Cheapskate. Penny-pincher. Tightwad. Scrooge. . . Yes, these words are all too familiar to me. Regrettably, however, they don’t apply to me as much as they do my mother. You see, she was the original Coupon Queen (not that other upstart!), she’s beyond your everyday and even specialty “how to save money” articles, and really, her hobby is to hold onto her pennies so tightly, Abe Lincoln himself needs CPR. She always has a new way I could save money on this or that, a comment of disbelief that I bought the name brand kind, and some magical way to fix a broken thing. She isn’t too good to use anything, saves even the smallest scraps of fabric, paper, and plastic, salvages remotely useful items (who doesn’t need six different kinds of broken vacuum cleaners in their garage?!), and generally protects all that is sacred in this world of material goods. Garage sale underpants, second-hand food, cast-off bathroom products, you name it, she’s found a way to scrimp on just about everything I can think of.
As I said, unfortunately for my bank account, I’m not as cheap as she is. If I was, perhaps I’d be able to survive without a day job as she does. The good news is that I have learned some things from her. One thing I’ve discovered is that I am good at putting together a garden on shoestring. It has taken me a really long time to get to this point but I am pretty proud of the way my garden is coming along this year.
If you want a Martha Stewart-esque garden sprouting up from your soil this season, you should stop reading right here, talk to someone who can help you, and get your checkbook ready. If however, you are willing to put in some work and be patient, there are lots of ways to save money on creating a beautiful garden. I say “put in some work” because that is one of the major sources of spending in the garden. I have had to divide my own monstrous hostas, spread my own much, dig in edging, and transplant shrubs on my own. I just can’t afford to get someone to do that for me.
The “be patient” part of the above statement refers to seeing your garden through, season after season. Your perennials will start to expand and you can divide them. You might even be able to swap some of your extras with friends. You’ll be able to get a better idea of what works and doesn’t work in your particular microclimate of a backyard. You can save money on plants when you know what performs well in your garden. Another big benefit of being patient is that you’ll come across different plants, accents, and other materials throughout the season. For example, sometimes there is extra wood mulch for the taking at a municipal site.
Saving money can go wrong, however, so be careful! There are lots of seemingly good ideas on cheapening up the garden that should be avoided. Using dish soap and water instead of buying insecticidal soap, for example, could do more harm than good on your plants. There are lots of other “don’ts” that I see on a daily basis in my job as a retail garden center employee. As you’ll see below, most of the don’ts of saving money in the garden relate to good plant care and putting the right plant in the right place.
- Buying marked-down plants at the garden center. To understand this, let’s go back to the beginning of the plant’s life. It was probably born in a light-, climate-, water-, and nutrient- controlled environment. It was given everything imaginable to make it lush, green, and in bloom at the point of sale. When it is shipped to the garden center, suddenly, all those terrific daily nutrient boosts, perfect lighting conditions, and regular waterings are gone. They are now at the mercy of Katelyn, a 19 year old college student who just needs a summer job at the local big-box store. The plants have to rely on Katelyn and what’s in the pot to keep them going (unless they are lucky enough to get fed). So the longer they sit on the shelves, the more nutrients they have consumed and the closer they are to developing a nutrient deficiency. Furthermore, since they were so babied in a controlled environment, their pest resistance isn’t really the greatest. Herbicides and insecticides only work for so long. If the plant has been sitting at the retailer’s for a while, the pesticides may have worn off. Finally, the plant was probably also probably given some kind of growth hormone to make it bigger, smaller, sexier, or whatever at the nursery. Without the daily supply of those chemicals, it can become stretched, develop “witch’s broom” where stems start coming out everywhere, or even stop growing altogether. The only time when it would possibly be a good idea to buy a mark-down plant is if it appears to be healthy and the merchant is just trying move the product before it goes bad. Even plants that are only suffering from irregular or lack of watering may not recover. The stress that the plant undergoes in times of drought sometimes can’t be reversed.
