Digging for Dollars - Carolina Country

Digging for Dollars

How to save money in the garden

By George Weigel

Digging for Dollars

Plant prices have risen sharply over the past two years. So have the prices of insecticides, fertilizers, deer repellents, mulch, tools and other accessories gardeners use to keep their green investments alive. Even bagged dirt is no longer dirt-cheap. What’s a gardener on a tight budget to do? Fortunately, this is one pastime that lends itself well to lots of belt-tightening strategies.

Save on plant purchases

4 bulbs at 50 percent

Bulbs that are still unsold by late October are often marked down 50 percent or more.

You could pay full price at prime planting time like the majority of gardening consumers, or you could pay half or less with some bargain-sniffing strategies. Start by looking for markdowns on overstocked, out-of-bloom or past-prime plants. These are often perfectly healthy (just not attractive enough to fetch top dollar).

Four top savers are: perennials relegated to a bargain rack after they’ve finish blooming for the season; annuals and vegetables that are still viable but unsold after the spring rush; trees and shrubs that are misshapen markdowns but fixable via pruning and patience; and tulips, daffodils, and other spring-blooming bulbs that are often 50% off when unsold but still plantable by the end of October.

If you shop local, get on your favorite garden center’s loyalty program. These offer discounts, coupons, rewards and special sales to regular customers. While you’re at it, let local garden-center managers know you’re interested in plants they want to clear out. You might get a call before plants go on the clearance rack — and maybe even year-end freebies.

Bargains are sometimes possible through mail-order and online vendors, but expect the plants to be small and “bare root” — i.e. shipped with weight-saving packing material around the roots instead of soil. Coddle them in a pot for a year to maximize success.

Plant bargains also can be found from unconventional sources, including plant societies, Master Gardeners, libraries, public gardens, farmer’s markets, schools and garden clubs, all of which often hold plant-sale fund-raisers using divisions from members’ yards, locally started seedlings, and discounted greenhouse transplants.

You might also encounter plants at yard sales. These sometimes can be bargain-priced, dig-your-own gold mines. Just be careful you’re not buying someone else’s overly aggressive varieties.

Landscape companies are another overlooked plant resource. Landscapers routinely dig up healthy plants during renovations, simply because they’ve outgrown the space or a new homeowner doesn’t like them. They may let you salvage their dig-outs before they go to a dump.

Trim the plant budget

Wherever you buy plants, opt for less-expensive smaller sizes. Given patience and good growing conditions, a quart-sized perennial will end up at the same mature size as a gallon-sized one but at a significantly lower starting price.

Leaning small especially saves on trees, which can double in price for just two or three feet of additional height. Research has found that smaller transplant sizes usually establish faster and catch up to their bigger brethren within a few years.

Starting new plants from seed yields way more plants to the dollar than transplants. Vegetables and annual flowers are fairly easy to start from seed inside in winter. Basic workshop lights with fluorescent tubes are sufficient for growing seedlings, which usually need only about six weeks of inside growth before being ready to plant outdoors.

Even less expensive is planting seeds directly in the ground outside, bypassing the need for lights, pots, potting mix and such.

A third plant budget-stretcher is mining your own plants for expansion. Most perennial flowers can be dug and divided into fist-sized pieces after several years of growth, giving you free plants to use elsewhere.

Clumps of spring bulbs also can be dug and divided after their foliage browns in spring, and some shrubs will yield newbies if their “suckers” (roots that send up shoots) are dug and transplanted. Virginia sweetspire, summersweet, hydrangea, diervilla, kerria, lilac, bayberry, sweetshrub, sweetbox and forsythia are good sucker-transplant candidates.

Check with friends and neighbors to see if they’d like to trade divisions, which can yield free new varieties for your yard. New shrubs, trees, roses, and evergreens can be created by snipping four- to six-inch pieces off the tips of “mother plants” and sticking them into moist potting mix. That induces roots to grow from the buried cut ends, giving you a new “baby” copy of the plant.

This works for many annual flowers and tropicals, too.

If you’re spending too much on annual flowers (the ones planted anew each spring), save money by converting space to perennials (plants that come back year after year). Limit those $6 annuals to pots, hanging baskets and window boxes. Perennials cost more up front and don’t bloom as long as annuals, but the payback is usually three years or less. Some annuals, such as ageratum, celosia and cosmos, are good at “self-seeding,” meaning they come up on their own each spring from seed dropped by last year’s flowers.

