Cinthia Milner is a horticulturist and writer who manages a flower market.

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Frugal Gardening
by Cinthia Milner    

I started this year out with a financial planner, a first for me, and while he raised an eyebrow at a few of my expenditures, he was shocked to find my gardening expenses as low as they were. Knowing my passion for gardening, he was surprised. But after three decades in the garden and more impulse buys than I’d like to admit, I finally have my garden dollars under control.

These days, many of us are watching our budgets a little bit more, but that doesn’t mean your garden has to suffer. With a little careful planning and some garden-budget secrets, you can have the beauty you want without spending money you don’t have. It turns out it is a lot more fun than it sounds. 

Advantages of Annuals
Let’s start with the basics: annuals. If you’re a beginner, hold off on purchasing too many perennials, trees or shrubs, and go for annuals. You will save a lot of money, and here is why: It takes time to understand your landscape. Before you start sinking some serious dollars into it, educate yourself about your spot and learn some basics of gardening. It is cheaper to make mistakes with annuals than with trees and shrubs.

Annuals are a good way to get your hands dirty while teaching you about planting, fertilizing, deadheading and color combinations. And, they can be cheap, depending on what you buy. For the cost of my daily cup of Starbucks, I can enjoy beautiful color and variety all summer with the right annuals. 

Some annuals are pricey, but a 6-inch pot of coleus is generally $5 or less, and by summer’s end it is the glory of the garden. Coleus is easily rooted – you can break off a tip, stick it in a pot and have a lush container by fall. 

For more seasoned gardeners, annuals are a great way to fill the empty spaces in perennial borders. When nothing else is blooming, annuals pop in nicely, adding color between perennial blooms.

Smart Perennial Choices
A lush perennial border is great, but the reality is that lushness doesn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t cheap. Perennials cause you to start digging into the wallet a bit more. Ideally, you get a better return on your investment when they come back every year, but reality reminds us that they do not always return. Maybe you didn’t plant them in the optimal spot, there was an unexpectedly cold winter, the voles showed up or you purchased poor plant material. Whatever the reason, the spring losses can add up. This is discouraging, but for every lost perennial, three generally survive. Focus on the survivors; and when buying more, find similar plants to add to your garden since those did well.

Also, perennials take patience. Have you ever heard the saying, “Sleep, creep then leap”? That catchy little phrase reminds us that our plants, whether perennials, trees or shrubs, need time to establish themselves. So if your heuchera are hiding in the borders while you pine for a showy display, the answer is not to throw more money at your garden. Perennials take some time to establish and spread, and if you spend costly dollars over-planting, you’ll have crowding in the borders sooner than you’d like. For now, fill in the space with mulch, which gives a finished look, is good for the soil and cuts down on weeding. Or, add a few annuals for quick bling until your perennials are leaping. 

The good news about perennials is that you can bargain shop. A lot of people like to buy perennials when they’re blooming. Then after they have bloomed, garden centers mark them down. If you wait, you will be rewarded with sales, daily specials and great plants, even if you have to wait for blooms until next year. 

Gardening teaches patience and finance teaches discipline. Put them together, and you can grow your garden without sacrificing the groceries – although please do add edibles to the perennial border, and knock back that grocery budget as well. A bright sunny spot is all most vegetables need, and tomatoes look great growing up trellises alongside the August blooming Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ or fall-colored annual zinnias.

Building Structure
Lastly, look to the structure of your garden – trees and shrubs. Take your time with these purchases. Sure, those unique $400 conifers are tempting, but are they right for your landscape? When making a big purchase, remind yourself that you need to be committed to this plant because it isn’t going anywhere. 

For big purchases, do your research and seek professional assistance if needed. The dollars you plunk down for large, costly plant material need to be spent wisely. I usually move perennials no less than three times each before I am finally satisfied with their spot, but trees and shrubs do not transplant so easily. 

However, this is also not the place to skimp. Get the best plant material available, and find out the return policy. Nurseries sometimes have a 50 percent refund on trees and shrubs if you have your receipt and if you didn’t neglect the plant. 

Trees and shrubs should never be an impulse buy. Know your plants and know the quality of what you’re buying. In the long run, both you and your woodies will be happier.

The word “budget” is such an unfriendly, although necessary, word, but perhaps like the companionship of carrots and tomatoes, if we give it a try, we will discover that budgets and gardens make better company than we expect.   



This article appeared in a previous State-by-State Gardening publication.


Posted: 07/03/19   RSS | Print


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