5 secrets to a low-cost garden

04/07/2014 11:20 AM

04/07/2014 11:21 AM

Raising your own vegetables or flowers for the table is not an inexpensive proposition. There’s the outlay for seeds or plants, water costs, tools, pest control. If you’re not careful, those beefsteak tomatoes could cost you $5 a pop.

Here are five ways to save some money and still get a good return from your garden.

1 Start from seed: If you must have early tomatoes, spend a few bucks on a plant or two from the garden center. But let that be the exception, says Scott Mozingo, product manager for Ball Horticultural Co.

“I see cukes and melons sold as live plants when they’re so easy to grow from seed. Zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, cukes, beans, summer squash, melons, herbs can all be direct sown. Then you can spend your money on things that might be a little more expensive.”

Another good investment is bulbs. They grow in the sun or shade, they bloom at all times of year, there’s little initial outlay and many come back every year. You can get a vase of fresh-cut flowers from your garden for less than a third of what they’d cost at a store. And with judicious planning, they can keep a garden colorful all spring and summer and into the fall.

“A lot of spring bulbs combine well with tulips,” says Hans Langeveld, owner of Longfield Gardens, the respected bulb and perennial retailer in New Jersey. “As they die back, that is the moment the daylilies come through and take over and hide the tulips, cover them up with the foliage. … Caladiums and dahlias take over after the lilies and go till frost. You plant them all at the same time, but the moment of flowering is different.” If you don’t want flowers, plant hostas over the tulips. When the latter die back, the hostas take over till frost.

Put an upright elephant ear in a large container and surround it with caladiums. It looks great on the patio all summer. Move it inside for fall and winter. Although the caladiums will die back (their bulbs can be pulled and stored over the winter, then brought back in the spring), the elephant ear keeps you green all winter.

2 Compost: Food scraps, shredded paper, junk mail, coffee grounds … put it in the dirt in the fall or winter and it will be rich soil when you need it (plus you won’t have to pay to have it hauled away on trash day).

“Anywhere you can get a little piece of earth and set it there (will work),” says Gail Loos, president of Ecotonix, a company that designs organic waste reduction products. “People buy tumblers, but compost works best when all the stuff is in contact with the bacteria, the ground, the creepy crawlers down there. Keep it lightly watered and it will turn into compost.”

Compost can add nutrients to your soil, cut down on plant diseases and be used to keep down weeds and help retain moisture. Truly magic.

3 Keep equipment simple: “Everybody buys all these fancy tool and things. You don’t need that stuff,” Loos says. “Get a Tupperware container. Half dirt, half compost. Put them in trays in a dark place and start your own seedlings.”

Think about items around the house, Mozingo says.

“The plastic thing rotisserie chicken comes in makes a nice greenhouse. Put flower seeds in an egg carton.”

And keep your tools in shape.

“That’s something my grandpa taught me,” Mozingo adds. “Every time you’re done with a tool, clean it off, put some oil on the metal parts, put some linseed oil on the wooden handles. If you don’t have to buy a new trowel every year, you can try something new or put 10 new tomato plants out.”

4 Let nature do the watering: Not only is rainwater better for plants than the chlorinated stuff from the tap, but it’s free. The initial outlay for a barrel will, in time, be balanced by savings. And the barrel doesn’t have to be a fancy one.

“You can get a 60-gallon bucket,” Loos says. “Restaurants give them away.”

5 Join the club: Garden Club members can offer guidance that might save you money. They may also have some extra seeds or transplants to share. Watch for garden club, church or community group events in parking lots where plants are swapped or sold inexpensively.

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