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Gardening on a dime

Posted in  Myths & Mistakes

Gardening doesn’t have to be a costly endeavor. Many supplies can come free from nature and neighbors – or nearly free from yard sales instead of the store. And if you’re ingenious and/or handy, plenty of household discards can be recycled into garden duty.

Some frugal gardeners manage to plant and decorate entire landscapes at virtually no cost. How? Consider some of these options:

look for free compost from your municipality
Check with your municipality—it might offer recycled leaf compost free to residents.
  • Hit those yard sales—especially in maturing neighborhoods where people are downsizing. You never know what thee treasure hunts might yield for pennies on the dollar: pots, hanging baskets, tools, water gauges, lawn spreaders, wall plaques, unused sections of garden fencing, or garden ornaments. (Bonus: Check out the homeowners’ landscaping to get free ideas for your place. Some people will even dig up a plant division on request for a dollar or two if something really catches your eye.)
  • Scout out other places where people turn to discard what they don’t want. Newspaper classified sections and Web sites such as www.craigslist.com and www.freecycle.org are resources that might net you, say, a load of wall rock that’s free for the hauling. Or a faded patio set that you can resurrect with some paint and re-covered cushions. Or a fountain that just needs a new $20 pump.
  • Trade divisions of perennials with friends and neighbors. Watch for nearby plant swaps, roadside plant sales and garden-club plant sales of members’ divisions. Just be careful not to accept plants that are too “frisky.” Ask about potential invasiveness before accepting anything and everything.
  • Assign your houseplants to double duty. Most plants do fine outside in summer, especially as pot centerpieces. Just acclimate those potted palms and peace lilies gradually to the outside light and get them back inside when nighttime temperatures dip into the 40s. By the same token, you might be able to milk another year out of tropicals you buy for container use by taking them inside for winter.
  • Start plants from seed. It’s much cheaper, and you can hold down cost by using recycled butter tubs, yogurt cups and used pots that have been disinfected in a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Inexpensive workshop lights are fine for seedlings…no need to invest in costlier “grow” lights. Reuse your seed-starting mix in outdoor pots or work it into the vegetable or annual-flower beds. Many plants also can be direct-seeded into the garden.
  • Save your own seeds. Collect dried, matured seeds from favorite flowers at the end of the year and store them in marked envelopes in the refrigerator. Hybrid plants may not give you the exact same plant (or anything at all), but anything you DO get is a freebie. Some good bets: zinnias, marigolds, ornamental peppers, cosmos, nasturtiums and cleome.
  • Hold down store-bought plant and material costs by watching for sales – especially season-end closeouts. You might find annuals half-off in June or July, shrubs at half-off in October and bulbs at half-off in November. Also consider buying a live evergreen as your Christmas tree, and always be on the lookout for discounted broken bags of potting soil and fertilizer.
  • Get free soil. No need to buy bagged or bulk soil when you can make it yourself. Start your own compost piles and use it to deposit leaves, grass clips (see below), pulled plants from the garden, weeds that haven’t gone to seed, coffee grounds and potato peelings from the kitchen and basically anything organic other than meat, dairy, manure from meat-eaters and anything that’s diseased. In a year or less, it’ll all break down into black gold. Also check with your municipality. Many offer free composted leaves collected during street cleanups.
  • Put those grass clippings to good use. It’s best to let them lie on the lawn. But if the clips are thick enough to mat, add them to the compost bin instead of paying to bag them for the trash. Or dry them first for a few days and use them as mulch in the vegetable garden (if you haven’t used herbicides).
  • Cut down on pesticides by pulling weeds instead of spraying, by hand-picking bugs, by tolerating more cosmetic damage and by using homemade treatments such as vinegar instead of Roundup or sprinkling pepper around your annuals as a rabbit repellent.
  • Think about household items that might be useful in the garden. Just because an item was intended for one use doesn’t mean it can’t serve another in the garden. Cut-up slats from old vinyl blinds can become plant tags. Milk jugs can turn into plant protectors. That old metal washtub might make an excellent container water garden. Cracked crocks can be flower pots in a garden bed. Be creative.