Gardening: a big return on a small investment

Feb. 25, 2013 @ 08:56 AM

Gardening and landscaping offer big returns on our investment of time and energy. Being outdoors in the fresh air, connecting with nature, burning calories, harvesting wonderful vegetable and flowers, and increasing our property value are a few of the ways we are rewarded for digging in the dirt. It is an extra bonus when we can do these activities for the least amount of money using items we recycle or already have around the house. Here's a few strategies to help with your garden budget.

Make your own fertilizer. Grass clippings, autumn leaves, and food scraps can be turned into nature's best fertilizer - compost. Wood ash from the fireplace is a great source of phosphorus, potassium and several trace elements. Sprinkle the ash directly on the garden soil or add them to your compost pile to help neutralize high acidity.  Used coffee and tea grounds can also be used to add nitrogen to the garden. Sprinkle the grounds  around plants before rain or watering or add to the compost pile. Coffee filters and tea bags break down rapidly during composting. To save time, fertilize at the same time you water by making a gentle, fast-acting liquid fertilizer.  Place about a half-pound can of coffee grounds or finished compost in a five-gallon bucket of water. Let the mix sit outdoors for six to twelve hours, stirring occasionally, then use immediately. To add extra iron, minerals and carbohydrates to feed your soils microorganisms to your liquid fertilizer, stir in a 1/4 cup of molasses.

Save on water. Whether you are paying a municipal water bill or pay for the electricity to pump water from a well as we do, any water not falling from the sky is an expense. Capture that free water with rain barrels. Deliver water effectively and efficiently by making your own inexpensive (and portable) drip irrigation using recycled plastic milk jugs. Punch 2 or 3 very small holes in the bottom of the jugs and place them next to plants. Fill the jugs with water and they will slowly water your plants all day. Add leaf mulch to conserve the water you use in the garden.

Grow your own plants from seeds. A packet of seeds that costs $2-4 can yield up to 50 plants. If you choose heirloom or open-pollinated seed varieties you can save seed for next year to stretch the seed budget even further. Choosing disease resistant and drought tolerate varieties saves money on water and expensive disease management products. Leftover seed can be viable for many seasons if care is taken to keep the seed cool and dry. Another way stretch your plant dollar is to find a local garden club or horticultural society that holds seed and plant swaps.

Make safe and effective pest management products. For example, if aphids are your challenge, make a garlic spray concentrate with common kitchen items. Chop two cloves of garlic and combine with two tablespoons of cooking oil. Let the mixture sit for at least 24 hours in a lidded container, shaking often. I use a recycled pill bottle for the garlic oil. To finish the concentrate, add two cups of warm water and one tablespoon of liquid soap. I use a recycled vinegar jug to store the concentrate. Make sure to label the container with the name and date and store in a cool area. When you are ready to use your garlic spray, add two tablespoons concentrate to a one quart spray bottle of water and spray the tops and undersides of plant leaves. Making pest specific recipes using herbs and items from our kitchen cabinet will be covered in a future article.

Gardening tools can be a major investment. Protect your investment by caring for your tools throughout the season. This sometimes mean just keeping up with where they are! We spray paint the wooden handles on our garden tools in bright colors to not only protect them from the weather but also to make them easy to locate when they have been left around the garden. It's much less expensive than buying a new tool to replace a lost one or one that was run over accidently.

Consider losing the lawn. Lawns require lots of water, fertilizer and fuel for regular mowing. Let's say it takes an average of 4 hours a week to mow, water and maintain a lawn. Over 8 months, that's 128 hours . Eliminate 20 percent of your lawn by replacing it with groundcovers, flower beds, groups of shrubs, pathways and sitting areas and you earn 25 hours of freedom from lawn maintenance. Replace the lawn with a small garden and you get produce!


• Mary Roberts and Ray Tarlton are owners and managers of  Windcrest Farm, a USDA Certified Organic farm and greenhouse in Monroe, NC . Visit for more information about plants, produce and classes.