Tips for frugal gardening

Your Money

May 06, 2007|By Gregory Karp | Gregory Karp,Morning Call

About 85 million U.S. households, or three of every four, do some sort of gardening and lawn care, according to the National Gardening Association.

Those households each spend an average of about $400 a year on plants, power equipment, fertilizer, sod and other products and services that make up the $34.1 billion lawn and garden industry.

To help you get the most bang for your buck, here are tips from experts:

Do it yourself. The most obvious way to save money is not to hire a landscaper to mow the lawn, mulch and weed the flower beds. Time is the trade-off for many people who contend they are too busy to attend to landscaping.

"To me, this perception of time is an easy excuse to be lazy," said Bruce Butterfield, research director of the National Gardening Association. "It's amazing to me that people hire someone to mow their lawn when it only takes an hour."

Many people could reclaim plenty of time to do yard work if they shut off the TV more often, he said. At a mowing charge of $30 a week for six months, you could save more than $700.

Cut back the fertilizer.Set your mower deck at its highest setting, don't cut more than a third of the grass height and leave grass clippings on the lawn. These simple steps will allow you to use less fertilizer and weed killer, and the long grass makes the lawn look thick and lush.

"Those clippings are fertilizer," said Scott Meyer, editor of Organic Gardening magazine. "They will break down into the nutrients that your grass needs most."

Contrary to popular belief, leaving clippings on the lawn does not cause a buildup of thatch. Thatch is caused by overfertilizing, so save money by not adding extra fertilizer.

"It's one of those things where guys think if a little fertilizer is good, more must be better," Meyer said. "But that makes your lawn susceptible to disease and causes it to grow faster, which means you have to mow it more and creates a layer of thatch."

Weed killer isn't necessary. Douse weeds in cracks of sidewalks and patios with boiling water or vinegar, which will kill them and cost a lot less than commercial weed killer. Save money by diluting vinegar with water, using just one part vinegar to two or three parts water, Meyer said.

Use hand tools - used ones. Many gardening experts advise buying good-quality gardening hand tools rather than cheaper ones likely to break within a single season.

But you don't have to buy them new. Check yard sales, especially of older people who might be selling quality tools made decades ago. If you have a small garden, skip power tools. Use hand tools, which are less expensive and will probably save time because you don't have to deal with electrical cords or fuel, said Catriona Tudor Erler, author of the out-of-print The Frugal Gardener: How to Have More Garden for Less Money.

With gardening power equipment, such as a tiller or lawn aerator, it will pay to coordinate with neighbors and rent equipment. "Then you're not buying and storing something you don't need every day," Meyer said.

Compost. "Composting is the most valuable tool for succeeding in gardening," Meyer said. "You don't need a bin. You don't need unusual tools. All you need is a 3-foot-by-3-foot space."

Pile on your grass clippings, egg shells, coffee grounds and pretty much anything that was alive but not part of an animal. "This makes the best possible fertilizer for your garden - better than you can buy," Meyer said.

While composting is free, it is a slow process. You will have to wait about nine months to start using a passive compost pile.

The composting process highlights a general point about frugal gardening: You can save money if you're willing to wait, Tudor Erler said. Buying smaller plants, such as trees and shrubs, is cheaper but requires patience before they become the size you envision.

Mulch for less. Dyed hardwood mulch for garden beds is not only expensive but soon fades to the color of undyed mulch, so you're paying extra for a temporary appearance. Mulch also could be as simple as shredded leaves saved from the fall; you can run over the leaves with a lawn mower.

"It's great mulch, and it costs you nothing," Meyer said.

Straw is also a cheap alternative to wood mulch, and stone is more expensive initially but less costly over the long term because it doesn't need to be replaced.

You also could ask a local tree-trimming service to deliver chipped-up branches for use as mulch. They are glad to get rid of it because it saves them dumping fees. But the mulch will have leaves in it. Garden-wise, that's fine, because they will decompose, but it won't look quite as good as paid-for mulch, Tudor Erler said.

Share seedlings. Swapping cuttings and divisions of plants with friends, relatives and neighbors is a free way to introduce new plants into your gardens. Local nature preserves and botanical gardens often host sales and sell their plants inexpensively.

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