1. Be a savvy shopper.
Buy shrubs, trees, and perennials at the end of the season when they’re up to 75 percent cheaper than normal. Fall is the perfect time to plant, too, because warm days and cool nights promote root growth. Woody plants will gain a season’s maturity when planted in autumn. Buy seeds and store them in plastic bags in the refrigerator to keep them fresh. Also, shop local garden club, plant society, and Master Gardener sales for a variety of plants and even bagged compost at low prices.
2. Start your own annuals from seed.
Not only will you save plenty, but you’ll also end up with healthier plants and the varieties you want. Marigolds, zinnias, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers are easy to grow in a sunny window. Save even more by seeding them in used fast-food foam or plastic cartons that have drainage holes punched in the bottom and are filled with potting soil. Transplant seedlings into the garden when they have two sets of true leaves. They experience less transplant shock and plant failure than when they’re larger.
3. Invest in free mulch.
Apply shredded leaves, homemade compost, pine needles, torn newspapers, or grass clippings in a 2- to 4-inch layer. Mulch retards weed growth, cuts water needs, and adds nutrients to the soil. Use grass clippings from only lawns that have not been treated with weed killers. Pesticides stay in grass blades and may harm mulched plants. The same goes for compost made from treated grass clippings.
4. Terminate slugs and snails cheaply.
For container gardens, coat pot rims liberally with petroleum jelly—the slimy creatures can’t crawl through it. Scatter sharp sand, coffee grounds, or pine needles around plants in the garden. The sharp edges on prickly mulches rip slugs’ and snails’ tender undersides, so they tend to avoid them.
5. Slay weeds with white vinegar.
Fill a spray bottle with inexpensive white vinegar. A thorough dousing with the acidic vinegar combined with four hours of sunlight will kill most weeds. Stubborn weeds may need a second application. Like all nonselective herbicides, vinegar doesn’t distinguish between desirable plants and weeds—so use it on weeds that grow between paving stones and in sidewalk joints where it’s unlikely you’ll accidentally spray it on desirable plants. If you miss your target, simply wash with a steady stream of water for about 30 seconds.
6. Pick frugal plants.
If you choose disease-resistant and drought-tolerant varieties, you won’t need to baby them with expensive pesticides, extra fertilizer, and constant water. Roses that drop diseased leaves, vegetables with disease defense bred into them, and flowers with hairy or fleshy leaves (which require less water and survive in full sun) are all money and work savers. Lambs’ ears and sedum, for instance, will do nicely in full sun.
7. Give ’em garbage.
Instead of throwing away coffee grounds, tea bags, overripe bananas, and other natural kitchen scraps, mix them with yard and garden waste in your compost bin. The compost does double duty as a nutrient boost and protective mulch for plants. Never add household chemicals, bones, dairy products, meats, or fats to your compost. Also, kitchen scraps will turn to compost more quickly if you chop them into small pieces.
Doreen Howard, a garden writer and speaker, has been a thrifty gardener for over 25 years in every USDA Hardiness Zone higher than 3.