>COST SAVING STRATEGIES FOR GARDENERS

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Gardening can be very expensive – or not. For those who have limited budgets, there are some ways to save costs by thinking “out of the box”. Here are a few ideas that I have discovered.
Tired of replacing clay pots that crack and plastic pots that break when weathered, try using simple galvanized buckets, spray paint the exterior sides, drill holes in the bottom, and you have a virtually indestructible 5 gal pot. This works for water gardens also, using a wash tub but with no drainage holes. With the cost of decorative looking plant containers being what they are, this is a much cheaper, yet still attractive way to display your potted plants. There is a rustic appeal to it as well.
Can’t remember plant names. Tired of plastic name plant tags breaking or names fading, try using old aluminum blinds – merely cut them into strips and label with a #2 pencil. They are weatherproof and the name will not wash off. It’s a good way to recycle as well. Another helpful way to remember plant names is to create a plant data base that you can refer to as necessary – no labels needed.
You can spend a small fortune on brand name potting soils, but I find the best way is to buy the cheaper soil ingredients at a local garden center and blend your own potting soil. I often use a 40 lb bag of compost and an equal amount of top soil. Do check the relative quality of each of these ingredients before buying. Once blended, if you can hold a handful, squeeze and it doesn’t compact, it will drain well, yet retain moisture, and grow most any plant well in a container.
Nursery plant prices have been increasing to where it costs a lot more to replace plants. Look into propagating some of your own plants, trading or swapping plants with other gardeners (e.g. at a Plant Swap or through garden clubs or with other garden acquaintances). We all end up with surplus plants that we can divide or otherwise share with others. Don’t overbuy for instant effect when buying a perennial that can be divided into multiple plants after one growing season. Often, commercial growers propagate and pot two rooted plants per container to ensure at least one survives. When buying a potted plant at a retail outlet, look for multiples that can be divided into two or more separate plants.
Organic gardeners save a lot of money by not purchasing and using toxic chemicals and fertilizers, but by focusing on composting and enriching garden soil naturally and dealing with insect and pesky weeds using many of the environmentally friendly methods. Texas AgriLife Extension calls it Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
Recycle pots: Reuse your pots until they can no longer be used. Nursery containers are not currently accepted for plastic recycling so offer them to a nursery – most of which will gladly accept them as it saves them money. Vice versa, if you need pots, ask your local nursery if they have a surplus of used pots they would like to get rid of. I did this for potting plants I propagated for a charitable plant sale. Wash out all used pots to reduce risk of transmitting disease organisms. Recycle your old potted plant soil back into your yard and garden .
Hand water everything. This way you can concentrate your watering to the root system and zone of each plant without wasting water. Automated systems are wasteful and wasted water is costly both environmentally and pocket book wise. Another cost saving, water wise thing to do is mulch your garden beds each spring with a fresh layer of ground hardwood mulch. Native plants may not require mulching as they are already adaptive to our climatic conditions.
Don’t buy or grow tender plants or non-adaptive plants unless you have a means to protect and grow them successfully year round. This requires researching and learning about plants before buying, rather than impulse buying at a local garden place. As a plant buyer, you must be knowledgeable of what you are getting as many sellers aren’t that knowledgeable about what they are selling. Know what a plant requires to grow well before purchasing it. Use of native plants always saves you money as they are durable and rarely need to be replaced.
Buy or grow perennials for seasonal color rather than annuals. Annuals are indeed beautiful but are less adaptive to our climate extremes, and are costly to buy and replace every season. Many plants sold at Nurseries are perennials in certain areas of the country but can only be grown as annuals in central Texas.
For garden décor, nothing looks more natural than native stone or artistic pieces of dead cedar wood. Without violating private property, there are many opportunities to gather these natural accents for your garden at no cost.
Try growing clusters of plants in a single container. A good example might be a small cactus garden in a shallow and wide container where many different and compatible plants are used and displayed artistically. Another method is to make colorful arrangements of thrillers, fillers, and spillers.  This technique used one upright “showoff” plant surrounded by smaller fill-in plants and bordered with cascading plants.  This saves money on pots and soil.
About now, you are probably thinking I’m out to put every horticultural enterprise out of business. Not at all! I shop for and buy new plants and supplies regularly, but I am merely pointing out some common sense ideas that can save the average gardener with limited resources, time and money as well as help our environment . I know there are many unique ideas that other gardeners have implemented that haven’t crossed my mind. As gardeners, we might want to look for new and innovative cost and labor saving ideas which require unconventional thinking.

>WEEDS – A DREADED PART OF GARDENING

“People garden in order to make something grow; to interact with nature; to share, to find sanctuary, to heal, to honor the earth, to leave a mark. Through gardening, we feel whole as we create our personal work of art upon our land – BUT nothing compares to what the Creator has already given us in nature.” (author unknown) 

 UNFORTUNATELY – THAT INCLUDES WEEDS!

