An expert answers your frugal gardening questions

Frugal Gardening Questions and Answers

by Mira Dessy

Learning Frugal Gardening

Dear Mira,
I recently purchased a new home and the landscape looks so "unalive". I am interested in making my front and back yards more beautiful and lively now that springtime is approaching; yet, I definitely do not have a green thumb and I don't know anything about maintaining plants and gardening. I am so terrible that I can't keep an indoor plant alive. What kind of plants are best for indoors? Are there any low maintenance plants that I could put in my front yard near the porch entrance and in my fenced in backyard? I work eight hours a day and I don't have alot of time until the weekends but I would really like to improve the landscape of my new home.......Where do I begin? How do you properly maintain your garden? Can you help me?
In Need Of Gardening Lessons

Dear Jeanette,
Indoor plants get finicky depending on what kind of light you have and how often you water. One thing that you may want to consider is putting in something that helps you water (if that's your problem). There is a commercial product on the market that you mix with soil and then put the plant in it. The stuff absorbs water so that you don't have to water as often. I'm sorry but I don't remember what it is called. Another thing is a water reservoir pot but you have to be careful because a lot of plants don't like wet feet. In my house I grow a couple of things that I consider light maintenance: Snake tongue (needs moderate temperature, reasonable light and I can go as long as 2 weeks without watering), spider plant (needs strong light, reasonable temperature, water approximately every 2 weeks), African violets (need indirect light, moderate temperature, water from the bottom only. I fill the container as often as I notice that it is dry), jade plants (indirect light, moderate temperature, water every 2 weeks or so), and a couple of ivy type things that often hover on the brink of the compost heap but always seem to come back.

Outside stuff: One really good book that I would like to recommend for your yard is "Garden Design with Foliage" by Judy Glattstein. The author talks a lot about plants that are grown for their foliage. The nice thing is that she also discusses different attractive groupings and different types of soil and/or light requirements. See if you can get it at the library.

As a basic recommendation for your yard I can give you a couple of ideas. First, daylilies are, in my opinion, an excellent plant. They start their foliage fairly early in the year and don't bloom till July or August. Because their are so many blooms on each plant they are very colorful for 2-3 weeks. Daylilies also come in lots of different colors and shapes. Even after the flowers are gone the greenery looks nice and busy for a couple of weeks longer. Then, when the season is over, they can simply be mowed down with a lawn mower and the mulchings left to help nourish the soil. Daylilies also multiply rapidly. So eventually you can have a very full garden.

Lots of shrubs would probably be a good choice also if you are low on time. Flowering, fruiting or just plain shrubs. I don't know where you live or what your yard is like so the best thing to do is to go talk to a botanical garden and ask them what grows well in your area. If you don't have a botanical garden you can try your local County Cooperative Extension (look for them in the phone book under local government). The bonus of the Extension Service is that sometimes they offer local plants for very cheap!

Proper maintenance. Well...hum...actually I just do what I can and try not to push it. I weed less often than I should but often enough so that the garden doesn't get overrun. Also I try to interest the kids so that they help. Even 5 minutes of help is better than none. I am nowhere near as conscientious about this as I probably should be, but the object is not to have a perfect garden (in my eyes) but one that I can enjoy.
hope this helps.

Frugal Fertilizer

Hi there,
My name is Marsha and I live in Sacramento Ca. Thanks you first of all for your article. It was very interesting and now I don't feel like a complete boob for already starting my plants and purchasing a few seedlings for the summer that seems so far away! I have a question that I hope you can help me with. How much fertilizer, if any, should I put in my beds for my flowers. I had a vegetable garden in that place last year (it is too shady though and this year I am going to put my garden in pots so they can reach full sun.) I have also put fruit/vegetable peels there throughout the winter. I would appreciate any advice you could give me. Thanks in advance.
Marsha R

