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The Thrifty Gardener – The Bowtanical Garden

seed starting in toilet paper tubes

By Beverley Sheridan – From the Jan/Feb 2024 Bowest’ner

The spiraling cost of… please fill in the blank! It is an almost daily news item and one which has many Calgarians looking for ways to adjust their budgets to make their hard-earned dollars stretch further. Gardeners have not been spared in our recent escalating price hikes. Are there ways to garden in a money-conscious way and still enjoy the food, flowers and stress relief that gardening brings? In a word, yes. There are many things you can do to spend less and get more from your garden.

Growing some of your own food will save you money, but all gardens require inputs on the front end whether you garden to enjoy a food crop or just having a flower garden that provides wonderful physical and mental health benefits. As one of my gardening friends once commented, “one needs to think outside the pot” and find ways to share, upcycle, borrow, and swap those things you need to start and maintain your garden.

One of the best ways to get more bang for your buck is to not spend those bucks in the first place. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination but here are some of my favourites:

Get Free (or nearly free) Plants

Starting your own plants from seed is easy, even if you lack a greenhouse and only have a few window sills. A packet of seeds and a small bag of soilless starter mix will produce many plants, likely more than you need for your own use. In my late winter enthusiasm, I always start more seedlings than I can use and those extras can then be given or traded with my neighbours or fellow gardeners. Get to know the gardeners in your neighbourhood — you will find they are a generous lot, and they usually have extra plants they do not want consigned to the compost bin.

Calgary has several garden clubs and community gardens and many offer a plant swap, plant share or sale in the spring. Even if you do not have any plants to swap, those plants on offer can usually be had for nothing or only a couple of dollars. You may also find vegetable and flower seeds at these events which people are often giving away.

During the peak of the growing season nurseries or garden centres always have a discount shelf for plants that look rough but are still viable. With careful selection, and a little TLC, some of these can be revived and make excellent additions to the garden at a fraction of the list price. Also, be sure to check these same locations at the end of the season as there are usually lots of trees, shrubs and perennials on clearance sale that, if planted immediately, will do just fine.

If you have an established garden, the easiest way to get free plants is to divide and replant what you already have, and to collect your own seed over the course of the growing season. There are lots of resources online, or through our local library, that can guide you in how to dig and divide perennials and correctly collect, dry, and store seeds for use next season.


Vintage laundry tub planters

Tools and Consumables

Garden tools can be expensive, and some of them usually sit unused at the back of the garage. Don’t buy your tools new as using gently used tools will save a bunch of cash and potentially keep them out of the landfill. Charity shops, garage sales, flea markets and online markets are great places to pick up tools for free or at minimal cost. Ask your neighbors if you can borrow tools, they may even give you unused tools that have been gathering dust.

Many tasks in the garden require heavy-duty tools that will make the job easier, but may only be used a limited number of times. Don’t buy them — rent them from the local DIY Store for the few hours needed. You may also be able to borrow or share some of these tools with neighbours and other gardeners. Putting out the word for what you are looking for on a social media site may help you locate what you need, and may cost you only a coffee and snacks with the owner.

My garden uses a great deal of compost and mulch to keep it happy. Buying these consumables in bulk really saves, and finding these products for free saves even more. Check with your gardening friends to see what they need and place a group bulk buy purchase. Leaves are gold for gardeners and best of all they are free! They are excellent mulch during the winter months and will add nutrients to your soil as they break down. I use all my own leaves to mulch my flower beds as well as any I can get from my neighbours’ yards.

Reuse, Repurpose and Upcycle

I have plastic seed trays and pots in my garage that I have used for over 30 years to start my plants each spring. There are lots of ways to save money by reusing what you already have as well as repurposing items you can easily find for free. Plastic bottles and containers can be cut up for pots and protective cloches. I have a friend who makes her own seedling pots from newspaper and toilet paper cardboard inner rolls. Get creative and upcycle household items for use as planters. Wooden wine crates, or even drawers from an old dresser, make imaginative and striking places to plant salad crops or interesting annuals. Root around in the attic or a cluttered closet, you may be surprised as to what can be used as a planter or for unexpected garden art.

Gardening does not have to be expensive. Once you get started you will soon become a pro at identifying ways to save. 

seed packets
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