Bartlett on Gardening: Dollars and Sense

When my husband and I bought our first home, I was amazed to learn that bedding plants could be purchased. My folks and their neighbors had beautiful, flower-filled yards, but I had never known anyone to buy plants, which could be started from seed, propagated from cuttings, or obtained from divisions. If you’re the thrifty type, too, here are some tips.

The first step in successful “value” gardening is creating a general plan. The plan does not need to be implemented all at once. It does provide a guide for what work is done each year and prevents costly mistakes. Keep in mind that “value” means getting the most for your money. The best plans are flexible, allowing the incorporation of found materials or gifts. For instance, I once saw mismatched plates used to edge a border. I then devoted the spring and summer to visiting yard sales where I purchased odds and ends of china plates for 50 cents or less. This whimsical border has proven to be fairly durable as well as attractive.

Cultural practices can definitely save many dollars. Leaving grass clippings to decompose on the lawn reduces fertilizer needs by 25 percent. Setting the mower blades at the highest level reduces weeds by depriving them of light. Research has demonstrated that a mower set at 2 to 2.5 inches reduces weeds by more than half. At 3.5 inches, they are reduced by 96%. Goodbye herbicide expense!

Water use is a major issue in our landscapes. We do not want to waste a drop. Group plants with similar needs together. Deeply-rooted shrubs and trees require infrequent deep watering while most turf does best with more frequent, shallow applications. Adjust sprinkler heads so that the water goes on the lawn rather than the pavement. Water early in the morning before wind and sun prevent the moisture from reaching the root zones of targeted plants. Soaker hoses keep water where you want it. Timers might be useful both to prevent overwatering and to make the most of early morning hours.

​​Mulching is a best practice in any landscape. It reduces weeds and conserves moisture. Organic mulches decompose, adding needed nutrients to the soil. Mulch also adds a finished look to the landscape. On the downside, decorative mulch is costly. Consider using ground covers as a living mulch around trees and shrubs. In areas where function is more important than form, newspaper and grass clippings can be used. Old carpet makes a durable barrier mulch, lasting about five years.

Plants are the easiest part of the garden budget. Armed with the plan, I figure out how many plants are needed. I peruse seed and garden catalogs as well as checking local garden centers to find the best deals. Perennials can be had for free from divisions or cuttings. Ask gardening friends if they have any to share. I know I hate to toss perfectly good divisions on the compost pile. The advantage of “pass-along plants” goes beyond money. These are proven to flourish in the conditions similar to those in my garden.

The most difficult aspect of gardening on a shoestring is passing up impulse purchases. Indulge on annual accents to satisfy the urge to splurge. They add a fresh look to beds, containers, and borders without a long-term commitment.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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