Originally published Nov. 16, 2016
By Valerie Easton, former Natural Gardener writer
THRIFTINESS IS PART of a gardener’s DNA. From pickling and preserving to passing plants back and forth with neighbors, sharing and making do are traditions.
And it’s a newly modern concept, for when we consider the ecological cost of herbicide runoff, or plastic nursery pots going into landfills, we realize frugal gardening is about more than saving money. Not that there’s anything wrong with saving money.
It can be a creative act to make a beautiful garden on a shoestring. Big, expensive gardens can be less personal and engaging than smaller-scale, atmospheric gardens that more closely reflect the tastes and quirkiness of the gardener who made them.
Begin by being realistic about your garden’s size, soil, microclimates and outlook. It’s a losing battle, as well as an expensive one, to fight against nature. Remember all those tropical-esque gardens around here a decade ago? Not so much anymore.
Whether starting from scratch or carving out a new path or patio, hardscaping is a big-ticket item. Do you really need to use stone to floor your garden? Concrete pavers create pleasing geometric patterning, and you can probably lay them yourself. Some pavers resemble brick or stone, while others look like the sturdy slabs of concrete they are.
Gravel is a crunchy, casual-looking material that makes for an inexpensive and permeable lawn replacement, driveway, terrace or patio. It serves as a heat-reflecting mulch, and you can garden in it. It’ll need some weeding, a small price to pay for an environment suited to growing sedum and other heat- and drought-loving plants.
Creating privacy can get pricey. Hog-wire panels framed in wood are low-cost fencing alternatives that look simple and modern. Leave the panels unplanted where you want to preserve sightlines, and cover them in vines where you want privacy. The squares, made of steel rods galvanized with zinc coating, serve as a sturdy scaffold for climbing plants of all kinds.
If you prefer the heft of walls, gabion cages filled with rocks, bricks or concrete rubble are ancient solutions that look both natural and ruggedly modern in the garden. They can function as privacy screens, retaining walls, pillars or even seating when built bench-height and topped with stone or wood.
Items that are handmade, old and weathered add interest and a sense of history to the garden. Half-whiskey barrels and feed troughs with holes drilled in the bottom make relatively inexpensive large-scale containers. I’ve seen industrial-sized spools turned on their side as tables, and old concrete culverts used as effective retaining walls. The world offers up lots of used materials just waiting to be creatively repurposed for the garden.
Plants, with their desire to grow larger and reproduce, cooperate with the budget-minded gardener. Buy small, good-quality shrubs and trees, and they’ll surprise you with how fast they fill in and take off. Trade seeds, offsets, slips, freshly divided perennials or newly dug bulbs with gardening friends.
A packet of seeds remains inexpensive, and many vegetables, herbs and flowers — like poppies, nasturtiums, dill, chive, sweet peas, sunflowers, beans, peas and lettuces — grow easily from seed sown directly into the soil. No grow lights or greenhouse needed.
Most important, practice the mantra of right plant, right place. Choose plants, including natives, that will thrive naturally in the situations your garden offers up, and you’ll save on water, fertilizer, soil amendments and frustration. If you plant in harmony with nature, your garden will require far less intervention, saving time as well as money.