Thursday, June 5, 2014

10 Ways to Garden on a Budget

Gardening is expensive. I've been gardening on a tight budget from the get-go. This is a list of ways of how I do it. These are in no particular order, but I do consider #10 to be the most important rule for any kind of gardening.

Note: My low-budget approach is based on the concept that low-maintenance = less money. Although no garden is truly "low-maintenance," and many gardeners take joy in the maintenance of a garden, you do spend much less money and effort on water, fertilizer, soil amendments and replacement plants when you choose your plants correctly.

1. Use mildly self-sowing perennials. Some gardeners turn up their noses at self-sowing plants because they spread willy-nilly around the garden and can create a wild, un-planned look. Aggressive self-sowers are known to encroach upon more well-behaved perennials, so steer clear of those. Mild to moderate self-sowing plants give you the most bang for your buck over the years, offering transplanting options for other areas and filling in empty spaces in the garden. If you prefer a more manicured, well-managed look, stay away from self-sowing plants. If you love the wild, more "natural" look like I do, and you have space that needs to be filled in over the years, go crazy.
There are a ton of self-sowing perennials, but these are what I have enjoyed in my garden:

Hollyhocks in  July 2012. They have now self-sowed into this whole corner and side. Blanket flower, Salvia and Sundrops (all also self-sowing) to the right behind it. 
Kenzie and I picking some Blanket flowers (July 2013). They are short-lived but self-sow if you allow some seed heads to remain on the plant
Kenzie checking out a wild sunflower (July 2013). Birds love them and so do I. They have self-sowed throughout the yard. You can also collect the seeds and sow them where you want them, or share with friends. Seedlings are easy to pull up if you don't want them in a certain area
One small Salvia plant turned into three side-by-side plants

2. DIY. Do the design and (hard!) work yourself. Although working with a professional landscape designer and landscape company is guaranteed to deliver some great results, it can get expensive. If you want a gorgeous yard but don't have the money to pay a designer, do it yourself. Keep in mind that this approach does cost you in time and effort, but to me, that makes the results even more glorious. Always use a professional for big projects, especially those that include lighting, irrigation and major hardscaping (boulders, etc).
Our DIY design in 2011
3. Research. The library and Google are your friends. You'll save a ton of money simply by googling plants and gardening ideas that you're interested in, and figuring out how or if it'll work in your garden. I also like to get books from the library that will broaden my gardening horizons.
These are two books that I now own after first checking them out from the library. They are both written by a Fort Collins-based landscape designer who I've come to love:

4. Only buy plants from local nurseries who know the area and the best plants for it. Learn from my mistakes. Don't buy plants (including veggies) from the big box store. Chances are those plants have traveled quite a ways and are on their last leg by the time you get them in the ground. Avoid spending money on replacement plants by buying high-quality plants in the first place. Plus, you support the local community by steering clear of nationally corporate stores!

5. Use groundcovers. Like self-sowers, groundcovers can lend color and texture to large areas over time, saving you money on compact growers.
Reiter Thyme groundcover is used as a lawn alternative here.
6. Get your containers from thrift stores. Containers are sooo stinkin' expensive! We got nearly all of our containers from a thrift store, as a gift or with a gift card. This approach did give our pots and plants a kind of eclectic look, but that matches our style sensibility and personalities pretty well. If you like a more uniformed style, look for containers in the same color scheme and complementing patterns.
The large containers on the floor (the most expensive) were all bought with gift cards. 
7. Grow from seed. If you have a large space to cover, consider planting a wildflower or prairie grass area from seed. A little goes a long way, and it's way cheaper to buy a packet of seeds than a truck load of plants. This approach will cost time up front because of the soil amending, watering and weed-pulling maintenance that it takes to get things going, but it'll save you a ton of money in the long run.

8. Do a little at a time. Cultivation of any kind takes time. Gardening is all about learning, and you simply can't take any short cuts when you're acquiring knowledge from experience. I split my projects into spring and fall (and years) so that I don't have to spend a bunch of money and effort at the same time. And I always have plans for my gardening future.


9. Ask for gift cards as presents. My birthday is in May, so I almost always ask for a gift card to the local nursery or Xeric mail-order website (High Country Gardens) for my birthday. I always have more plants, soil and other gardening essentials that I want to buy, so help from family goes a long way.

10. And for my golden rule of perennial gardening: Always choose plants that do well in your climate and soil. You're just throwing your money away if you choose plants purely on looks. I've learned from research and experience that native perennials are great, but only if they are well-suited for your particular area. For instance, Columbines are native to Colorado (and the state flower!), but I rarely use them because they are native to creek-side woodland areas and require too much water and loamy soil, which I don't have. I chose a low-water hybrid Columbine for my shady front bed, and it still only does well when we get a lot of rain or I remember to water it often.

Don't limit yourself to natives, but do limit yourself to plants that have their origin in a similar climate and soil. For instance, plants from the highlands of Turkey and other Middle East locations have been proven to do well in the Front Range of Colorado because they have similar soils and climates. Take the time to research (see #3) and get to know your garden's microclimate, and you shall be rewarded.

I'm always looking to get more bang for my buck, so let me know what has proven to be a good penny-pinching tactic for you!