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The thrifty gardener: planting on a poor man's budget

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Gardening is a wonderful pastime, but it can become very expensive, especially if you are an avid gardener. Temptations will soon arise as the hoop houses spring up around town.

It is hard to pass up the lovely flowers, the latest tools and the cute decorations, but the cost mounts up rapidly. The thrifty gardener knows many ways to cut the cost of gardening and still have a beautiful yard and a bountiful harvest.

Tools are first on a list of garden necessities. In the long run it is not thrifty to buy cheap tools. Beginners should buy only the basics such as a spade, hoe, rake, trowel and a pruning tool. Buy the best quality that you can afford so they will last many seasons. You can add to your supply over time and as needs arise. Look for wood handles (ash is best) with sturdy connections to the metal parts. Make sure that your pruning tool is heavy duty enough to tackle tough jobs. Proper maintenance will keep your tools in service for many years. Rub the wood handles with warm linseed oil. Clean and oil the moving parts of clippers. Clean and dry the tools when you are finished working with them. Fill an ice cream bucket or other pail with sand and some linseed oil to oil and clean metal tools.

Many plants grow readily from seed, and this is a great way to save money even though the price of seeds has greatly increased over the years. Some packets contain only 25 seeds, so you do not want to waste any. Share the seeds and cost of larger packets with a friend.

With our short growing season many seeds must be started inside. If you have plenty of window space that may be sufficient to start some seeds, but most of us need some auxiliary lights. It is not necessary to use special plant lights, as you are not trying to get them to produce blooms inside. Regular fluorescent bulbs are good, and using one cool white and one warm white is better.

Special soilless seed starting media is best for many seeds as it is sterile and is fine enough to use with small seeds. Be sure to moisten the mix before you begin planting. There are all kinds of seed starting kits on the market, but this is where you can save money. Don’t buy them! If you saved some cell packs from last year wash them and soak them in a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water. If not, recycled kitchen items work well to plant seeds in.

For example, milk cartons, cottage cheese tubs, paper or plastic cups or even toilet paper rolls are good as long as you poke drainage holes in the bottoms. The clear plastic clamshells that bakery items come in form mini greenhouses to hold the pots and cell packs. Once the seeds sprout, lift the lids to let in air and eventually remove the lids.

For tiny seeds, it is best to fill a tray with soil and scatter the seeds or sow them in rows. Mix tiny seeds with fine sand so they do not all fall in one clump. You can make a tool from a pencil to plant smaller seeds individually. Poke a straight pin into the eraser. Dampen the head of the pin and you will be able to pick up one seed with it. Once your seeds have sprouted and formed at least two sets of leaves, you may prick them out into individual pots. Make your own plant labels with old mini blinds, paint stirrers, cut up bleach bottles or Popsicle sticks.

There are many seeds that grow well planted right into the ground once it has warmed up. Marigolds, zinnias, cosmos, beans, peas and cucumber are some. Save more money by harvesting the seeds of marigolds, nasturtium and cosmos as long as they are not hybrid varieties. Some plants actually self-seed, such as morning glory, cleome, sweet alyssum, johnny jump up (viola) and forget-me-not (Myosotis). You can easily move the seedlings around once they sprout or hoe up excess.

Most perennials need to be divided to keep up their vigor. Increase the number of your own plants by dividing them or get divisions from neighbors and friends who have extras. Hosta, daylily and iris are very prolific. Each spring, garden clubs have plant sales where you can get good-sized plants at reasonable prices. The Fargo Garden Society sale is on May 31, and the Botanical Garden sale is May 17. At the greenhouse you may buy a large gallon-sized plant and often divide it into two or three smaller plants. This doesn’t work with tap-rooted plants like gas plant or Asclepias.

Some plants are easily increased or saved by taking cuttings. Coleus is the easiest plant root from cuttings and impatiens are often overgrown when you buy them in the greenhouse.

Take cuttings as soon as you get home from the nursery to double your money. I took cuttings from my geraniums last fall per Forum writer Don Kinzler and am growing them in four-inch pots until spring.

As far as trees and shrubs, buy only what is hardy for our area. You can save money by buying bare root plants if you can find them and planting them in early spring. Don’t plant trees too deep. Scrape the soil down until you find where the root flare is and plant at this level. Don’t stop watering trees, even those that are mature, because stress caused by drought will eventually kill them.

Mulch trees and beds to conserve moisture. One cubic yard of mulch material will cover 320 square feet to 1 inch, 160 square feet to 2 inches, 110 square feet to 3 inches and 80 square feet to 4 inches.

The lawn is the most expensive area to maintain, so the best way to save money here is to cut down its size. Don’t try to save by letting it go dormant. Water deeply at least once a month or you will lose the lawn in a drought and have to start over. One inch of water a week is the normal requirement for most gardens and lawns.

Think outside the box for containers and decorations for your yard and garden.

Remember that bigger is better for keeping plants alive and well in containers. However, you do not have to fill them completely with expensive potting soil. Take up some space in the bottom of large containers with pop cans, extra plastic pots or Styrofoam peanuts in bags. The potting soil can be reused each year as long as you replenish the top area and mix it in well. Toss what you remove on your garden beds.