Dear Marsha,
For fertilizer...on my vegetable garden last year I put as much compost as I had and then also added in a 3 inch layer of manure and tilled it all. The compost is really helpful, just be careful that it is done "cooking" when you put it in. Also, Winter rye is supposed to make an excellent fertilizer. You put it on at the end of the summer and leave it there until spring when you till it in. The roots help break up the soil to make is more loamy and the greens provide needed nutrients for the new plants. Since you are planting in pots you might want to try 1/3 compost, 1/3 perlite (to absorb extra moisture which can cause root rot), and 1/3 soil. Part of that will depend on what kind of soil you have and what sort of plants you want to grow. One really good book that you might want to consider getting is Taylor's Guide to Container Gardening which is published by Houghton Mifflin. Although the book deals with plants and shrubs and such rather than vegetable gardening there is a lot of good information about container gardening. Another good book is The City Gardener's Handbook by Linda Yang, published by Random House. This one does have some information about vegetables and herbs and is also an excellent book about gardening in small spaces with a fair amount of container gardening information.
I hope the effort goes well for you.

Frugal Balcony Gardening

I am looking for ideas for balcony gardening. I have a great location with a southern exposure. I have several pots about a foot wide that I can store in the winter. (I'd do better if you don't suggest half-barrels, though I realize they would hold a lot more). Is there enough dirt in something like a 1 foot pot to grow a tomato plant (like last year) AND a crookneck squash? I'm trying to think high/low, but don't know how much dirt you need.
Katie F in Salt Lake City

Dear Katie,
Unfortunately I think you're going to need a bigger pot for squash. The good thing is that squash can be grown on a trellis. If support it properly it will grow up instead of sprawling on thground. One really good book that you might try to borrow from your library is The City Gardener's Handbook: From Balcony to Backyard by Linda Yang. It is published by Random House. There's a lot of good information about container gardening and about gardening in small spaces. There is not a lot of information about vegetables and herbs, but there is some. Plus there are a lot of good pictures that have good ideas about how to attractively and effectively use your small space to create a beautiful garden.
Best of luck to you,

Transplanting Seedlings

I'd like to see a follow on discussion about how to transplant the seedlings once they have been started indoors. Do you have to put them outside for a while to acclimate them to the different climate - or do you just "kick them out of the house" so to speak?

Dear Todd,
Basically a few weeks before I set the plants into the garden I move them to my screened in porch. This gets them exposed to the cooler air and more disparate temperatures. Then about a week before I move them completely outside. When transferring the plants to the ground I don't have too much trouble because I use the paper pot idea. This enables me to simply put the entire pot and plant into the ground. The pot will break down fairly quickly (I never seem to find leftover bits of newspaper when I till the next spring) and keeps the roots from experiencing shock as they are transferred to the vegetable garden. I hope this helps.

First Time Frugal Gardener

Dear Mira,
This is my first year trying a garden and using this I think it will be a little easier. I had started to work a spot last fall but after reading the book I'm going with a new location. The old one was hidden at the very back of my lot behind a shed. I had tilled it and added peat. Also it's too big for my first garden. I want to start with just one block this year then expand in the future. You might send in an article on how to bring up a block quickly for those that didn't start in the fall like we should. I'm probably going to replace alot of the soil since I'm starting over. I have pretty clayey soil.

Dear Mark,
I also have very clayey soil. Unfortunately I am not done combating this problem but I have done a couple of things which have improved it immensely. Let me begin by saying that I personally don't believe in "replacing" the soil. The object is to work with what you have in part to save money and in part because then you don't have to also combat the newer soil compacting and forming puddles in the garden. What I have done so far...added lots of sand (depends on how big your garden is), added compost and aged manure. One thing I did not do because time got away from me is to plant winter rye. This is supposed to be planted at the end of the growing season and left until the following spring when it gets tilled into the garden. The roots help to break up the soil and the tops provide needed nutrients for the new plants. I would try to add sand and manure this year and then plant the winter rye. If you have aged compost throw that in this year also, otherwise you might start one and then add it in next year. If you are thinking of planting a larger block next to this years block you might prepare it early by planting a heavy cover of white clover. Clover also has deep roots and will help break up the soil. Also, when turned in it provides nutrients.
Hope this helps.

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