March 28, 2007 / 3:43 PM / in 11 years

Finance: How does your garden money grow?

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Spring is in the air, along with countless advertisements from garden centers, lawn-care services and hardware stores. It’s easy -- take it from one who knows -- to spend so much on your garden that your per-tomato costs rival the highest gourmet market prices.

But gardening can save you money, too, if you approach it in a smart way. There’s some evidence that gardeners are doing just that: A record number of people are gardening, but they are cutting what they spend, according to the National Gardening Association. In 2005, the last year for which figures are available, the average gardening household spent $387 on lawn and garden activities -- 13 percent less than in 2004.

Here’s how to stretch your $387 as far as possible.

-- Grow stuff that’s expensive to buy. Tomatoes and squash are nice, but when yours are ripe, so are everyone else’s and you can buy them cheap. Concentrate on the unusual: hot peppers, Asian eggplant, yellow tomatoes, red roses that never come cheap.

-- Landscape with herbs. They’re pretty; they’re easy to grow, they are edible and useful in craft projects. Four basil plants will give you a freezer full of pesto. Next winter, you can go to the store, price pesto and laugh.

-- Share. You and your neighbor don’t really each need your own lawnmowers, edgers, tillers, leafblowers and the like. If you co-op these things, you can afford better equipment.

-- Get free stuff. If there are horse stables nearby, you can probably get free manure. Many cities and counties have plants they give away during the year; extra cultivars or through tree-planting programs and the like.

-- Trade. Local garden clubs thrive on dividing and conquering. If you can’t find a trade day in your area, set one up with a handful of gardening friends. Divide your perennials on a Saturday morning, bring extras to a Saturday night potluck, and then plant your new specimens on Sunday.

-- Buy small plants. Tiny shrubs and trees will grow into big ones, and they’ll be happier in your yard if you start them when they are young. They’re also way, way cheaper than big, full-grown trees and shrubs.

-- Mail order your plants. Ordering from a company that specializes in quantity means you can get exactly what you want when you want it. A few with strong plants and good prices are:

www.bluestoneperennials.com, www.forestfarm.com, www.classygroundcovers.com. Unsure about a catalog? Check it out at Dave's Garden Web site, davesgarden.com/gwd/.

-- Don’t start seeds indoors, unless it’s really a consuming hobby. The amount you’ll spent on pots and peat and lights and the like won’t be worth it, from a financial standpoint. Choose the varieties you want and order them as plants locally or via a catalog.

-- Plant seeds. No need to buy plants that can be seeded directly into your garden, like lettuce, cucumbers, coriander or spinach. You can share those seed packets with your neighbor, too.

-- Maintain your own lawn. It’s good for your health and your wallet. Instead of coming home from work and going to the gym (which you pay for) while someone else mows your lawn (which you also pay for), DIY and save on both ends.

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