Penny-Wise Gardening

The plants were sad and sickly.  The sign said “Reduced!”  How could I resist 25¢ pansies or $1 coneflowers or a big viburnum for only $5?  Did I make a smart decision?  Maybe.

Everyone loves a bargain.  No one wants to spend more money than necessary to achieve a beautiful garden. Let’s explore some easy ways to save money.

Know Thyself

A carload of bargain plants is wasted if you don’t have the time and energy to get them planted. Know your limits before getting carried away.  

If you can’t get everything planted before winter clamps down, you have some options.  Many plants will go dormant in a cool basement. Barely moisten the plants from time to time, but don’t keep wet to avoid rot.  

You can also “heel in” the plants outside to hold them over the winter.  Dig a trench to hold the pots, and lightly backfill with dirt. Mulch over the pots with straw or light garden debris.  Come springtime, your dormant plants should come alive and be ready to plant.

Know Thy Plants

Bargain plants can be a great way to fill a garden. The photo above shows a woodland area planted with bargain plants. But know what to look for before making that purchase.  The plant may look shabby, but look for signs of healthy growth.  The shabby bits can be cut away.  Also check the root ball if possible.  If all you see are brown, shriveled bits, don’t waste even your 25¢.  You want some healthy, plump roots, which will help the plant recover from its distress. Consider re-potting the plant into fresh soil, moving it to a large pot if it's rootbound. Keep it in bright shade until it is putting out new growth before planting it in the ground. Keep it watered unless rainfall is sufficient.

Whether a bargain or not, the wrong plant for your garden is a waste of money.  Small and cute planted in front of a window can grow to be large and overwhelming in a few years.  Getting rid of a healthy-but-overgrown plant has wasted both your time and money. The same is true if you’ve put a plant into the wrong conditions.  Putting a flowering plant needing full sun in a shady bed will not give you the pleasure you planned on.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking it will be fine.  So know it before you grow it.

Before cutting down an overgrown or misplaced plant, consider moving it.  Surprisingly large plants can be moved successfully.  First prepare the new hole for the plant.  Dig it bigger than you think and amend the soil only if truly necessary.  Next dig as large a root ball around the plant as you can, using your shovel to cut and loosen roots under the plant.  Have a tarp ready, and with a helper, lift/slide the plant onto the tarp. Drag or carry the plant to its new home, placing it at about the same level it was.  Fill in, water thoroughly, and consider a weak application of “starter” fertilizer, which is high in phosphorus for root development.  Monitor through the growing season, but don’t overwater, since its root system has been impaired.

Consider starting your own vegetables and annuals to save money.  Other gardeners love to give away extra seeds.  Use an egg carton (the lid makes a great tray underneath), yogurt cups, Styrofoam cups, or similar.  Punch a hole in the bottom, add lightweight soil mix, and sow according to the package.  Add a sunny window or bright lights when the plants come up, keep gently watered until time to plant outside.  Let them get used to being outside (called “hardening off”) before you put them in the ground.   Start them off in the shade, then gradually let them spend more time in the sun.

Know Thy Place

Before deciding what to plant, understand the conditions of your yard.  Proper planning will save you more money than anything you can do.  

Start with a soil test.  If you are planting vegetables in one area and ornamentals in another, get separate tests. You can pick up free test kits at your local Virginia Cooperative Extension Office.  The testing is done at Virginia Tech for a nominal fee.  The Cooperative Extension Service can also help you interpret the results and understand what corrections would be helpful.

Observe your site conditions.  How much sun do you really get in each area?  Most flowering plants and vegetables need at least six hours of full sun to do well.  What areas get a lot of wind?  Some plants need a sheltered spot.  Where are the low areas in your yard?  Since cold air will pool in these pockets, a marginally hardy plant may not make it through the winter.  By spending some time understanding your yard, you can make better decisions about what to plant.

Know Thy Nuture

Once you have the right plant in the right place, you’ll save time and money caring for it properly.  Every plant has its own needs, but some basic principles apply to all plants.

Be smart about watering.  A general rule of thumb for garden plants and vegetables is about one inch of water per week. So water only if Mother Nature doesn’t help.  Water in the morning or evening to avoid evaporation.  Use a water-wise system, such as drip irrigation or soaker hoses. For individual plants, you can punch holes in the neck of large, capped soda bottles, cut off the bottoms, and bury them upside down next to the plant almost up to the cut-off end.  Fill the bottle as needed for a slow-release way of watering a particular plant.

Be smart about fertilizing.  More is not better.  Over-fertilizing can harm a plant, can cause run-off into our water supply, and wastes money.

Mulch the right amount.  Mulch keeps the soil cooler, slows evaporation so that you can water less, and discourages weeds.  But whether you prefer hardwood mulch, pine needles, or chopped leaves, use no more than 2 – 3 inches.  Piling mulch higher than that can obstruct rainwater and can damage surface roots. Save money by using only the amount you need.  And never pile mulch against the trunks of trees and shrubs.  No mulch volcanoes!  Make a ring around the tree, keeping the mulch away from the trunk.

Don’t ignore signs of distress.  Better to correct the problem than replace the plant.  If needed, get help figuring out what’s wrong.  In the Roanoke Virginia area, call the Extension Service Help Desk at 540-776-7178, talk with a knowledgeable person at your local garden center, or hire a garden coach for an hour consultation.  Fix the problem; don’t repeat it.

So, as for those bargain plants I love to buy?  I’ve made some good decisions and some poor choices.  I have a woodland area completely “furnished” with end-of-season bargain plants, with great results.  But I also have some plants that never found a proper home.  An impulse purchase on sale, they weren’t suitable for the place I envisioned.  So be penny-wise, not plant-foolish.

Sharon Burnham

Will this plant survive and thrive?  Time will tell.

This mulch volcano has severely damaged this tree.

Think small: Planting tiny seeds in the small space given you can change the whole world or, at the very least, your view of it.

Linus Mundy

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