Times are tough. Many of us make our trips to the nursery with less to spend. But that need not mean less gardening — in fact, home gardening can be the essence of thrift. Here are some ways to get as much enjoyment out of gardening as ever on a lower budget.
1. Do it yourself. Cancel the lawn service and mow your own lawn (or make the teenager do it). Rake your own leaves. Do your own spring yard cleanup. You'll get some healthy exercise, pay more attention to your plants and what they need, and reduce the amount of greenhouse-gas emissions from your yard — as long as you resist buying any new power tools and do the raking by hand.
2. Sow from seed. Seeds are cheap. Many annuals, such as cosmos, sunflowers and marigolds, can be sown directly in the garden in mid-May, though they won't bloom right away like bedding plants purchased in flats. Try parsley as an edging. Perennials sown this season mostly won't bloom until next year, but you will be able to make a big splash for a fraction of the cost of a single 1-gallon plant.
3. Make compost. Don't pay for your suburb to remove bags of plant waste that could break down into the best of soil amendments. See www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/compost to get started. Use lots of compost in the soil of your vegetable beds and you'll need to apply much less fertilizer. Instead of bagging leaf clippings, let them stay on the lawn and break down. It's good for the grass and, contrary to myth, does not cause thatch.
4. Swap for plants. In spring, experienced gardeners in the neighborhood may be dividing their perennials or digging up surplus seedlings. Find something you can swap for them. It doesn't have to be plants; maybe it's home-baked cookies or errand-running. Be sure that the plants are appropriate for your site and soil, though; a plant that doesn't thrive because it's in the wrong place — or turns out to be an aggressive thug — can soak up a lot of fuss, bother and money.
5. Water wisely. Keep water bills low by watering only as much as your garden needs. Get a rain gauge and watch it. Water a lawn long and deep once a week, but only if there hasn't been about an inch of rain. Deep, infrequent watering encourages roots to go deep, where they can find water and resist drought without a lot of watering in August. If you have an irrigation system, learn to set the controls and set them intelligently. You could be wasting a lot of money by mindlessly letting the sprinklers go off too often.