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Sometimes, cheaper is better or just fine

| Friday, March 8, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
A bare-root plum tree just after being planted. Jessica Walliser

If cheap and easy is your thing, I've got some gardening ideas for you. Lots of times, we get tricked into thinking we have to spend a lot of money or take a lot of time to create a beautiful garden, but that simply isn't the case. There are literally thousands of ways a budget-conscious, time-starved gardener can grow a successful garden. I'd like to share a few of my favorites.

Don't buy fancy plant-staking systems! It is so easy to create your own. The best tomato cages I have ever used were constructed of concrete reinforcement wire purchased at the local hardware store. The 10- to 12-inch-wide square holes are perfect for harvesting (your hand, plus a beefsteak tomato, will fit right through), and their sturdy, heavy-duty construction means they'll last for a dozen or more years. Cut a 6-foot-tall roll into 10-foot sections and then wrap each section into a cylinder. The cylinders are held closed by bending the excess wire pieces over the opposite end.

The same goes for those fancy perennial grow-through staking systems (also called peony rings). They can cost $10 to $15 a piece. Instead, early in the season, I surround each of my soon-to-be-floppy perennials with four bamboo stakes and then I stick one in the center. Then, I wrap some jute twine around the perimeter and cross it over into the center every now and then to create a supportive wagonwheel-like system to hold up the plants. Once the foliage grows, you don't even see the twine or the stakes.

Don't buy potted plants via mail order! If you are looking to buy a particular plant variety that you can't find at a local nursery, don't pay to ship a bunch of dirt. Instead, look for a mail order source that sells the plant bare-root. Bare-root plants are just that — they are shipped to you in a dormant state with no soil on the roots. You can purchase perennials, vines, shrubs and trees bare-root. This is how I buy all of my fruit trees (it also means I don't need a pickup to get them home, nor do I need a helper to haul a big pot full of soil from the driveway to the planting site).

Another money-saver: many perennials purchased bare-root can be divided into several sections before planting. Just use a sharp, clean knife to cut the crowns apart. More plants for less money! The only downside to purchasing bare-root plants is that they are often available only in the spring when they come out of cold storage. Still, that's when most of us do our planting anyway.

Don't buy plants you can start yourself! Learning to propagate plants is one of the most pleasurable and cost-saving things a gardener can do. A few weeks ago, I taught you how to start your own plants from seed indoors under lights, but it's also possible to start many plants by directly seeding them into the garden. I never buy zinnia, cosmos, salvia or sweet alyssum transplants because they are so easily grown simply by tucking a few seeds right into the garden soil in the middle of May.

It's also quite easy to grow many common annuals through the process of stem cuttings (something I have covered several times in my Sunday column — you can find all my previous columns at www.triblive.com). Many flowering shrubs are easily propagated through a technique called layering. In the spring, use a knife to nick the underside of a shrub stem, cover the inch-long nick with rooting hormone (available at local garden centers) and then bend the stem so the nicked area is in contact with the soil. I then pin it down with a piece of wire or cover the nicked area with soil to hold it in place. Roots will form by the time the fall rolls around and then the little new shrub can be cut from the mother plant and moved to another site.

Don't mulch without a base layer of newspaper. If you hate weeding and you don't have much time to do it, then mulching is a must. A layer of mulch is essential for holding in soil moisture and preventing weeds, but it works even better if you use a base layer of newspaper first (just avoid the glossy inserts).

Cover the area to be mulched with a layer of newspaper about 10 sheets thick, being careful to work your way around perennial crowns, shrubs and tree trunks so they aren't covered in any way. Wet the newspaper with water from the hose and then spread your mulch on top. In my shrub beds, I mulch with shredded hardwood but in the vegetable garden, I mulch with a 2-inch layer of untreated grass clippings, finished compost, rotted leaves or straw. In the perennial garden, I top the newspaper with compost. Clearly, you don't want to use this technique where you want anything to grow from seed, but everywhere else it works like a charm. I do this each year in all of my gardens, layering one year's mulch over the next. I have very few weeds to contend with.

Anyone have labor- or time-saving tips to share? Send them to me via email. I'd love to hear your ideas and compile them into a future column.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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