Seems that there is a trade off when it comes to gardening, unless you plan well ahead and have time to shop around. The trade off is sweat or money. Yes, you can have a beautiful garden for free and take the time to dig, build, compost, salvage or reuse materials, and save seeds/trade with neighbors, or you can buy everything premade or pregrown. Since I have more excess calories to offer than dollars, I go the sweat route most times and draft some extra free labor, aka kids who are better builders and more regular harvesters than I.
Sometimes I have gotten a steal on items that would usually cost a bit, such as topsoil with almost-full-cost rebates and heritage seeds on recycling websites from y2k'ers. The dollar store and hardware stores have seeds 10-20 cents a packet at the end of the season, but one has to be vigilant about looking for those; I am too sporadic a shopper, so I rely on alerts from friends. I have also found name-brand red and black pruners, lobbers, and an expandable hoe at a local dollar store for a quarter of the price of the local hardware or depot store. Other tools like shovels, lawn furniture, wheelbarrows, and canning jars have been located faithfully in the basements, garages, and attics of estate sales.
Otherwise, recycling websites and the closest curb have yielded some great finds for me such as window boxes, hanging pots, landscaping flats, various tools, hoses, bricks, fencing, leaves and paper shreds for compost/mulch, and netting. Thrift stores have provided me hand tools, yard clogs, and a school sports equipment stand that perfectly holds shovels, hoes, rakes, etc. Grocery deli and bakery departments have been fantastic about providing food grade 5 gallon buckets that I drill holes in and use for potato planters. Donated untreated wood was cut down to size with a handsaw and nails found in the basement of our recently purchased house to make raised beds. To start new beds, my own recycling bins have provided all the newspaper and pizza boxes I could ask for.
Another source of free items could come in the form of gifts of labor and materials from loved ones, like my 40th birthday gift for a sorely needed landscaping project. Though I never thought to ask for this specifically, it wouldn't be a bad idea for a large or daunting project. Over eager family has also been a neat supply of excess plants and seeds when their eyes were bigger than their plots.
The gardening bug has officially hit me as of yesterday and I am smitten, so there will be more about gardening, maybe more than you want to know. I may need to start another blog ;)