Frugal Farming and Backyard Bargains
With spring planning underway, my eyes are always bigger than my wallet. Here's how to have a great garden without breaking the bank.
When faced with weather like we've been dealing with this winter, I tend to be all the more zealous when it comes to planning the spring garden. Looking out onto the tundra that is my yard, I close my eyes and imagine a lush plot of flowers and vegetables and I can almost smell the grass and dirt as I envision tilling and digging and planting and dividing. Unfortunately, this zeal translates into hundreds of dollars that I'd love to throw at the catalogs and websites that sustain my sanity during the cold.
If you find yourself in a similar situation with eyes bigger than your budget, a little patience, some generous friends or neighbors and some ingenuity on your part can save you money in the garden without lowering your standards.
Instead of spending your money on expensive fertilizers, many of which are chemical-based and not great for the environment, start composting if you haven't already. A compost pile will help you reduce waste while creating a rich source of vital nutrients, as well as a soil conditioner for your garden. If you've been putting off composting because of the expense of buying a compost bin, you can create one of your own for little to nothing. Many stores will be willing to give you their old wooden pallets that are left over from shipments of produce, drinks and other grocery items. You can use 3 or 4 pallets to create a bin, and the pallets can also double as a place to store your tools—shovels, hoes, rakes, and other garden tools fit perfectly in the spaces between the slats of the pallet. If you don't have access to pallets, you can use chicken wire, concrete blocks, old fencing, or go binless and just create a loose pile in a corner of your yard. The rich compost that you will create will save you money in the form of healthy, fertile soil resulting in robust, hardy plants.
Divide and conquer
Many perennials not only are able to be divided, but thrive on it and demand it every few years. Daylilies, irises, catmint, coneflowers, black-eyed susans, hostas, and countless others are divided to keep the plants healthy and in return you can obtain lots of new plants. If your plants develop a dead spot in the center of the crown or aren't blooming as well after a few years, it's time to divide them up. Most plants are divided in late summer or fall, although some early bloomers such as coral bells or bleeding hearts can be done right after blooming. Irises are also divided after flowering in the summer. Tough plants such as hostas and daylilies can be divided at almost any time, although you'll want to avoid replanting divisions in extreme heat. If you have friends or neighbors who garden, you can swap divisions to increase the diversity in your garden without spending a dime. If you don't know anyone who gardens, you can always post on a local message board or Craig's List to see if anyone wants to swap plants.
Self-sowers and seed saving
Self-sowing plants that will re-seed themselves every year save you the time, energy and money of having to invest in new plants. They also add a bit of excitement to the garden and some unpredictability since you never know where they'll pop up. Foxgloves, lupines, columbines, Johnny Jump-Ups, and hollyhocks, as well as annuals such as cosmos, larkspur and cleomes are among a few that will reward you with new seedlings every year. I've even seen tomatoes come back the next year, popping up in unexpected places where a stray tomato must have fallen. Try to be careful not to pull out the young plants when you do your spring weeding, as it can be hard to differentiate them from weeds.
You can also save seeds from annuals, perennials and vegetables to plant the next year and to trade with friends and neighbors. Many perennials grown from seed will take two or more years to bloom and even longer to reach their full size, but if you have the patience you can grow an entire garden without buying one plant. Annuals and most vegetables will do great when started from seed. Some seeds, such as tomatoes and peppers, can be started indoors about 8 weeks before the last frost, whereas others, such as lettuce, peas, zinnias and cosmos do well when sown directly in the garden.
Propagating plants by stem cuttings is another great way to increase your garden's bounty. When plants are actively growing, cut off the tip of the plant so you are working with tender fresh growth, which will take root much easier than harder, woodier sections of the plant. Cut the stems just below a set of leaves and remove 3 or 4 sets of leaves so that you are left with bare nodes. Dip the stem into a rooting hormone powder such as Root Tone and place the cuttings into a sterile soilless mix such as ProMix. You can cover the cuttings with plastic wrap to keep in moisture and humidity. Once you see new growth appear on your cuttings you can remove the cuttings from the soilless mix and pot them up. Nurture your new plants until they are of a viable size to transplant into the garden. It may take a few years for perennials to reach their full potential, but if you're looking to save a buck this is a great way to do it.
If you want to go out and buy new plants, which is of course one of my favorite things to do, there are plenty of ways to get them at a bargain. Mail-order catalogs are a great way to get more plants for less money, as long as you understand that the plants you will receive are young and small. However, if you order from a reputable source (I love Bluestone Perennials) the plants will double or triple in size within one season and within a few years you will be dividing them up and sharing them with friends.
Community garden clubs and master gardener clubs are also excellent sources for quality plants at low prices. Often, a lot of the plants that are sold are divisions from the club members' gardensui and therefore are sold for a fraction of the cost. You can also feel good about spending money which will benefit organizations that do so much for the community.
The end of the season is a great time to troll for bargains. When everyone is weary of summer and ready for cooler weather, full-size perennials that are still sitting on the shelves at the garden centers will be sold at discounted prices. There is still plenty of time at the end of the summer and the beginning of fall to get your new plants in the ground and let them settle in before the first frost. You can even divide up the new perennials that you buy and double or triple your savings.
In the current climate of budget cutbacks and frugal living, our favorite hobby is certain to take a hit. However, it can be an exciting challenge and quite satisfying to find bargains and money-saving strategies and still enjoy a bountiful garden.