We Britons spend an annual £5.2 billion on our gardens, according to researchers Mintel. Yet with a little thought and Foolish cunning, it's possible to get away with handing over a lot less money at the tills of garden centres. So here are my top tips for pruning your garden expenditure.
1. Sow your own
The garden centre is an expensive source of plants. Tomato plants were 89p at my local store this year -- yet a packet of seed costs well under two pounds! Growing plants from seed is straightforward, and you'll get lots of advice on The Fool's Gardening discussion board. When it comes to plants like chillies, tomatoes, courgettes and squash, I don't even buy the seeds: each year's crop is grown from seed kept back from some of the previous year's crop.
2. Know what you're planting
Of course, vegetable plants are only part of the picture -- a lot of the plants that are so expensively going through the tills and checkouts at garden centres this time of year are flowers, shrubs and bedding plants. But how many of these are actually destined to be planted in locations where they will flourish? How many will wilt and die?
So no matter how pretty the picture on the plastic label, do some basic research. Is it suitable for your garden? Where will it grow best? And how do I care for it? The plantforlife website, for example, offers a freely downloadable Plant Advice Guide, produced in conjunction with Blue Peter gardener Chris Collins -- so you may even be able to rope the kids in to help, too!
3. Don't overlook discount retailers
Perhaps surprisingly, discount retailers Aldi and Lidl (and also Woolworth's and Wilkinson's) often come in for praise on our Living Below Your Means board for fruit trees and other perennials, such as raspberry canes -- check out this series of posts, for example, where shoppers compare notes on fruit trees at Lidl and Aldi.
4. Take cuttings
If a friend or neighbour has a plant you like the look of, ask if you can take a cutting. The success rate is reasonable (and gets better with practice), and the cost -- free! You can't get cheaper than that! Here's some excellent advice from sandersj89, a stalwart on the Fool's gardening board, offering excellent advice on taking cuttings.
5. Don't over-buy
Not every plant can come from last year's seed: we all like to try something different, and some plants don't readily lend themselves to seed-saving. Avoid having loads of unsown seed by not buying more than you need! (Be honest: how many unopened packets of seed have you got?) Another option: go 'halves' with friends or neighbours, a policy that can be carried forward to sowing and potting on, too, with ready-for-planting plants simply swapped at the end.
6. Search out cheap seed
Still another option is cheap or end-of-season seed. eBay, for example, has quite a range on offer as this search highlights. Don't forget your local supermarket, either: seeds from Tesco are reasonably priced, while Lidl's range is superb and its prices stunning. Watch out too, for the end-of-season sale at Woolworth's -- spotted and posted about most years, usually, by some kind Fool on the Living Below Your Means or Gardening boards.
Here's last year's post, for example. Look at the date (early June), and make a note in the diary to watch out for next season's sell-off! (Hint: Our local Woolies has now taken the discounted seeds off the shelves, and put them in the stockroom at the back. You have to ask staff to bring out the boxes they are in -- but they still go through the till at 60p. I bought some more myself, today, saving several pounds.)
7. A pinch will do!
Every year, I see people who've sowed an entire packet of seed when all they needed was a few plants. Often, just a pinch or two of seed will do -- so save the rest for next year! With the foil sachet sealed shut, and kept in a dry place indoors (not the garden shed!), the germination rate will hardly differ. We've a packet of Lidl basil seeds, purchased for a ludicrously cheap 35 pence or so, that's now in its third year! For other LBYM tips on vegetables and herbs, see this post from popular Fool poster Freda42.
Avoid, too, sowing things for which your garden isn't suited, or sowing when it's too wet/ too cold/too dry. There's nothing more frustrating than sowing seeds and nurturing young plants that subsequently die. The Plant Advice Guide mentioned above can help, also take a look at this post by sandersj89
Finally, if you're a fan of home-grown beans and peas, don't buy packeted seed. Old-fashioned pet and garden shops, as well as farm supply shops and some garden centres, sell seed loose, by the scoopful from tubs. It's much cheaper, and you can get the exact quantity you want, rather than having to buy in multiples of a packet.
8. Impulse-buying is expensive
Garden furniture is a major expense. Don't just pop into the nearest garden centre or buy on impulse at the local out-of-town DIY shed: buying online can save a lot of money.
And buying new isn't the only game in town. Check your local newspaper's small ads for second-hand items. Many Fools have reported favourable experiences with Freecycle -- register with your local branch, and watch out for people giving away unwanted items rather than dumping them. Recycling centres are worth a quick scout, too. As ever, give yourself ample time to seek out the best bargain -- the queues at garden centres are driven by people who have to have that special garden item NOW. Instead, why not wait until the end of the season, when many items are marked down in price?
And if you're handy with tools, why not build your own garden furniture as a winter project? Very satisfying, very cheap, and very likely to outlast mass-produced products. You'll find plans here and here. Amazon sell books of plans, too.
9. Look after what you've got
Speaking of 'outlasting', ask yourself why new garden furniture is needed in the first place. Could it be -- cough -- that you haven't looked after the last lot?
The garden is a harsh environment, and a little basic maintenance goes a long way. Plastic furniture lasts longer when protected from ultraviolet light by covers, while hardwood responds well to teak oil. Buy a couple of litres (bought from a builder's merchant or other low-cost source, naturally), and brush on liberally, ideally after over-wintering somewhere dry. Another tip: replace ordinary steel screws and bolts -- which are liable to rust -- with brass or stainless steel ones, first squeezing a drop of oil into the screw hole.
Garden tools and machinery
10. Quality counts
What about garden tools -- forks, spades, hoes, rakes, shears and the like? My retailer of choice here isn't our local garden centre, but our local recycling centre, where unwanted tools are sold at either £1 or £2.
What's more, the tools you'll get this way are often much sturdier, and of higher quality, than their flimsy modern equivalents. And don't overlook items with a broken handle, which my local site lets you have for free. A new handle costs £4 or less, so even a broken tool can be a bargain, given a few minutes with a vice and a hammer. (Hint: while hardware stores sell the correct soft iron rivets for attaching new handles, 6mm or 8mm bolts work just as well, and are easier to remove!)