17 Tips: How to Have a Beautiful and Productive Garden Without Spending a Ton of Money

17 Tips: How to Have a Beautiful and Productive Garden Without Spending a Ton of Money

front yard flower bed with assorted annuals perennials and roses
This is a view of the front yard in April of 2019. It had a few new things added to it in October of 2018. The roses, perennials, and the majority of the bulbs have been in the same spots for many years, but a few things were new, like the foxglove, sweet peas, and delphinum toward the back. The poppies self sow and I pull them up whenever they come up spots I don’t want. The blue margarite daisies in the front were grown from cuttings during the summer of 2018.

A trip to the nursery can get expensive pretty quickly, especially when first starting out. The initial investments in quality tools like a hand trowel, spading fork, shovel, gloves, and hard pruners are necessary, but spending hundreds of dollars on plants and supplies every year is not. I had a related post in 2012 about making do with less and recycling. The following list is some of the things have learned and practice in order to make gardening more affordable and fun:

Jewels of Albion
These are ‘Jewels of Albion’ Sweet Peas that one pack of seeds was enough for 4 different areas of the garden. I collected the seeds when it was finished for the season and took some of the extra seeds to a plant share event.

***There are more garden photos at the bottom of the post after the list of tips.***

  1. Start a compost pile or bin and regularly tend it. Compost is an excellent mulch, gentle slow release fertilizer, and great way to recycle kitchen and yard waste. Organic Gardening Magazine, back when I had a subscription in the 1990’s, used to feature a different reader’s homemade bin at the back of every issue. There are many different ways to set them up with recycled materials. Here is a post about my DIY Compost Bin that started life out as a discarded rolling trash can.
  2. Grow veggies from seeds. For about $2 to $3, typically the price of one or two plants, a whole row of veggies can be started. Sometimes I start twice as many vegetables as I need in cell packs and then trade with other gardening friends.
  3. Don’t be an organic purist. I am pretty much an organic gardener. However, I don’t feel it is detrimental to my family or yard to buy conventional seeds or veggie starter packs. Once the plant moves into my yard, it is cared for with organic practices. If I was selling produce to the public, it would be a different matter all together. Conventional seed is usually 30% cheaper than organic seed and much easier to find.
  4. Don’t throw out leftover seed packets after one season. Use a packet of seeds over the course of two or three years. Many seeds have a longer shelf life than just one year. Here is a Cooperative Extension link to how long some vegetables typically last. Lettuce, onion, parsley, parsnips and salsify can only be counted on to germinate well with one year in storage, but most of the other veggies are good for up to 3 to 4 years.
  5. Buy from independant nurseries instead of the big home improvement stores. At least around SoCal, the price of vegetables in 6 packs, 4″, and up to quart size containers is about half the price at the independant nurseries in comparison to places like HD and Lowes. I really don’t know why the big box stores charge so much more, but I have noticed every spring, a 4″ tomato plant at my local nursery can be $1.49 to $3.50 and the exact same variety sold is at HD for $6.50. The selection is better at the independant nurseries too.
  6. Plant annual flowers that gently self sow. Now I am not talking about the annuals that have been hybridized to bloom at 6 inches tall in 6 packs so that they sell fast at the nursery. Many of those are pretty, but don’t make much of a statement in the garden, not without spending a fortune and planting dozens. Sweet Alyssum and Paludosum daisy are an exception in my garden. Both usually self sows nicely and are easy to pull up or transplant if they come up in spots I don’t want. I like using annuals and perennials that add extra height to the garden. Annie’s Annuals is a great source for interesting annual flowers and she has a helpful list [link] of what can be counted on to reseed/ self sow. I know shipping plants isn’t a frugal thing, but Annie’s Annuals plants can also be purchased at five nurseries around SoCal, including two places I sometimes go plant shopping at: Country Road Antiques in Orange (the outdoor area is called Johnnye Merles’s Garden) and Plant Depot in San Juan Capistrano. Many of the most popular annuals at Annies Annuals are also available in seed packets from places like Swallowtail Garden Seeds, Select Seeds and Fedco Seeds.
  7. Plant more perennials and in the years to come, divide them. The initial investment in perennials is typically higher, but they come back year after year. They help to give the garden interest in the off season and continuity over the years. Many perennials appreciate being divided every 2 to 4 years, and it’s a great way to get more plants without spending more money. I usually will buy just one of a perennial plant to try it out. If I like it, I can go back and buy more or propagate it by division or cuttings.
