Some of the best money-saving tips in the garden were sent in by readers of this column. Thanks to the experienced gardeners who always have known you can have a green thumb without a lot of green in the wallet.
Start a compost pile. Just by piling up green and brown garden refuse and letting it all rot, you can create garden gold without spending a penny. Layer compost on top of your lawn so it will need less water, as a mulch for roses and rhodies and as a weed block and light fertilizer in the vegetable garden.
Recycle and Reuse. I’m not just talking about using orphaned bowling balls or rusty bikes as garden art. One of the coolest ideas for recycling was sent to me several years ago when I was writing a book. A reader suggested recycling metal curtain rods - the type that extend as plant stakes. These stakes will be shorter in the spring, but then as the plant grows you can lengthen the curtain rod by pulling up the top. These plant stakes are easy to store and reuse each year.
Don’t spend money on pesticides. The most important lesson for every dirt cheap gardener to learn is that most pest problems take care of themselves - if you do nothing. Remember those foaming globs of spittle on your flowers last month? (Lots of you wrote to me asking what to do) well now they are gone. The spittle bugs that make these piles of bubbles have a short life span and rarely do noticeable damage to the plants. The same is true for aphid on your beech trees, birch trees and camellias. If in doubt, use a strong jet of water as your first defense against most pests - aphid, mites, squirrel, cats, dogs and deer will learn to stay away with a water spray.
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Use coleus for your pots in the shade. The “look-at-me” colors on coleus makes for an impressive annual plant that does great in pots in the shade. But the dirt-cheap tip here is to buy one or two plants in the spring and then keep them indoors until late May. Meanwhile, keep pinching the tops off the plants and placing these cuttings into water to root. By the time the weather warms, you’ll have dozens of little coleus starts for the price of just one plant. This same trick works for lots of other annuals, from geraniums to begonias. Take cuttings of your favorite plants to multiply your assets.
Use sedums for your hot dry spots. From the rounded forms of Hen’s and Chicks, the hanging growth of Sedum ‘Angelina’ and the ground-hugging habit of golden Sedum “Ogon” you only have to buy or beg a single start of these sedums once and you’ll have a garden full in no time. The secret to getting snippets of sedum to root quickly is to pull off the lowest leaves, then allow the cuttings to sit in the shade for at least 24 hours before you replant. This causes a callus to form at the old leaf joint and new roots follow quickly.
Join a garden club, plant society or become a Master Gardener. Knowledge is wealth and plant people are generous about sharing their plants.
Learn to use a mulch. Anything that sits on top of the soil can be considered a mulch from sawdust and hazelnut shells to the traditional bark chips. Organic mulches like compost and bark break down to improve the soil over time. This means not only will you need less water and less fertilizer, but mulches also block out weeds and keep the soil temperature more even. Look for free wood chips and you’ll really have a bargain.
Choose perennials with long lives that are hard to kill. Hardy fuchsias, hosta, lamiums and saxifrage are some of my favorites for the shade. Peonies, daylilies, dahlias and phlox reproduce and do well in the sun.
Join the preferred customer programs at your local nursery. These programs alert you to end of season sales where you can reap the benefits of deep discounts on expensive trees and shrubs. Many also give you more discounts the more plants you buy.
Grow more food plants and less problem plants. Shrink your lawn with a ground cover of strawberries. Replace your hedge that needs shearing with a row of blueberries that doesn‘t demand pruning. Try growing raspberries instead of roses, and use your clay pots for tomatoes and herbs instead of geraniums and marigolds. You’ll save money at the grocery store if you use your garden instead of the produce aisle.