The Cranky Gardener

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Money Saving Suggestions for Frugal Gardeners1

Gardening is a wonderful pastime. It provides fresh air, healthy exercise, and connects us to nature in a way nothing else does. Whether you choose to grow flowers or edibles, being able to walk into your own cutting garden, orchard or vegetable plot and find what you need at the peak of freshness is very rewarding.

Gardening can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. This week's column is a laundry list of suggestions to help you save money in the garden. Some of the tips were suggested by that intrepid Scottish gardener, Frenchbean, and I thank her for letting me use them. Some are things I've done for years. And some are ideas that I've been meaning to put into practice.

Starting plants from seed? You don't have to buy a lot of expensive seed-starting trays or pots. Good substitutes are egg cartons, especially if you live where you can still buy eggs in cardboard cartons. You can cut the individual cells apart and plant them directly into the garden. This keeps you from having to disturb the roots, and the cardboard will decompose naturally.

I like to start vegetables in paper cups - the ones with wax coating. They come in a variety of sizes. Poke a few holes in the bottoms and let them sit in the Styrofoam trays meat is wrapped in at the supermarket. When it is time to set your plants in the garden, the cup can be easily cut away. Again, this prevents disturbing the roots. This works just as well as using peat pots and costs much less.

One thing you don't want to do when starting seeds is to use plain garden soil. It is normally too heavy. But you can make it useable by adding some vermiculite and a little peat moss. Your mixture won't be free, but will cost much less than buying the commercial, sterile seed-starting mixtures and, unless you have a known soil problem, chances are that you don't actually need a sterile medium.

You can also make your own pots out of newspaper. You can purchase little round molds to use to make the pots. Or you can fold them around any round container of the proper size. It seems a bit awkward at first, but it's simple once you get the hang of it. The advantage to using newspaper pots is that you can make them deep enough for leeks, carrots and beetroot, and then place the entire pot into the soil without disturbing the roots.

Are you seeing a pattern here? Don't disturb the roots when you set your plants out!

You've seen those black plastic trays with the clear plastic hoods for use when starting seeds? The hoods hold in moisture and create an atmosphere similar to a greenhouse. They work great. But you can get the same effect for less money. All you need to do is place your moist seed tray inside a clear plastic bag. You can recycle the ones from the produce department at your supermarket.

If you have heat-loving varieties of plants such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants (aubergines), you can put some small sticks like Popsicle or craft sticks around the edges of the pots and then wrap them with plastic wrap from the kitchen. This will let you create a taller hood so it can be kept on longer. Remove the top when the plants begin to grow too tall for it but leave the wrapping around the sides. (This is the same principle as wrapping the tomato cages outside.)

If you're looking for containers for plants you have a lot of options besides buying expensive pots from the garden centres. Almost any used container can become a plant pot. Be sure you scrub them before you add your potting soil. And poke a few holes in the bottoms for drainage. Old enamel soup pots, galvanized buckets and tubs, old tea kettles and plastic containers of all sizes such as milk cartons have all been used on my patio for pots. Some more unusual things I've used for containers are ceramic flu tiles, the tub from a wringer washing machine, an old hot water tank cut in half lengthwise (I gave the other half to my sis), baskets that had seen better days (lined with old vinyl tablecloths, and a hibachi2.

If you want some decorator pots but don't want to pay the price for glazed ceramic, I suggest you buy some plain clay pots and decorate them yourself. There are many ways to decorate clay pots. One of the easiest is to tie raffia under the rims and attach small dried or silk flowers. Pots can be spray painted or painted with a brush. Metallic paint contrasts wonderfully with the foliage of plants. You can paint geometric designs, stripes, polka dots, flowers, ivy - use your imagination. For plants grown for foliage rather than blooms, an assortment of clay pots painted in bright primary colours makes a great display. Use up your odds and ends of paint. Acrylic and enamel both work well. And a nice decorator effect can be achieved by painting or decorating the rims of your clay pots and saucers to match. By not painting the entire pot you retain the clay's ability to breathe.

You can also decorate inexpensive plastic pots. It is more difficult to paint them, but you can use needlework strips around the rims, add decals, glue on seashells, sunflower seeds, or pasta, or when all else fails wrap them in large pieces of aluminum foil.

When decorating your own pots remember that the pots and plants should not compete for attention. Plants with lots of blooms or striking foliage need simple pots. More drab plants like ivy need bright, splashy pots.

Here's one last tip for obtaining inexpensive containers. If you need a large clay or ceramic pot remember that the larger the pot the more difficult it is to ship. You will often find large pots for sale at garden centres with small chips or scratches. Look for imperfections, call them to the store's attention and ask for a discount. You will be successful most of the time. Then hide the defect with a trailing vine or turn the bad place to the wall.

For free mulch call a tree-trimming service. You will often be able to get wood chips and shredded leaves and bark just for the asking. It saves the company a trip to the landfill. Instead of filling plastic bags with leaves in the fall/autumn and setting them out for pickup, use the leaves for mulch. Grass clippings also make good mulch. Do you have pine trees? Use the pine needles to mulch the pathways in your vegetable garden.

Need fertilizer? Think manure. Contact local dairies and stables for a ready supply. Need topsoil? Buy it by the truckload rather than in those expensive small bags. If you can't use an entire load of manure or topsoil or mulch, then split it with a neighbour.

For an instant raised bed place an old tractor tyre in the desired location. Line the bottom with several layers of newspaper, fill with good soil and compost and plant. It's easy and your plants will love it.

Would you like a brick patio but can't afford good quality fired brick? Try alternating brick with other materials. Exposed aggregate concrete squares mix very well with brick and reduce the cost considerably.

Don't even think about buying plant labels. You can make your own. Cut up plastic bleach bottles or old miniblind slats into the desired sizes and write on them with a soft lead pencil. Or you can use small stones, washed clean. Write on them with a china marker and be sure to save the plastic labels from your store-bought plants. Scrub the writing off and remark them with a pencil or indelible pen.

Shop at moving sales and estate auctions for garden tools. You can often find tools in excellent condition at almost give-away prices.

In the vegetable garden you can use the small branches you have trimmed from your trees and shrubs as a pea fence. The peas don't care that they're free. For taller plants like pole beans and sugar snaps, you can use a variety of things for supports. Old fence wire can be curved into cages or 's' shapes and used as plant supports. If you know someone who grows bamboo, ask for the dead canes each year to create teepees. Longer tree limbs can be used as bean teepees. When all else fails, let your beans climb your corn stalks.

Speaking of corn, the Iroquois called corn, beans and squash the Three Sisters because they planted them together in their fields. Our recipe this week is for a wonderful chowder that combines these three staple vegetables.

Three Sisters Corn Chowder


  • 1 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 small butternut squash, peeled, halved, seeded, and cut into ¼ inch dice
  • I medium-sized all-purpose potato, peeled and diced
  • 2 ½ cups - 600ml, 20floz - vegetable stock
  • 1 ½ cups - 240g, 12oz - cooked pinto beans
  • 2 ¾ cups - 665g, 2lb 6oz - fresh or frozen corn kernels
  • 2 cups - 500ml, 16floz - milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until tender. Add the squash, potato and vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer until the vegetables are tender, 20 - 30 minutes.

Add the beans and 2½ cups of the corn and cook uncovered for 15 minutes longer. Stir in the milk and bring the heat up just to a simmer. Remove from the heat.

Transfer about 2 cups of the soup to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Stir the puree back into the chowder and season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls and garnish with the rest of the whole corn.

The Cranky Gardener


04.03.04 Front Page

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1Plant names capitalised for clarity.2A charcoal brazier.

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