  8. Plant Bulbs that Naturalize. The following are my favorite corms, rhizomes, tubers, and bulbs that return reliably in Southern California and their clumps slowly increase each year: Amarcrinum, Babiana, Bearded Iris, Dutch Iris, Freesia alba and hybrids, Sparaxis Tricolor, and Triteleia. Alstormeria is a favorite too, and naturalizes really well, but to me it seems more like an herbaceous perennial than a bulb since I have to be gentle moving it around. Other bulbs that naturalize well in Southern California and that I grow include: Amarylis belladona, Calla, Canna, Chasmanthe, Crocosmia, Freesia laxa, Ixia, Lycoris, Nerine, Spuria Iris, and Watsonia. Try to purchase and plant these when they are dormant. They are three times as expensive when sold potted up and already in bloom. Paperwhite Narissis naturalizes all over SoCal, but I really dislike the fragrance so I no longer grow it. Clivia and Agapanthus could also be lumped in to the bulb category, too, but neither ever goes dormant here. Buy those in bloom or get a division from a friend.
  9. Free Mulch. My town, like many others around the country, have a free mulch program. We can either pick it up when we need it or we can schedule a free delivery. There is often a long waitlist for delivery. Tree trimmers are another good source of mulch. Every other year, when we get our Chinese Elm trimmed, we ask that the shredded material be dumped in the driveway to be used as mulch.
  10. Buy Plants in the off season. October is an excellent time to plant in Southern California. I prefer to buy smaller plants, like 6 packs or 4″ sizes of foxgloves, sea lavendar, columbine, carnations, and cineraria stellata in October for $3 each and get them planted early. By January, those plants are huge with big healthy root systems. In February, when garden centers start bringing them in, in gallon sizes, they are often $10 to $16 each, but never settle in to the garden as well as the little ones I planted in the fall. The hardest part is noticing these little plants in the nursery. Without flowers, they don’t look very interesting. Lowes and HD have clearance sections in their garden centers. In my opinion, half of the stuff is ready for the compost, but sometimes nice bargains end up there, too, mainly because a plant is done flowering. I try to stick to just perennial plants from the clearance section, or things in really nice pots or hanging baskets that I can reuse.
  11. Recycle. There are many ways I recycle in the garden. Lots of folks have cell packs and one gallon black nursery pots that they just discard. I had put the word out among my neighbors that I can reuse them, and within a few seasons, I had more than I needed. Neighbors continue to give them to me. Any I don’t think I need, I take to a plant sharing event. They always get snatched up quick there. I use old cell packs to start cuttings that need a bit more extra care before moving into the garden or starting veggies. Plastic food containers work well for starting plants too, with a few drainage holes added. I use old vinyl miniblinds cut in 8 inch pieces for potted plant markers and I use the closing wand from the same blinds as a plant stake to hold up grape vines propagated for Green Scene. The plastic black nursery flats (trays for plants at the nursery) get used as temporary protective covers for newly sown seedlings or just transplanted plants, thus preventing chicken or dog damage. Pruning from trees can be used as plant stakes to prevent things for toppling over in Santa Ana winds. Just make sure they are completely dried out first, otherwise, it might root. I use pomegranate prunings layed on their side to keep cats from digging in my front flower beds and using it as a litter box. What other things do you recycle in the garden?
  12. Avoid unnecessary equipment purchases. Tools like gas powered cultivators and aerators can be rented for the few times they are needed. A neighbor might be able to loan you a post hole digger. For the majority of things I do in the garden, I only need a hand trowel, hand pruners, loppers, a shovel, gloves, a box cutter, and a rake.
  13. Avoid buying unusal plants. I try to avoid impulse buys, but it can be hard since I really enjoy collecting plants. Unfortunately sometimes plants are available in nurseries that are not really ideal for the local climate. A poor plant choice can end up being a total waste of money. Nothing is worse than spending $8 -$12 on a neat new plant only to find out it needs too much water or winter chill to be happy here. If something new sparks my fancy, I do a bit of quick research on my phone to make sure it won’t be something I regret. In the days before the internet and smart phones, I used to take my Sunset Western Garden Book with me when ever I went plant shopping.
