For those just starting out with a garden, what is the best way to start frugally, continue to keep it cost effective and not become overwhelmed by the work it can take?
I moved into this home in 2006.
The first thing I did in the yard was start the garden. The soil here is heavy clay, & altho I "planted" zucchini, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, and some beans, only the zucchini & beans produced well. Looking back, that would be because they were planted where the previous owner had located the pen for his dog. I began to haul buckets lined with trash bags & filled with old horse manure home from the stable where we boarded our pony.
I bought some Lodgestones (the interlocking brick things that form small retaining walls) as I could afford them, & picked some up from freecycle, & made the garden slope into 3 tiers. I filled the tiers with layers of old manure, leaves that I raked up from local parks & churches, & began to dump the kitchen waste (eggshells, potato & carrot peelings, etc) and the grass clippings on the "garden". I filled the top tier first, then the 2nd, then the 3rd, so that as I had funds to create the tier, I could fill it with the mixture of leaves & old manure, then planted it. I use the grass clippings to mulch my plants to keep down the weeds. I do not spray my lawn for weeds, until late fall after I have mowed for the last time. This allows 6 months of winter for the chemical in the spray to break down so they do not affect the garden. I have continued to improve the soil every year, using these same items, free for the gathering.
I also planted 2 red currant bushes & a rhubarb crown. I also watched freecycle & thrift stores for canning jars. Network with people you know for this, too, since often when an older "grandma" goes into a nursing home or passes away, the head of the women's organization at their church "inherits" the canning jars if no one wants them. My oldest DD once was given 14 dozen quart jars when she asked her Relief Society president if she knew where she could find some for not much, & the poor woman was delighted to get them out of her garage!
The second year (2007) I planted some dwarf fruit trees & a strawberry bed, & finished the 2nd & 3rd garden tier. My garden yield the 2nd year was excellent: I filled all my canning jars with veggies from the garden & fruit I bought. One of my neighbors gave me her leftover tomato plants from a pony pack where she only wanted 2 plants, & I shared some pimento plants I got for free with her. I planted another rhubarb crown, more berry bushes & fruit trees, & froze a lot of currants. This was the year I discovered that the long-horned steers over the back fence would eat the trees I planted too close to that fence, so I had to replant 3 trees.
Every year since, I have added more fruit trees or berry bushes, & continue to build the soil with the garden refuse, manure, grass clippings & leaves. This year (2010) I added a source for free coffee grounds, & fir needles
(from "live" Christmas trees when they are dumped at the curb
post-Christmas). Fall of 2010 we picked 2 fruit boxes full of Elberta peaches from our little dwarf peach tree. This spring (2011) I will plant another dwarf peach ( a Red Have), 2 more dwarf apple trees (Candy Crisp & Snow Sweet), & a crab apple tree, plus more berry bushes. Some of the berries I am planting require acidic soil, and the fir needles & coffee grounds will help acidify my alkaline soil.
Now, I could have bought compost & peat moss & all sorts of expensive stuff to "make" the garden faster, but I prefer to "make my own dirt". It works better, it costs nothing & my plants grow very well in it. If you look at thrift & yard sales, & let people know that you want to learn to can, most of them will help you. Some of them will let you know if they find canning jars or equipment at a yard sale & some of them will buy it for you, if it is less than $2. I can't begin to tell you how many water bath canners I have purchased for other people. Some people will give you their "odd" canning jars - - the ones that came as a gift of jam or jelly from someone who lives too far away to return the jar, etc. I am learning to buy heirloom veggie seeds & save my own seeds, so the next year I don't have to buy. I have plenty of jars now, but I collect for 2 of my daughters, because I live in an area where people get rid of them, & they do not.