By Julie Irwin
A gardening addiction can bring untold hours of joy, beauty to your surroundings, and bushels of tasty food to your table. It can also bring bills the size of a mortgage payment, especially this time of year.
As the weather warms, nurseries and garden centers fill with herds determined to beautify their yards that very afternoon.
And when you garden on impulse, intent on immediate results, you tend to pay the price: $40 or so per full-sized shrub, $10 per gallon-pot perennial, $200 or more for a respectably-sized tree.
But there’s another kind of gardening, one focused on long-term results. It can save you big bucks, and it can even be more enjoyable than the Insta-Yard so many people seek. It takes more time, and a little forethought, but the reward is a beautiful garden and money left over for other fun.
Some guidelines for gardening on the cheap:
· Buy plants that will thrive where you put them. The biggest waste of money is buying a plant that will die because it likes sun and your garden is shady, or it hates cold and you live in Minnesota. Know your yard and read the labels to make sure the plants you’re buying will grow there.
· Have a plan. No, not a blueprint of every plant you intend to buy for the next 10 years, but a general idea of what your garden needs and what it’s evolving toward. It’s sort of like going to the grocery store with a list and a full stomach. That way you avoid buying those brilliant flowering annuals when what you really need is some ornamental grasses with height.
· Make sure your plan includes lots of perennial flowers, shrubs and trees – plants that come back every year – rather than annuals, which live for only one gardening season. You can use annuals for splashes of color, but don’t rely on them for large areas. They’re expensive to replace year after year, and they never get very big so your garden won’t be very interesting.
· Be patient. Buy perennials in quart pots rather than gallons. Buy shrubs in one-gallon pots instead of three-gallons. Buy bare-root plants instead of those in full flower. A few weeks ago I bought 10 rhododendrons for my side yard at $4.86 a plant. Sure, they’re fairly puny, but in a few years they’ll be huge. And the $250 I saved by not buying bigger shrubs will allow me to get to work on another part of the garden.
· Barter with other gardeners. Take frequent walks past the best gardens in your neighborhood on the weekends, when their caretakers are out in them. Strike up a conversation. Gardeners love to share tips, and very soon the tips give way to sharing plants. Once you know enough people, organize a dividing party – everyone brings overgrown specimens from their gardens to trade or sell for a nominal price.
· Avoid the herds and shop off-season. I get many of my best, and cheapest, nursery plants in the fall, when most gardeners have given up for the year. Sometimes they’re a little tired looking, but as long as you make sure they are healthy plants, you’ll probably get them at a hefty discount.
· Make sure your friends and family know of your gardening enthusiasm and if you’re lucky, gardening gifts will come your way. I have a gorgeous set of gardening tools I received a few Christmases ago. I never would have bought them for myself, but from spring to fall I use them nearly every day.
· Know what you’re not willing to do. Some people swear by starting their plants from seed in the winter, and you can save a lot of money that way. But it also takes a lot of time and equipment, and for a lot of people it’s not worth it. I used to do it every year, misting the little guys with water and adjusting the grow-lamp. Then one spring I set out about a hundred cosmos that I had nurtured for eight weeks – and the next day the slugs had picked them clean. I’ve bought annuals from the nursery ever since.
· Know when to splurge. If you let price be your only guideline, you’ll miss out on some wonderful specimens that are never on sale. If it makes sense for your yard and you absolutely love it, get it.