Make gardening cheaper

**FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES**  Geranium plugs are seen Jan. 26, 2006 in New Market, Va. Plant plugs like these wild geraniums in a natural garden in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley turn quickly from sprouts to blooms. Plugs are cheaper to buy and are more likely to mature than are seeds -- particularly those from ornamental grasses.     (AP Photo/Dean Fosdick)

**FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES** Geranium plugs are seen Jan. 26, 2006 in New Market, Va. Plant plugs like these wild geraniums in a natural garden in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley turn quickly from sprouts to blooms. Plugs are cheaper to buy and are more likely to mature than are seeds -- particularly those from ornamental grasses. (AP Photo/Dean Fosdick)

Many families grow their own fruits and vegetables so they'll have appetizing, disease-free food at low cost. Few things are recession proof, however, including gardening.

Prices are climbing for fertilizer, pesticides and other supplies as we head into a new planting season.

Yet there are many ways to harvest higher savings. That includes starting earlier with planning and budgeting.

"People don't think about spring until they feel the warmer temperatures, but that's way too late to begin a complex planting project," said Jay Graham, who owns and operates Graham Landscape Architecture in Annapolis, Md.

Most plants should be in the ground by early spring so their roots are developed before facing the stresses of the summertime heat, he said.

Property owners also should commit themselves to a realistic budget, whether they do it themselves or hire someone.

Plugs, or small-size seedlings, can be an important part of the design mix, particularly if there is a lot of ground to cover. These starter plants grow quickly, especially the grasses, which will spread and take over on hillsides, and along driveways, sidewalks, curbs and other hard-to-handle areas.

"Plugs of native perennial flowers in meadows are more reliable than seed," Graham said.

Landscaping doesn't require that everything be done at once, he noted.

"Take one corner one year, another corner another year," Graham said. "Landscaping is a constant revisiting. It involves you. It pulls you in."

Other tips that combine economy with ecology:

- Compost. Save big bucks by recycling kitchen wastes rather than paying for commercial fertilizers.

"Create a living soil. Many plants will double and triple in size in their first season with compost," said Tracy DiSabato-Aust, author of "50 High-Impact, Low-Care Garden Plants" (Timber Press, 2008). "They'll be less prone to disease and insects, as well."

- Select plants that reseed. "Choose aggressive, not invasive plants," DiSabato-Aust said.

- Dividing clumps of old perennials will greatly multiply your number of available plants. Many established stocks can be transformed when dug up and thinned to their original size. The divisions can be replanted in their original locations or used in new beds. You also can take "slips" in late fall or winter by cutting stems from mature plants and then soaking them in water or moist potting soil until they develop a root network. Transplant them outdoors once the frost danger has passed.

- Select high-impact blooms that grow large or wide, requiring fewer new plants to buy for borders or other high visibility areas.

- Shop around for drought-resistant plants. "You'll be thinking environmentally along with saving time," she said. A layer of mulch around plants will help conserve water. A few rain barrels will help reduce municipal water bills.

- Save money on garden tools and yard art. Use a child's wagon to haul plants around. Add a rural mailbox to the garden so small gadgets can be stored where they're most needed. Old wheelbarrows, barbecue kettles and hollowed out stumps make effective and eye-catching planters. Most such items can be purchased inexpensively at yard sales or discount stores.

- Reduce spending on bird food by planting flowers with large seed heads (such as sunflowers) or by spreading cracked corn around for ground-foraging critters.

- Organize plant swaps, seed exchanges and barter meets. Buy flowers in bulk and then share the wealth with other gardeners.

"These are great social things that also help save money," DiSabato-Aust said. "When you see a plant coming up year after year, you remember where you got it."

- Contact Dean Fosdick at deanfosdick@netscape.net.

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