Friday, January 28, 2011

Thrifty Gardening

We've all seen 'em. You know the ones. The folks who walk into the local big-box garden center looking to fulfill their dreams of growing 4 pound tomatoes or blue ribbon-worthy pumpkins. Whatever their motivation - from a yearning for simplicity, a desire to eat more organically, or frugality - they've now decided to put in a garden. And could there be anything more inviting to a salesperson than the sight of the new gardener staring at the mountains of plants and supplies? Whether they grew up on a farm or could rival Billy Crystal for the lead role in "City Slickers" the novice gardener can drop a pile of money before ground has even been broken. In larger cities you may need to wear a garlic necklace to repel the hoardes of sales-hungry garden center helpers, but in Bowling Green and the surrounding areas folks are nice and pretty understanding of the need for frugality. In any case, preparation and education are key to spending only what you must to obtain your desired results.

Much like shopping in thrift stores, a list is probably the single most valuable tool for the thrifty gardener. You'll find seasoned gardeners poring over books, magazines and websites as they sip coffee and watch the snow fall. By the time Spring nears, they've got a really good idea of what they'd like to include in their garden. As winter wears on, they check the mailbox more often than Ralphie Parker waiting for his decoder pin. Why? The catalogs. They arrive long before the first Robin, but are just as certain a harbinger of the gentle days of Spring. Even if you don't plan to purchase plants via mail order, catalogs are a great way to find out what's new and what works in your area, and to begin to budget. With your list or garden blueprint in hand, you may enter the garden center with more confidence.

Of course, the basic need for all gardeners is good soil. Do you get confused when you hear people talk about adding things to the soil to change the Ph? So do I. Just take my cue and head on over to the Extension Office. Don't know where it is? Shame on you! These folks can answer all kinds of questions about horticulture in Warren and surrounding counties - and it's free! They even offer a soil test. Now, it isn't free, but available for the nominal fee of around $6.00. The results of that test will help you know what you need to have the best soil in your garden. The test will pay for itself many times over in yield and crop quality. Hop on over to their website and look around: You can even follow them on Facebook! Just enter the keywords "UK Cooperative Extension--Warren County Horticulture"

Next to good soil, you need good plants. If you don't plan to start your plants from seed, you'll need to find a resource that has done it for you. To find the best plants at the best prices, I'd suggest you ask around. For whatever reason, gardening is exploding in popularity this year and you can be the beneficiary of some really fantastic local resources. There are greenhouses galore in addition to the farmer's markets. Starting plants from seeds can be tedious and time consuming, but offers near infinite choices in variety. With careful planning, for the cost of one greenhouse-grown plant you can have trays and trays of seedlings ready to set as soon as Jack paints his last frost of the season. Consider purchasing seeds from non-traditional sources as well as the tried-and-true. I got 150 heirloom pepper seeds for the grand total of 50¢ on eBay earlier this year. The seller had fantastic feedback, so I took a chance. By the looks of things, it was a great deal. Heirloom varieties can be more expensive, but have some distinct advantages that make them the more frugal choice. They are said to provide tastier, more nutritious fruit. They are open pollinated, which means that you can save your seeds from year to year. “Seeds saved from heirloom vegetables will produce plants that are true to type, unlike hybrid seeds. If you try to save seed from hybrids, you usually won’t get good results,” says Andrew Kaiser, manager at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Heirlooms also tend to be less uniform than hybrids, meaning they won't all ripen at once. That's an advantage when there just aren't enough hours in the day to can or preserve that bountiful crop.

After you've gotten your soil in shape and you've bought or grown your own sets, it's time to plant and maintain. Regardless of the latest fashion or gadget, all you really need are the basics: a spade, a hoe, a hand trowel. If you're a southern woman a big floppy hat seems to be a necessity, but I really like my old-fashioned sun bonnet. A pair of old shoes will serve just as well as the cutesy garden clogs, and an old leaky hose easily replaces a topside soaker. Old mini-blinds find new life when cut down to size and shape for plant stakes - recycling an old product and saving you around $5. The latest foam plant ties retail in a popular seed catalog for $12.95 for 32 feet. Pantyhose and knee-highs with runs are free and just as gentle when tying up heavy plants like tomatoes. An old bucket and free plastic kids' meal cup will water your plants just as well as the new OXO watering can - and it won't cost $19.99. (What? Are they insane? I could give you the website I found that one on, but I won't.)The one area in which I absolutely do not skimp is good quality gloves. They are absolutely necessary when working in garden or yard, and can be found at relatively reasonable prices throughout the year.

Just like thrift shopping, a heaping dose of common sense is your greatest tool to keep your gardening endeavors frugal. Are you lacking in that department? Unsure of yourself? Or do you just need some support? A Google search for "frugal gardening" netted 278,000 results as of this writing. Pour yourself a cuppa something wonderful, tuck the kiddies into bed and have a blast learning more about your new hobby. Even better, enlist your family and/or friends to help. Start a gardening co-op in your neighborhood. Take a class or two, if you have the time and money. Shop online to find great deals if your time is limited during daylight hours. A little knowledge and research goes a long way, so make the most of those rainy days and nighttime hours. And if, by some chance, you happen upon that so-cute copper Labrador retriever weathervane that is on sale for ONLY $369.00 (ha!) do what I did and step. away. from. the. keyboard. Until next time, I wish you well.

Mrs. Pharris is a graphic designer and the author of several poems and short articles. She is a homemaker, small business owner, homeschool mom and wannabe tightwad. She lives with her husband – who wishes she were more of a tightwad, and her son – who is glad she isn’t, a dog that eats anything and a cat who won’t.

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