- Scrimping on the “extras”- fertilizer, soil amendments, and other treatments. If you don’t want to waste money going around and replacing plants, take the time to make the right environment for them. Plants need 16 essential elements to live. Carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen come from the air and water. The other 13 elements are drawn right from the soil. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are used the most. Generally, nitrogen helps with leaves, phosphorus is used for root growth and seed formation, and potassium helps to grow flowers and fruits. To get these nutrients from the soil, the soil needs to be healthy. You don’t need to run out and buy a bunch of fancy stuff to do this. Keep the soil you have healthy by tilling it only when necessary, using organic-based fertilizers in moderation, never using harsh chemical pesticides, and providing an even amount of water. If you find it necessary, you can add things to your soil to help your plants, based on their growing requirements. Peat moss, bone meal, and sulfur are just some of the additives you may find necessary to make the right growing conditions for your plants. Fertilizing instructions can usually be found on the plant tag or by a simple internet search.
- Buying plants for the wrong soil, light, or moisture conditions, even when they are really cheap. As mentioned above, plants have preferred environmental conditions for optimal growth. If you buy the wrong plant for the wrong place, you’ll probably end up having to replace the plant. Even if you think that marigolds look awesome next to your hydrangeas, they have completely different growing requirements. Take the time to ask a staff member, check the plant tags, or look it up on your phone when purchasing plants. Even better, figure out what problem areas you have in your garden and research what will go well there. Having a plan can help you prevent the next no-no. . .
- Using the “hummingbird” strategy and just buying what’s on sale. There’s always a customer or two that I notice putting brightly colored plant after brightly colored plant in their cart. Pretty soon, their cart looks downright electrified with pink, red, and orange orbs glowing from within the foliage. These type of people I refer to as “hummingbirds.” Like the namesake bird, they flit from fluorescent magenta Gerbera daisies to saturated purple wave petunias and back to the preternaturally orange pompom marigolds. This is, actually, EXACTLY what retailers want people to do so they can make money. This is also EXACTLY what you DON’T want to do if you’re trying to plant frugally this year. Aside wasting your money on what may seem like a good deal, if you go all technicolor, your garden will not look good. There won’t be any special focal points, your garden will have a “busy” feel to it, and the overall look won’t be pleasing to the eye. You are much better off buying just one or two more expensive showpiece plants and surrounding them with accents. The accents will cost less and they will help the showpiece plant really “pop.”
- Not using perennials and shrubs in the garden, even though they may cost more initially. I think this is where most people go wrong in making their gardens go from ho-hum to wow. They don’t start with a good plan. The just sort of put whatever looks pretty in the cart and assume it can go in somewhere. A good way to approach your garden is to go from biggest to smallest. Start with the biggest thing in your garden, the bones, if you will. It is probably a tree, large shrub, or even a piece of statuary. Next comes the secondary in line: the shrubs. Like the trees, they can provide four-season interest if planned carefully. Shrubs can also offer beautiful spring blossoms, berries, and interesting foliage. After that, perennials can be installed around the trees and shrubs. Perennials come back year after year if cared for properly. Oftentimes, they spread, too. The last piece to go in the garden is annuals. This is where things can really add up. You can minimize annual expenses by putting in more living groundcovers or using hardscapes effectively. If you put in a 6” border around your beds, for example, you won’t have to fill in the front of your beds with smaller growing annuals.
Now that I’ve talked about ways NOT to save money, you are probably wondering about good ways you can save money. There are good ways to save money that work but I’ll have to save that for another blog, my mom is on her way over to go to garage sales with me! She said something about needing a new vacuum cleaner . . .
Butterfly on Cardinal Flower: http://homeguides.sfgate.com/native-plants-butterflies-63389.html
Gerbera daisies: http://imgbuddy.com/light-pink-gerbera-daisy.asp
Planting money in soil: http://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/finance/advisorvoices/learn-grow-money-garden/
Nutrient information: American Horticultural Society Pests & Diseases by Pippa Greenwood