Jemimah Scarlett, a mom of three and hobby gardener, is known online as "Unlikely Martha." Here, she shares her budget-conscious gardening tips and how families can plant seeds to save money.

By Maressa Brown
Updated October 08, 2020
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When Jemimah "Mimi" Scarlett launched her blog Unlikely Martha just over 10 years ago, she was a 31-year-old stay-at-home mom looking to connect with likeminded people. She aimed to talk to other busy moms and business owners who wanted to keep their homes tidy and keep meals on the table, providing them with workable, realistic, money-saving solutions. Today, the Atlanta, Georgia-based mom is a lifestyle blogger and hobby gardener with 13K Instagram followers.

The driving force behind her success? "I don't want women to feel like they have to lose themselves in motherhood and taking care of their family," says Scarlett. Instead, she encourages them to embrace self-care and do the things they love, as well as take care of their families. One way she's found she can do this for herself is by gardening.

"Ever since I was a child, I always enjoyed being outside," she says, adding that her father was a "huge gardener." So when she moved into her current house more than a decade ago, she knew she wanted space for a garden. "My husband said, 'You've never gardened before,' but it was just something that always interested me. It's just very peaceful to me," explains Scarlett. "It's my space to go and just enjoy nature."

But gardening, which Scarlett has now done for nearly 10 years, has proved to be about far more than an opportunity for self-care and to cultivate peace of mind. It's also a money-saver for Scarlett's family. "Gardening is more of a passion thing for me, but the financial side of things has been the surprising gift that keeps on giving," she notes. For instance, by spending just $20 on seeds in a year, Scarlett has managed to save hundreds on groceries annually.

Courtesy of Jemimah Scarlett

It has also proven to be an ego-booster. "I can actually grow my own food," says Scarlett. "By the work of my own hands and dedication and research and learning about agriculture, I've realized I can actually do this."

Here, Scarlett shares her best tips for starting and caring for your own garden in order to save money, even if you're a complete newbie like she once was.

Embrace Trial and Error

When Scarlett first got started, she says she bought plants from a local hardware store for "instant gratification," but she says this led her to "learn the hard way" that she needed to do a bit more research. "My youngest was very young, and she was anxious to see stuff grow," explains Scarlett. "I didn't understand why my lettuce or spinach wasn't doing so well when it started to get really hot. They just died, even though I was watering them."

That's why the next time around, Scarlett took to YouTube, Pinterest, and online groups to learn more. "That year, I learned, leafy vegetables don't like heat, so you need to grow them very early in the spring or you grow them in the fall," she explains.

By taking the time to learn which plants would grow best in her garden at what time of year, during a particular type of weather, as well as how to fertilize, Scarlett began to see her yield grow year after year.

At the same time, she had to learn how much to grow in order to feed her family. "My goal is to freeze enough of whatever vegetable is in season, so we'll have it during the off-season and we don't have to buy it from the grocery store," explains Scarlett.

That's why she now encourages people to do their research first, so they don't have to endure years of trial and error—and you'll see a return on your investment faster.

Know the Initial Investment Will Pay Off

Scarlett notes that gardening to save will require something of an initial investment upfront. She estimates that it cost her family about $100 to start, in part on quality soil. "Your soil is very important," she notes. "You can buy cheap dirt, but that isn't going to do well for your vegetables."

After that, the benefit far outweighs the cost. "In the beginning, I thought, 'if done properly, every year, maybe I could spend $30 on seeds,'" explains the mom of three.

Of course, as with any investment, occasional expenses will arise—especially if you opt to expand your garden. "You have to buy supplies, and you have to buy pots," she says. Ultimately, as you begin to freeze your produce, which can shrink your grocery bill, you'll begin to see a return on your investment in a couple of years, notes Scarlett.

And in addition to being patient, Scarlett urges would-be gardeners to make sure that the hobby is something they're passionate about and that they're going to keep up with.

Don't Discount the Dollar Store

Scarlett encourages people to check out their local dollar store for deals, especially in the springtime, that can reduce the cost of their initial or annual investment. "If you're just getting started, instead of going to your local hardware store or a big box store and spending $2.50 to $3 on a pack of seeds, try your dollar store," she says. "Dollar Tree seeds have always done me well, and they have pots there."

Find Your Community

Connecting with and learning from fellow gardeners online is integral to success, according to Scarlett. "There's a huge community of people online, cheering you on, wanting to see your gardens grow and thrive," she notes. "You can connect with these people who are just as passionate about this as you are. You can ask questions, people will answer them for you and help you, and give you their tips and tricks."

Everyone Has to Start Somewhere

While starting your family garden might feel intimidating, and Scarlett admits it can be very easy to get discouraged, everyone has their own journey. "If you join beginner groups on the social platforms, you'll understand that nobody just started with a thriving and growing garden," she says. "All of us have had to work up to that point. And so, you just have to get started."

While it's important to time your initial setup to the right season (for instance, you'll want to start planning for next spring this fall), there's no harm in just going for it. "You won't succeed every year," admits Scarlett. "I think my second year was phenomenal, but I feel like I haven't recreated that year in my container garden yet."

The bottom line: "Do the best you can," says Scarlett. "A lot of this is out of your control—insects are out of your control—but just go at it. If you're really passionate about it, just start somewhere."

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