This is a way to fill beds without any new expense and only limited work (i.e. removing seedlings you don’t want or transplanting self-sprouted seedlings where you do want them).

Save on your potted-plant budget by starting with fewer plants each season. With patience, pots of fewer premium-priced potted annuals will fill in eventually and cost less than tightly packed ones.

Another pot option is scavenging the yard for perennial flowers that you can dig and divide to use in pots. The best are ones with colorful foliage that add interest beyond the few weeks they’re in flower, such as coralbells, hosta, golden sedge, variegated liriope and ferns. Return the perennials to the ground in fall to overwinter and mine again next year.

A third pot money-saver is using “double-duty” plants. Most so-called “houseplants” (crotons, palms, snake plants, peace lilies, rubber plants, etc.) are tropical or sub-tropical species that do perfectly fine outside in summer and inside over winter.

Consider using plants you’ve bought as houseplants in summer pots, dressed up with coordinated annuals. Conversely, instead of discarding tropicals bought for summer pots at the end of the season, convert them into houseplants over winter.

Dividing perennial

Most perennial flowers can be dug and divided into fist-sized pieces after several years of growth, giving you free plants to use elsewhere.

Save on gardening products

The fastest way to save on gardening products is to cut out things that you  — and your plants — really don’t need.

Some possibilities: wound dressings for pruned trees (not necessary and sometimes counter-productive); leaf shine (a soft, damp cloth with dilute soap cleans dusty houseplant leaves); compost activator (a few shovelfuls of finished compost or soil adds decomposition microbes); moisture-holding gels for potted plants (research shows little to no water-saving benefit); landscape fabric (inhibits soil oxygen and traps moisture in poorly drained beds, plus weeds grow on top if you mulch over it), and tree fertilizer spikes (trees usually get the nutrients they need from soil, decomposing mulch, and/or fertilizer on the surrounding lawn).

Next is reducing the amounts you use, such as fertilizer in general.

Plants take up only the nutrients they need. Adding more doesn’t make them grow bigger or better and is a waste of money, plus is potentially polluting.

If plants are growing well, there’s usually no need to add anything. If they’re not, a soil test will tell if lack of nutrition is a culprit — along with exactly what nutrients are needed and in what amounts.


Many municipalities now collect leaves in fall and offer the resulting free or low-cost compost to residents the following year, saving on bagged or bulk purchases..

Extension offices and many garden centers offer inexpensive DIY soil-test kits to help you spend fertilizer dollars wisely.

Bug and disease sprays are another potential cost-saver. Some gardeners routinely use pesticides “just in case,” both wasting money and potentially killing beneficial insects that would’ve controlled pest bugs naturally, and at no charge (see “A Win for the Good Guys” on page 34).

Most bugs and diseases target only specific plants, and much of the damage is temporary or cosmetic anyway. Consider products only when particular plants are under threat from intolerable or potentially fatal damage — and when there are no better alternatives.

Sometimes, free or less expensive alternatives are available for other garden products. For example, an index finger stuck a few inches into the soil can give an accurate read on soil moisture versus investing in a soil-moisture meter.

Finger as a water meter

An index finger stuck a few inches into the soil can give an accurate read on soil moisture versus investing in a soil-moisture meter.

Expensive potting mix can be stretched by mixing your own from bulk ingredients or by “refreshing” last year’s saved mix with half new mix (assuming last year’s mix wasn’t bug- or disease-ridden).

Many municipalities now collect leaves in fall and offer the resulting free or low-cost compost to residents the following year, saving on bagged or bulk purchases. Ditto for tree companies, which often are willing to drop loads of chipped tree branches in home driveways, saving themselves hauling/dumping fees.

Even costly hardscaping materials such as bricks, stone, patio furniture, garden ornaments, and fencing are sometimes available free or heavily discounted from neighbors advertising them through local social-media channels.

Lots of household-waste items are fair game for repurposing in the garden, including storage tubs that morph into flower containers, cut-off soda bottles that serve as plant protectors, and butter tubs that become seedling pots.

The opportunities for saving in the garden are vast, so this year get out and get growing — without breaking the bank.

About the Author

George Weigel is author of five gardening books and is a retired Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist who specialized in garden design for homeowners.

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