  14. Freebies! – Trade with fellow gardeners or neighbors. Some of my favorite plants have come from other gardeners, not nurseries, and because of a few generous older gardeners, I now have a few rare plants that are no longer commonly in the nursery trade. There are lots of garden sharing groups all over, and many are easily found online at sites like NextDoor or Facebook. Although the garden share groups I belong to are not currently meeting up due to Covid 19, many members have stated they plan to still post what they have available to share and then will leave it on their curbside. However, I would recommend using caution with plant trades. Some easy to share plants can be real garden thugs. I always identify a plant to make sure it isn’t invasive or an overly aggressive spreader before introducing something new to the yard. When I get home, I also remove soil whenever possible to avoid soil born pathogens, check for insects hitching a ride, and examine the root ball for any signs of root knot nematodes. Thus, I often gravitate toward bulbs and cuttings at the plant share gatherings.
  15. Learn to graft. Once I joined the California Rare Fruit Growers, under the guidance of much more experienced gardeners, I learned how to graft. Most of the CRFG chapters hold scion exchanges each winter where almost everything from Avocado to Zizyphus (Jujube) scions can be found. Fancy grafting knives aren’t required to be successful. I switched to using a box cutter a few years ago, and it works just as well as my old $40 grafting knife I bought a more than a decade ago. I have started a number of fruit trees from seeds and then grafted on scions of named cultivars, pretty much making those fruit trees free.
  16. Gather seeds. This is one of my newer favorite garden activities for the summer and early fall when I am not doing much else in the yard. I select seeds from my best performing, hardest to replace, or prettiest annual flowers and save them to sow in the late fall or early spring. I do this with my California poppies, Lychnis, Gaillardias, Clarkias, Nicotiana, Cuphea llavea, sweet peas, hollyhock, Papaver somniferums, Verbascums, and a few of my bulbs.
  17. Have patience and don’t be a perfectionist. Plant over the course of many weeks or months and don’t buy everything all at once. It can be a waste of money if plants don’t make it into the ground in a timely fashion and end up with poor results or worse, dead plants. Staggering makes it necessary to have multiple trips to the nursery, but I am always up for a visit! Inventory changes throughout the year, and going back every month so keeps a garden colorful year round, instead of just in the spring and early summer. A garden is a ever evolving place and that is part of the pleasure of the hobby for me. I am definately not a perfectionist. I don’t follow the gardening rules of planting in multiples or trying to keep a cohesive palette. I just plant what I like and where ever I have room. The garden looks thinned out by September, but I think that’s okay in SoCal. It can be rewarding starting with a small plant in October and watching it turn into something beautiful after a number months or even years. Smaller plants also acclimate better, often growing more vigorously. Practice succession planting with vegeatables and corms like gladiolus, every few weeks and they will go further or continue the bloom longer.
Annual California native poppies, dutch iris, and blue margarite daisies in early April last year. When these faded, the penstamens, Oriental Lillies, and dahlias filled in this area.
This photo was taken in early March of 2020 and demonstrates the transition between seasons. Many things in here are just starting to bloom, but this little flower bed always has something in bloom. The camelia, hellebores, and cliviais are almost done, on the far left. The sweet alyssum and blue lobelia in the forground have been in bloom since October. The blue salvia in the way back is just starting to show some fresh new growth and is usually in bloom off and on from June until November. The foxgloves in the middle are almost ready for a second flush of color and the little white alstroemeria has some unopened buds. There is a wine colored nicotiana in the middle that has been blooming continuously since early novemeber and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Verbascums are tucked in around everything, really to make a show once I remove or cut back something around them. In the warmest months, the Stephnotis on the far left blooms and smells delightful in the evening. There is also a Nellie Moser clematis that climbs over the gas meter in April to June in pretty pale pink and fuchsia colored flowers.
different view of the flower bed
This is a slightly different view of the same bed in mid may last year. The foxgloves and verbascum will turn out like this as it transitions into late spring. When the foxgloves finished, the OT Lily hybrids behind them were the stars of the show in June and July. My lilies came from a Costco bag of bulbs and they get dug up every October and chilled for two months in the fridge, then replanted. Every year they get bigger.

Please add more tips in the comment section at the bottom. Thanks. I hope you enjoy your time in the garden!

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