The Cranky Gardener

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Free is Good1

Some folks would like to start a garden, but are afraid that it will become too expensive to maintain. When you look at the prices of garden tools and gadgets, soil amendments, and the increasing cost of plants it is easy to understand this fear. Let's face it, when it comes to
gardening, there is no lack of things to spend your money on.

The good news is that it is possible to have a lovely garden without spending big bucks every year. For the next couple of weeks we are going to talk about ways to save money in your garden. And since the cost of plants seems to increase each spring, ways to obtain inexpensive plants seems to be a good starting place.

Some plants are much easier to propagate than others. They're so easy in fact, that they will do all of the work for you. I'm talking about herbs and flowers that will sow themselves.

Take an average sized annual bed – about 6 feet wide by 20 feet long. A bed this size will hold nearly 500 plants spaced six inches apart. Ok, I know that's too close together for some varieties, but it is too far apart for others, so don't argue with me about the spacing. Those little six packs of plants you buy at the garden centres cost an average of $1.75. Individual plants of varieties like Geraniums and New Guinea Impatiens cost an average of $2.50 each. So you could easily spend between $150 and $200 for plants for that one bed. That's a lot of money.

Or you can invest in several packets of seeds and have a beautiful display for under $20.00. And, by choosing varieties that will self-sow, you will be rewarded with flowers year after year from just one initial planting. I think that is much more sensible, don't you? All you'll have to do each year is thin the seedlings and move them around a bit to fit within your planting design. You'll probably even have plants to share with your friends and neighbours.

Ok, I've convinced you. Now you need to know which flowers will self-sow. Take a look at the wild flowers that grow in your area - those in ditches and fields that are never watered or fed or thinned and yet put on a beautiful display every year. Many of these are annuals that have seeded themselves. If you see a variety that you especially like, you can gather the dry flower heads and scatter them in your garden.

There are also many varieties of annual seed available in packets that will produce self-sowing flowers. Asters (Aster ssp), Bachelor's Button (Centaurea), Balsam (Impatiens balsamina), Calendula (Calendula officinalis), California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Cleome or Spiderflower (Cleome hasslerana), Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus or Cosmos sulphureus), Larkspur (Consolida ambigua), Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascene), Mignonette (Reseda odorata), Oriental Poppies (Papaver rhoeas or Papaver somniferum), Rose Moss (Portulaca grandiflora), Sunflowers (Helianthus annus), and Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritime).

And I haven't even gotten around to the Marigolds, Petunias and Zinnias. This brings up the subject of hybrids. Most of the Petunias, for example, that you buy in the garden centres or in seed packets will be hybrid varieties. These will self-sow, but the resulting plants will not be true to the hybrid variety with ruffles and stripes and deep colours. They will revert to the wild variety of pastel pinks and white, which is lovely and fragrant and very worthwhile, by the way. Hybrid Marigolds will revert to the older common native variety as well. I hope this will not discourage you from planting these flowers. The native varieties or cultivars are lovely.

Some perennials will also self-sow. Think of an old fashioned cottage garden and plant Columbines (Aquilegia ssp), Foxgloves (Digitalis ssp), Hollyhock (Alcea rosea), Lupins (Lupinus ssp) and Rudbeckias or Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia ssp)

If you see a plant you like in your neighbour's garden, ask to collect some seed for next year's plantings. Take an envelope or paper bag, place over the dried flower head, bend forward and shake gently. Be sure to label your seeds. I know you think you'll remember what they are, but you won't. Been there. It is also a good idea to save some seed from your own flowers in case you want to create a new bed or share with your friends.

Some plants form seed pods. When this happens you will need to leave the pods on the plants until they turn tan or brown. Then harvest the pods and lay them out on newspapers to dry. When you hear the seeds rattling around inside the pods it is time to open them up and gather the seeds. Larkspur and Cleome are two varieties that form pods.

When gathering seed, remember not to strip a plant. Leave enough seed for the plant to self-sow.

You will need to store your seed in a dry, cool place. Place your labelled envelopes inside an airtight container such as a mason jar2 or a resealable plastic bag. Properly dried and stored seed will last for years.

For those of you looking for vegetarian recipes for Lent, I'd like to share one of my favourite meatless main dishes. I hope you enjoy it.

Creamy White Bean Soup


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 1 large baking potato, peeled and diced
  • 1 pound - 450g - dried Great Northern beans3, rinsed and soaked over night
  • 6 cups - 48 floz, 2½ pints - of vegetable stock (I use MBT vegetable broth packets)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon of ground thyme
  • Salt and pepper
  • Parsley

Heat the oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and celery. Cook until soft. Add the potato, the drained beans, the vegetable stock and the bay leaves. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat, cover and simmer until the beans are tender. This takes about 1½-2 hours. Add extra liquid if necessary to keep the broth from becoming too thick. Remove the bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Measure out 2 cups of the soup and put in your blender or food processor. Blend until smooth. Return to the soup and mix. Ladle into bowls, garnish with chopped parsley and enjoy.

The Cranky Gardener


26.02.04 Front Page

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1Plant names capitalised for clarity.2A jar, usually square, generally used to store jam. Similar to a Kilner Jar.3The dried seeds of green beans, when mature, are known as Great Northern beans. These beans have a delicate flavour, thin skin, and are flat, kidney shaped, medium-sized white beans. In France they are used to make Cassoulet and the basis for 'Baked Beans' in the UK. You can probably substitute Butter Beans or white kidney beans in Europe.

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