybrids are in the middle price range rather than the lowest. I recommend you do your research on Dave's Garden before you save seed, to make sure.) They cost more up front (anywhere from $2 to $5 a packet) but, in theory, you won't ever have to buy seeds for the same vegetable again.
A lot of gardeners will tell you that the second school of thought is the right school of thought, but I'm here to tell you to do what works best for you. Expensive heirloom or cheap hybrid, it's going to feel wonderful to harvest those veggies no matter what. And even the most "boring" hybrid variety is going to taste 10 times better than the trucked-in vegetables from the grocery store. I think everyone should try heirloom varieties at some point, but if it's not in your budget this year, then it's simply not in your budget.
Here are some other important tips on saving with seeds:
- No matter what kind of seed you purchase, don't throw out your extras. Almost every seed is viable for more than one season, and some are viable for many, many seasons to come. Tape up the packets, put them all into one ziplock bag/tupperware/mason jar, throw in a handful of uncooked rice to absorb moisture, and store them in the back of your refrigerator until the next gardening season.
- Share seeds or seedlings with other gardeners, for free! The cheapest way to do this is to go as local as possible. For example, a friend who lives a couple blocks from me recently started a Facebook Group for Oklahoma City gardeners. Many of us have already offered up extra seeds and seedlings. (We also plan on exchanging excess produce. There's a lot of potential with something like this!) If you can't find local friends or a similar local group/community for free, then check out non-local options like Dave's Garden.
- Don't over-seed. For seeds that are normally sowed directly into the ground, many gardeners pour out the whole packet down a row then thin them out as they grow. How wasteful! Instead, figure out what the spacing should ultimately be and plant two or three seeds where the plants will need to be. For example, if you're planting a row of carrots and they are supposed to be 3 inches apart when mature, then plant two or three carrot seeds each in tiny holes every three inches. Now you waste far fewer seeds because you only need to thin out one or two per hole. (Share or store what you saved!)
- Shop around. I prefer heirlooms, but they're normally more expensive than I prefer. After doing a little research, I decided that Victory Heirloom Seeds was the best priced company that matched my needs.
- Pay attention to shipping prices! Ordering seeds, as apposed to going directly to the store, is a great way to find interesting varieties at reasonable prices... but sometimes there's a huge Shipping and Handling fee attached to those otherwise reasonable prices. (Again, I feel that Victory Heirloom Seeds has fair S&H fees.)
- Save seeds from the garden vegetables people give you, or experiment with the seeds saved from organic produce at your local health food store.
- If you can't buy all heirloom seeds but want to experiment with saving seeds, then either choose one vegetable (tomatoes are easy!) to buy as an heirloom for seed saving or do some research to see if any of your cheap varieties grow true to seed. (Dave's Garden is a good source for this.)
Next budget topic, seed starting.