Thursday, November 25, 2010

How to Save Money in the Garden

From Reuters.

"The slow economy has prompted more people to garden than have in many years. So what if they pay for the privilege? You could argue that it is a fun and healthy hobby and "saving" money is only an afterthought. Maybe so, but it's nice to save money in the garden, too. Here's how."

1. Compost--even a little: Throwing table scraps (not meat or dairy) into a bin in the corner of your garden will yield rich soil additives, so you won't have to buy them at $4 a bag.

2. Focus on exotic foods: Don't waste your time and money growing basic tomatoes and peppers; they are on sale at the grocery and farmers' market right around the same time your crop comes in. Instead, choose unusual varieties that are always expensive: heirloom tomatoes, Italian peppers, white eggplant.

My own gardening books say to bypass the "truck" vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions) because they're cheap all year round, and go for stuff that's more expensive to buy, preferred species, or organics.

3. Grow herbs: They are probably the most cost-effective item you can put in your garden. Grow basil and coriander from seed; they grow like weeds in many climates. One packet, sprinkled into a planter, will yield enough little plants to keep you and your neighbors in salsa and pesto for a year. You can also use herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage for landscaping. In many climates they'll come back year after year, and look as pretty as the kinds of flowers that you can't eat. If you have a big space to fill and don't mind mint taking over your yard, plant mint. It will take over entire neighborhoods, something you can think about while you're making your own tea and juleps.

An example of how cost-effective herbs are: next time you go to a store, price out spices at cost-per-pound--you'll find that they're in the double-digits, even at warehouse stores (the warehouse stores are just lower double-digits). The smaller the container of spice, the higher the cost per pound.

4. Invest in smaller big plants: Little trees, shrubs and bushes adjust more easily to their new habitats, and they are WAY cheaper than big plants. It's not worth paying for the big tomato plants they often have at the home improvement centers. They are costly, and the little plants will catch up quickly once it's warm and sunny in your garden.

5. Sharecrop with your neighbor: Don't have space? Have too much space? Split the costs of one garden and let the garden enthusiast plant in the yard of the I-hate-to-garden neighbor. Split the crop fairly.

6. Get plants for free: Check Craig's list, Freecycle (, and your local gardening club for trades and give-aways. Gardening enthusiasts are always dividing plants and not knowing what to do with extras. You can often get good sized bushes for free from landscapers, too: They are always digging out something their customers don't want so they can plant what they do. You can take the old plants off their hands.

Also, call real estate companies to get permission to clip or dig on foreclosed or for sale properties. Call the city before clipping or digging at abandoned homes. You can also clip at local/state/regional/federal parks (with permission), and in open fields for free.

7. Don't fall for the seed-starting kits: By the time you add in the peat pots, starting soil, sun lamps and more, you'll end up paying extra for each tomato. Wait until late in the planting season and buy your plants at discount through the local garden center, hardware store, or at your local farmers' market, where growers are increasingly adding plants. If you've got the green thumb and want to start your own from seed, use egg cartons instead of buying pots.

8. Shrink your lawn: A smaller lawn means more space for flowers that you can cut and give away as gifts. It also means less space that eats up water, fertilizer and mowing time.

Don't shrink it around trees, because those trees shed leaves that are valuable to your compost and garden, and you certainly don't want leaves falling INTO your garden as it grows fall/winter veggies for you--they block the light.

9. Share big tools: You can rent a gas-powered tiller for the day. You can share the costs and the use of items like trimmers and tillers if you buy them with your neighbors.

10. Eat more plant parts than you planned: Turnip, radish and garlic greens are all delicious and nutritious. So, as more people are discovering, are dandelion greens.

These greens also make wonderful salads when "normal" salad greens are out of season.

11. Freeze as much as possible while it's fresh: Even if you don't grow them yourself, you can buy berries cheap when berries are in season, corn when corn is in season.

You can also dehydrate--dried foods don't take electricity to store. Dried foods can be rehydrated by soaking in water.

12. Be lazy: Leave pulled weeds and spent vegetable plants in the garden at the end of the summer. Turn them into the soil sometime during the fall. Another $4 bag of soil enrichment you don't have to buy.

Here's what this lazy wench did: first, she consulted a few recent gardening books to simplify the task of gardening, since this was her first real opportunity to garden from scratch.

From these, she determined the size and location of her existing plot was all wrong--too much work for too few results.

After watching the sun patterns, she found the right spot--one that provides at least 8 hours/day of light. Dirt was dug down to a 12" level, and wet newspaper sections laid out at the base, the the hole refilled with new dirt mix.

The new plot would be long and narrow (3' X 12'), so she wouldn't actually have to GET INTO it to work. The new plot would also contain a new dirt mix, and plants planted closer together (wide row planting) to crowd out weeds, making less work. Three feet of space was left open on all sides of the plot for mowing around it, and kneeling to reach into it to care for and pick plants.

With the new dirt mix (equal amounts of compost, peat moss, vermiculite to hold water, gypsum to break up clay, and 10-10-10 fertilizer) and the new plant layout, there was nothing left to do but stand back and water when the rains were few and far between. This is going to come in handy this winter when it will be too cold to go out and mess around in the back yard.

We'll see what next summer brings, besides a rotation of crops to summer growers. There's no intention of changing the soil mix--maybe adding a little compost on top, but that's all. It's working, so we're sticking with it.

This plot was done in September, and fall/winter crops have needed no weeding, and little watering. Salad greens and broccoli are growing like mad, and are said to stand up to frost and freezes well. I can say they also stand up to cut-and-come-again treatment (all but the broccoli), as we're frequent salad-eaters.


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