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Discount Gardening Tips for Your Green Thumb and Your Greenbacks

Man harvesting kale: Discount gardening tips from SafetyNet

If you’ve seen more gardens popping up in your neighborhood in the past several years, you’re not alone. In fact, when the National Gardening Association (NGA) surveyed American households in 2009, they learned that food gardening was on a steady rise—to the tune of an almost 20% increase in just 5 years. What’s more, 34% of those surveyed said their decision to grow edibles—vegetables, fruits, berries and herbs—was economically motivated “very much” or “a fair amount.”

Done right, a 20’ x 20’ garden plot can save you big bucks on your food bill by growing up to 180 pounds of vegetables in a growing season!

But as any hobby gardener can tell you, there’s no end to the colorful glazed pots and perfectly engineered watering hoses to catch your eye at your local nursery. While indisputably good for you, gardening be a strain on your wallet, negating the reason you have put spade to soil in the first place.

Below are tips from the pros for low-cost ways to garden to your heart’s (and stomach’s) content.

SAVING ON GARDENING EQUIPMENT

Here’s the good news: if summer drives through the countryside leave you pining for your own bucolic backyard, repurposing old equipment will only add to your garden’s rustic feel.  Old sinks, washbasins baskets and boxes—even boots!—overflowing with sweat peas and marigolds offer just the appeal you’re going for. Scour thrift stores, Craigslist, Freecycle or your Habitat for Humanity ReStore for containers, tools, stakes and cages. Old trowels, rakes and spades abound and, as a bonus, are often much hardier than their modern plastic counterparts.

For seedling and self-watering containers, save your egg cartons, dairy tubs and soda bottles. For a matching batch, clean and save the smaller plastic cartons any purchased plants come in and use them the following spring.

Soon you’ll see all kinds of things around the house you can repurpose for the garden: toss pieces of broken ceramics into the bottom of pots for better drainage and save your old pantyhose to tie up leaners like tomato plants. They will stretch as the plants grow and won’t absorb water that can damage the stems.

ACQUIRING CHEAP OR FREE PLANTS

A seasoned gardener soon learns that not all plants come with a price tag. A whole packet of seeds is going to cost you about the same as one or two plants of the same variety. Pull out those egg cartons in the early spring and choose to grow a few of your own. Later, host a seedling swap with your friends or neighbors to fill out the batch.

Even better, if you collect and store seeds from heirloom plants in the fall, you’ll save on next year’s harvest. (The trick is to avoid hybrid plants.) Seeds from tomatoes, chilies, squash and marigolds are especially easy to pinch. Other plants like cilantro, parsley and columbine will readily self-seed, making your job that much easier.

When it comes to propagating perennials, divide and replant clumpers like day lilies, hostas, chives and asters, and slice up the spreaders like phlox and vinca to transplant to other locations. Because replanting is most successful in the spring and fall, ask your neighbors or put a call out to fellow gardeners on a neighborhood site like nextdoor.com for their leftovers. In a few years, you’ll have your own to reciprocate.

SHOPPING FOR YOUR GARDEN ON A BUDGET

Sure, even with online swaps and friendly neighbors there are going to be trips to the store. But make a plan before you go and you’re much more likely to stay within your budget. Make a list and choose carefully. Remember, there’s only so much real estate in your garden. Think seriously about planting any vegetables that not everyone in the family adores and think about what the most economical plants would be. Basil and tomatoes, for example, might be well worth the real estate while harvests from sprawlers like zucchini and squash are abundant from farmers market—and overwhelmed neighbors, come September.

Consider getting together with friends and buying in bulk. Flats of annuals, for example, are less expensive than individual pots. Ordering dirt and mulch to be delivered saves money and plastic bags.

INEXPENSIVE FOOD AND WATER FOR YOUR PLANTS

Plants, like people, need nutrition to thrive. Unlike people, they can make do with less-than-appetizing diets. In fact, you already have all the materials you need to forgo the expensive manmade fertilizer and keep your plants healthy and productive.

Used coffee grounds are great plant food for nitrogen-loving plants like leafy greens and cabbages. As your local barista for their discarded grounds. Old cooking water (cooled!) from boiled eggs and vegetables is full of nutrients and saves them from going down the drain.

Plenty of websites explain the process of composting discarded vegetables, eggshells, grass clippings and even shredded paper.  Plants like peas and beans can be mixed right back into the soil when they are done growing to provide organic matter and nitrogen to others.

Depending on the climate, watering your garden—while essential to producing those big, juicy tomatoes—can make you feel like your money is evaporating before your eyes. Avoid watering at peak sun hours (when you lose water to heat) and make use of a soaker hose (to avoid losing water to wind). You can purchase or make your own or rain barrel (basically a large container you set up to collect rainwater and distribute to your garden with a hose). In some areas, cities will distribute rain barrels for free.

To cut down on watering days, mulch generously or lay newspaper between the plants and cover with straw to retain moisture. If you’re feeling crafty, make a self-watering container out of your soda bottles. Or just fill a glass bottle with water and shove it into the soil upside-down.

HOMEMADE PEST & WEED CONTROL

After all the work you’ve put into cultivating, containing, feeding and watering your plants, there’s nothing more discouraging than watching your plants be sacrificed to the bellies of hungry bugs. Industry-driven pest control can be expensive and dangerous. Fortunately, centuries of homesteaders have plenty of homemade remedies to share.

A well-known solution for aphids and other common pests makes use of nothing more than your dish soap (this author swears by the original blue Dawn detergent.) Just add 2 teaspoons of dish soap into a spray bottle of warm water, then spray directly on the insects and the underside of the plant leaves.

There are plenty more solutions where that came from. For the best pest control remedies, consult this list.

And while you’re spraying your plants for pests, consider a bottle or two of vinegar on your weeds. It’s a natural and easy way of keeping them down, particularly between pavers and stones.

Plants bring us joy, nutrition and beauty. Like most good things in life, gardening doesn’t have to cost more than it yields. A little resourcefulness, a lot of enthusiasm and the kindness of neighbors can make gardening inexpensive and prosperous to boot.