Gardening on a Shoestring

In his book The $64 Tomato, William Alexander chronicles his quest for the perfect garden at the expense of his sanity and much of his money. In these difficult economic times, gardening, especially vegetable gardening, is receiving newfound interest. But you don't have to break the bank to have a great garden this year.

Garden centers and catalogs all want to sell you the latest and greatest garden gadgets that promise you the perfect garden. But if one of your reasons to garden, particularly to vegetable garden, is to save money on food costs, buying special garden gadgets will quickly break your budget.

With a little creativity and ingenuity, many common household items can be useful in the garden in place of more expensive specialty gadgets at a fraction of the price. As Spring returns to central Illinois, consider the following ideas for preparing and planting your garden:

  • Good gardens begin with good soil. Composting is a great way to generate rich soils in your garden, but tending a large compost pile may be intimidating. Start small, using a partially buried open-top cardboard box in a corner of the garden in which to layer yard waste and kitchen scraps. The refuse will decompose within a year or two and so will most of the box.
  • When deadheading, weeding, or cleaning up the garden, deposit trimmings into a paper bag recycled from a store or fast-food outlet. Bury the filled bag in the garden for on the spot composting.
  • If you already have a compost pile, you know that finished compost will usually still have some large pieces left in it. To sift out these large pieces before using the compost in your garden, use an old tennis racket, or one of the grids from an old box fan.
  • Adding kitchen scraps and yard waste to the compost pile is old news. But lots of household items can also go into the compost pile, such as: shredded junk mail, cotton balls, tissues, paper towels, paperback books, wine corks, pizza boxes, and tea bags. Do not compost items that have been saturated with toxic cleaners or non-biodegradable materials.
  • Coffee grounds are a great source of organic material for the compost pile. But caffeine in the grounds may also deter slugs from your hostas. Spread the grounds about an inch deep around individual plants.
  • Everyone is in a hurry to get their frost tender plants out as early as possible, to be the first tomato or dahlia on the block. Create your own mini "water wall" greenhouse by using old milk jugs. Fill empty milk jugs with water, and place them in a 12-inch circle around the area to be planted. There should be no space between the jugs. Wait a few days to allow the water in the jugs to absorb the sun's heat and warm the soil around it. Plant seedlings of warm-weather loving plants in the center of the circle. The plants should tolerate light frosts using this system-- if freezing weather threatens, cover the top of the circle with a cloth to hold heat in.
  • Old metal knitting needles have many uses in the garden. To deter cats and birds from a newly-seeded area of the garden, place a few knitting needles around the edge, and use scrap yarn to zig-zag between the needles, creating a spider web like structure an inch or two above the soil. Cats and birds will not tread on it, for fear of becoming tangled in it.
  • Have trouble keeping your rows straight and spacing consistent in the garden? Use a section of wire fencing with a four or six inch grid for help. Lay the section down flat in the garden and follow it for either straight line or evenly spaced block plantings.
  • Clean bleach and detergent bottles make great scoops for potting soil and fertilizers. Cut off the bottom and part of the side, leaving the handle intact. Leave the cap on to prevent your scoop from leaking.
  • Dragging hoses through the yard can wreak havoc on new plantings. Commercially available hose guides are expensive-- consider using an old length of broomstick or chair leg with a tennis ball on the end to protect people from injury. Or use a section of old curtain rod with a fancy finial on the end. Old doorknobs mounted on metal rods are also attractive.

Don't be afraid to use household items creatively in the garden, just keep in mind a rule of thumb: "If you wouldn't put it in your mouth or let it touch your skin, you probably shouldn't put it in your garden."