Gardening on the cheap

Propagating rosemary sprigs                               Cristina Sanvito/Flickr

Propagating rosemary sprigs                               Cristina Sanvito/Flickr

Frugality is a time-honored tradition in gardening with the idea that you can get something from practically nothing played out every time you plant a seed.

Of course, we’d all like to have expansive terraces, sparkling fountains, costly teak furniture and a staff – but none of those things are, strictly speaking, crucial to the gardening experience.  On the other hand, it’s also wrong to think that there’s no cost involved.

Ask anyone who’s gone overboard with designer annuals at the garden center or calculated the cost of covering a thousand square feet of border in a 4-inch layer of mulch. Ask the potting soil companies (in which I should own stock) what the bill amounts to for filling 60 containers with fresh mix.

With a few clever strategies, it isn’t that hard to stretch your gardening dollar. Here are some suggestions for keeping the green in your wallet:

FREE ADVICE – Advice is cheap, they say, but sound advice can be scarce. Your best resource is the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service where you will find university-trained staff and educated volunteers to answer your questions. Need an ID on what’s bugging your plants, suggestions for the best fruit tree varieties or fertilizer recommendations for the vegetable patch? Click here to find your county office.

Instead of buying every glossy garden book or magazine that catches your fancy, head for the library. Basic gardening and design principles don’t change much, so a 10-year-old volume isn’t likely to be out of date.

FREE MULCH – Since laws went into effect banning yard waste from landfills, towns have been collecting brush, leaves and grass clippings. Many shred and/or compost this debris and offer it free to residents. Some will even deliver. Check with your local public works department.

You can also produce your own mulch. Leaves collected in the fall can be corralled in a simple wire pen and left to decompose. Viola! By spring, it’s valuable mulch or soil amendment. Only slightly more elaborate is compost-making, where garden debris is combined with kitchen waste (eggshells, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable peels) and left to rot. Use it as a top dressing or till it into the soil. You’re turning garbage into gold.

Tin can planters                                 Magda Wojtyra/Flickr

Tin can planters                                 Magda Wojtyra/Flickr

FREE PLANTS – Learn to propagate favorite plants and your collection will multiply like loaves and fishes. Easiest is simple division: Dig up a desirable plant, chop it into two or more pieces and replant. As a rule of thumb, divide summer-blooming perennials in the spring and spring-blooming perennials in the fall. Divisions can be swapped with other gardeners to expand your plant inventory.

Some plants – coleus, sedum and African violets, for instance – can be propagated from leaves, meaning just one clipping can yield a dozen new plants. Other species, including woody ornamentals like azaleas, boxwood, holly and wisteria, can produce new plants from stem or root cuttings.

Here, technique and timing is important. What you need is a reference such as “Plant Propagation A to Z: Growing Plants for Free” by Geoff Bryant (Firefly Books, 2006), “The Plant Propagator’s Bible” by Miranda Smith (Rodale Books, 2007) or “The Gardener’s Guide to Propagation” by Richard Rosenfeld (Lorenz Books, 2011).

Free (or nearly free) plants can be had from seed. Save your own and it costs you nothing. Buy a packet of 100 seeds at $2 to $5 and the price per plant is negligible. What you need is a good spot with bright light or supplemental lighting, some sterile seed mix and a little patience. Use purchased flats or peat pots -- or make seed-starting containers from cylinders of newspaper, toilet paper rolls or egg cartons.

 Careful watering, thinning and growing tiny seedling to reasonable size before planting out will guarantee success. Newbies could use some guidance. Try “Seed Starting Primer and Almanac” by Vicki Mattern (Rodale Books, 2002) or “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Seed Saving and Starting” by Sheri Richerson (Alpha Books, 2012).

DYI RAISED BEDS – Raised garden beds simplify gardening by providing a defined, well-drained planting spot that won’t be compacted by foot traffic. No need to get elaborate here. Contain your improved soil with lengths of logs, cinder blocks or cedar boards nailed to corner posts.

SALVAGE AND REPURPOSE - Patio containers can be made of anything that will hold soil and allow water to drain through. Consider large cans, painted bright colors; old wheelbarrows or wooden boxes; lengths of clay chimney flue liner; leaky galvanized buckets; baskets lined with perforated plastic or old washtubs.

Have some mini-blinds you’re ready to chuck? Snip them into short lengths, grab a waterproof marker and make some plant ID labels.

Old indoor-outdoor carpet can be rolled out in the garden to cover garden paths and keep them weed-free.

Unmatched flea market chairs, painted with exterior enamel, make stylish garden seating.

Those unsightly election signs? Collect them the day after the vote, strip off the cardboard or plastic signage and use the wire supports, bent in the middle, as stakes for tall, floppy plants.

In other words, improvise! Save your money for the cold beer or that pricey rare plant you can’t live without. It's all part of gardening.