The old saying that nothing is certain except “death and taxes” should add “weeds” to the list! So what is the difference between a native plant and a weed? Actually none, except the definition we give it which has everything to do with the location and proliferation  and little to do with the actual plant. The difference is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder. In England, Dandelion greens are savored in salads and the Dandelion was declared an endangered wildflower! Here, we would gladly export every one we have to England.  

 A weed by our definition is a plant that grows where it is not wanted. Furthermore, it reproduces and spreads, competes with other plants for light, nutrition, and space;, can harbor pests and diseases, and detracts from the desired aesthetic of the landscape. Actually, all of the above characteristics apply to native plants as well.

OK, enough doodling with definitions. There are plants out there that we just don’t want in our gardens or lawns. They produce seed which may lie dormant until soil is disturbed, are exposed to light, or await the correct temperature or moisture to germinate. They are windblown, spread by birds, or introduced by imported soil. The survival mechanisms of plants we call weeds are pretty impressive and nature has given them the means to survive even our greatest assault upon them. So, realistically, we can’t win – it’s a losing battle if your goal is to eradicate every weed in your garden or yard. We can only minimize the impact and continually do battle with these unwanted garden pests. 
The goal of any gardener should be to disrupt the life cycle of weed plants without damaging the environment. That last part is very important. It means, no use of chemicals that are harmful to other living things (plant and animal) or can be absorbed into our water resources and food supplies. Weed and Feed products are a commercial deception and should be taken off the market because the best time to treat weeds is not the best time to fertilize. Spreading weed killer over an entire lawn is overkill and increases the chance of dangerous toxic substance runoff. An example of this danger is the fact that the week killer Atrazine has been detected in 70% of Austin’s springs. Let’s focus on non-toxic and environmentally friendly ways to deal with weeds.
First, you must accept the fact that weeds are a fact of life and not get so upset every time you see one. After all, having a few weeds among grass is better than grass with bare spots as any plant with a root system helps prevent erosion by their very presence, and any bare spot will only provide fertile ground for more weeds to germinate. On a purely cost/benefit basis, the expenditure you would make on chemical weed killers and fertilizers to get a perfect looking lawn far exceeds the non-financial benefit you get from it, so why waste your money? Here in Central Texas, we have a lawn turf problem as there is no ideal grass suited for our particular environment.  They all allow for weed intrusion. In fact, one of the turf grasses commonly used, Bermuda, is an intruder and becomes a weed when it invades our garden beds. But there is one way to minimize and combat lawn weeds. I begin mowing my lawn at a low setting as soon as spring weeds and grass begin to grow in March. This prevents the weed plants from reaching seeding maturity until the warm weather turf grass begins actively growing. Once that occurs, the turf grass will normally choke out weeds naturally so at that time, I raise the mower to the prescribed height for the type of grass (e.g. 3” for St. Augustine) plus fertilize ONLY with an organic fertilizer to encourage the conquering turf grass to smother the weeds. It really works!
Another way is the physical removal of weeds from the lawn as they appear – hand pulling weeds regularly to keep them from getting out of control. It is best to do this following a rain or when the ground is soft. Some weeds have shallow fibrous roots and are easily pulled by hand, while others form tap roots (e.g. dandelion), for which the entire root must be removed, otherwise it will regenerate from the remaining root. I dispose all weeds that have flower heads or that have gone to seed and underground structures that could regenerate, placing them in the trash and avoid putting them in compost piles. It is OK to place them in lawn clipping bags for recycling into Dillo Dirt.  Of course, another environmentally friendly method of reducing weed control maintenance is to reduce your lawn area and replace it with xeriphytic landscaping. 

Now for the garden beds. The best method to control weeds is a good cover to prevent their growth such as a layer of hardwood mulch, decomposed granite or other inorganic ground covers, or use ground cover plants that will smother them out. Regular tilling of your soil disrupts weed growth cycles and helps reduce weed infestation when mulching is not possible. Anything that is created must be maintained which means any landscaped or garden beds need periodic weeding. Taking care to keep landscape plants healthy also helps them compete better against weeds. So, every time you go out to stroll through and admire your garden, be prepared to pull a weed or as many as you see along the way.  Actually, it takes a village to fight weed infestation. If you keep your area relatively weed free and your neighbors don’t,  they will be back in your turf soon.  Vice versa, by contrilling weeds, you are helping your neighbors as well.

The City of Austin and Texas AgriLife Extension have produced an excellent brochure with much more detailed information about common weeds found in Central Texas entitled, “Grow Green Earth Wise Guide to Weeds”. It can’t cover every kind of weed we find in our yards so further identification can be made by contacting the local AgriLife Extension office in your county. Knowing what the weed is and it’s characteristics helps in combatting them.  Quite frankly, I find weeds fascinating.   They are as tenacious at surviving as desert plants clinging to life in the dry, hot hostile regions of our country.