Patience, ingenuity and a sprinkling of hair is the formula for pruning gardening costs this spring.
As the weather takes a turn for the better and spring fast approaches, green thumbs around the country are starting to itch.
If you are on a tight budget but want to grow your own food or add a bit of colour to the garden, it can be done without digging yourself into a financial hole.
While there are some expenses involved with setting up a garden, the biggest cost is time. The trick is knowing what to spend on and what to go without, so you can reap the benefits of what you sow.
Seeds v seedlings
NZ Gardener editor Jo McCarroll is an advocate for starting from seed. The econonic benefits are obvious, she says, as you get about 100 seeds from a $4 packet. If planted right, they can have a germination rate of about 90 per cent, she says.
If you buy a punnet of seedlings for $2 to $6, the job has been started for you but it will only hold about six plants. You can try and get free plants from friends, by collecting your own seeds from existing plants or by growing woody herbs such as rosemary from cuttings, McCarroll says.
Kings Plant Barn retailer Ryan Markovina says the number of plants you get from your seeds depends on how well you look after them. That means good soil nutrients and shelter.
Horticulture graduate and avid deck gardener Ross McDonald also plants seeds. The 25-year-old has been growing stuff he can eat since he was 13 and now has a mixture of herbs, fruit trees and veggies in pots on his Auckland deck. He buys seeds off Trade Me but says it's important to buy from a reputable seller as there is the chance bad-quality seeds won't germinate.
You can visit a garden centre or nursery to buy your plants and if you're experienced and know what you're looking for, some plant centres have online purchasing options.
Buying vegetables v growing your own
The holy grail of gardening: Is it cheaper to plant your own vegetables or just pay supermarket prices?
McCarroll says it's "absolutely possible" to save money by growing your own but you have to be patient. "You can have it fast or you can have it cheap."
It's a good opportunity to grow varieties you can't find at the supermarket but if you don't have the space to grow a lot, stick to what you really like, she says.
McDonald likes to grow things he can eat but it doesn't always work out cheaper. Cabbage and broccoli take up a lot of ground space and are cheap at the supermarket, he says.
However, tomatoes are worth the trouble. They grow upwards so only take up vertical space and each plant can bear several fruit that can be picked successively, McDonald says. You need to trellis tomatoes but this can be done with any sturdy piece of wood and some old material. Herbs are also a good bet as they are resilient and low maintenance, he says.
Small v big garden
If you live in the middle of the city or have a small backyard, how do you avoid spending a fortune on pots and potting mix?
Markovina says it's important to use potting mix if you're growing your plants in containers as it allows for proper drainage. It costs around $13 for a 40-litre bag of potting mix, but is a necessary cost. If you're willing to spend a little more, seed-raising mix is one better as it's easier for small seeds to push through and contains fertiliser and fungicide. You can grow some plants, such as strawberries, straight in the bag of potting mix.
McDonald says the most important thing with a small garden is ensuring your plants have access to the sun.
If you are really pushed for space and want to split the costs, you could branch out and try a communal garden, McCarroll says. As long as there are clear responsibilities and expectations, communal gardens can work well, she says.
Alternatively, if you have spare space, fruit or nut trees are big and will produce for years.
Dedicated asparagus or berry beds are also a great way to use space and in the case of asparagus can produce for about 20 years. Outdoor gardeners will need to help their plants along with compost. You can pick up a 40-litre bag for about $5 but you will need a few of those.
Make it yourself
If you're looking to prune costs, you can make your own soil or compost from things around the house. To create a growing mix, just layer green and brown material, McCarroll says. Green material includes anything rich in nitrogen like grass clippings, hedge clippings, seaweed, kitchen veggie scraps and wilted comfrey leaves. Brown materials include anything rich in carbon, such as pea straw, hay, fallen leaves, shredded newspaper, and twigs and sticks.
Make a pile alternating layers of green and brown material, sprinkle each layer with blood & bone fertiliser and spritz with the hose. Leave the pile for a few months then turn it - you should have crumbly, rich growing mix and it's dirt cheap.
Markovina says if you want extra nutrients in your soil, you can add used coffee grinds, ash from the fire, hair from your pets and clippings from your own tresses. Mixing unwashed hair into soil is a good way of keeping away weeds, rodents, deer, and slowly releasing nutrients into the soil.
If you're really keen, you can collect horse manure to add into the mix, Markovina says. Any additions to the soil should be mixed in a couple of months before planting.
McCarroll says you can also make up your own organic sprays to keep away the bugs and diseases.
Baking soda is an essential ingredient in most home-made sprays. Milk powder is a good fungicide, and a chilli-and-garlic mix keeps away aphids.
It's easy to fall into the trap of planting too soon. McCarroll says the weather is starting to heat up but if you put your tomatoes in now and a cold snap comes, they will be unlikely to shoot up.
Spring fever is also an issue with keen, green gardeners, she says.
Some people sow hundreds of seeds in one weekend at the start of spring, then all the plants are ready for harvest at the same time. It's best to plant across a few weekends so you don't end up with one mega salad weekend in the middle of summer.
McDonald says what you get back from your garden depends on how much work you put in and plant maintenance is crucial to the end result. Spend time researching or asking for advice on your plants, so if something goes wrong you can fix it early, he adds.
So there's the tops tips for gardening on a budget - time, patience and perserverance. Most of us can afford all those.
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