Gardening on the Cheap

Whether you’re making a garden or re-making a garden, plants and tools can be expensive. Here’s my list of tips and techniques, acquired over thirty years, for keeping down costs while still acquiring the best materials. If you know of any others, please share with the rest of us.

1. Begin with a plan

You can always change your mind later, but gardening without a plan is like going grocery shopping without a list—you’re bound to waste money.


2. Measure your space and put the details on paper

a) You don’t need to be a landscape architect to take the yard dimensions off your plat of survey, for a complete garden, or to get outside with a tape measure, pencil and paper, for a smaller garden segment. Transfer your measurements to a separate piece of paper after deciding on the scale you’re going to use for your layout (for example, 1”=1 foot) and noting direction (north, south, etc.) at the top. Use a compass to draw in existing tree canopy, so you’ll know where shade will affect your plant selection. If you have areas that are very wet, note those too, by freehand drawing the space, so you can group moisture-loving plants together.

b) Make a list of the plants you’d like. Next to each plant name add the color, height and spacing requirements (if you can’t find spacing requirements, use one-half the mature width as your planting distance). Tape a piece of tracing paper over your layout and, using your compass again, draw circles to scale (whatever scale you selected originally) representing the plants and patterns you want. The tracing paper allows you to tweak your design without having pencil marks all over your original drawing. If desired, double-check the visual impact of your layout by using colored pencils within the circles to designate the flower, shrub or tree colors you’ve selected.

As you work on the layout, you’ll start to see exactly how many plants you need to achieve your design. You might realize that you only have space for 3 Phlox instead of 5 Phlox. You’ll also be able to determine how much space needs to be filled in with inexpensive annuals (if you’re installing your garden over several years).

3. Select from the old favorites

Unless there’s a compelling reason for selecting a newer cultivar, such as disease resistance or space requirements, selecting a classic variety will save you money compared with selecting newer varieties. If you’re just looking for a reliable, disease-free yellow daylily, for example, purchasing the diploid ‘Hyperion’ can save anywhere from 50%-65% over tetraploid or newer varieties.

4. Purchase own-root roses where possible

Roses grown on their own roots take a couple of years to develop, but, once established, they are substantially healthier and hardier than grafted roses.

5. Don’t purchase late-season sale plants

Almost invariably these plants aren’t healthy or have overgrown root systems. They’re never a “bargain”.

6. Purchase from a reputable vendor

Plants with viruses or diseases aren’t worth the disappointment or the trouble to maintain. You also want a vendor who will provide a no-hassle refund if you notice a problem.

7. Grow from seed

Some annuals perform better when grown from seed; others are only available as seeds. Certain annuals, such as Physalis grow 3’ tall and as wide, making them excellent selections for filler plants while you’re saving up to purchase those shrubs you want.

8. Take cuttings

Taking cuttings is easy. Cuttings need to be taken while the plant is actively growing (the third week in August is about as late as you want to wait to take cuttings). You’ll need a grow light for your cuttings during the winter months, but for spring and fall they’ll be quite happy in an eastern exposure by the window.

9. Divide perennials

Most perennials can be easily divided after 3 years. Lift the perennial with a large spade, digging as widely and as deeply as you can in order to capture most of the root system. Position the sharp, pointed tip of your spade in the center of the plant, and push down hard with your foot on the back of the spade to divide the plant in half. Re-plant each half where desired.

10. Exchange plants with friends

Find out if any of your friends are planning to divide perennials that you’d like to have in your own garden. If not,

11. Join a garden club

Garden club members are great sources for plant exchanges. Also, see if your garden club has trade accounts with local nurseries. (The retail mark-up is 100% over the price charged to the trade.) If the garden club doesn’t have a trade account, suggest that the club open one (or several), or

12. Become trade yourself

If you anticipate purchasing a lot of plant material, file incorporation papers in your state, making sure you obtain a resale number, and listing your business as “landscaping and garden design”. Open up a trade account with your preferred local nursery, explaining that you want a cash account rather than terms. You can increase your activity with the nursery by acting as the buyer for friends who’d also like to purchase top quality plants.

13. Shop garage sales for tools

Not only will you save money on your tools, but you’re likely to find better quality, older tools by checking out suburban garage sales.

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