As many consumers head out to the yard and garden this spring, it's a good idea to keep an eye on spending.
Some 85 million U.S. households, or three of every four, does some sort of gardening and lawn care, according to the National Gardening Association.
Those households each spend an average of about $400 a year on plants, power equipment, fertilizer, sod and other products and services that comprise the $34.1 billion lawn and garden industry.
To help you get the most bang for your buck, here are tips from experts:
-- Do it yourself
The most obvious way to save money is to do it yourself, if you can, instead of hiring a landscaper to mow the lawn, mulch and weed the flower beds and perform other chores. Time is the trade-off for many people who contend they are too busy to attend to landscaping.
"To me, this perception of time is an easy excuse to be lazy," said Bruce Butterfield, research director of the National Gardening Association. "It's amazing to me that people hire someone to mow their lawn when it only takes an hour."
Many people could reclaim plenty of time to do yard work if they shut off the TV more often, he said. At a mowing charge of $30 a week for six months, you could save more than $700. Exercise in the yard might even allow you to cancel your health club membership, which saves hundreds of dollars more, said Catriona Tudor Erler, author of the out-of-print "The Frugal Gardener: How to Have More Garden for Less Money."
Set your mower deck at its highest setting, don't cut more than a third of the grass height and leave grass clippings on the lawn. These simple steps will allow you to use less fertilizer and weed killer, and the long grass makes the lawn look thick and lush.
"Those clippings are fertilizer," said Scott Meyer, editor of Organic Gardening magazine. "They will break down into the nutrients that your grass needs most."
Contrary to popular belief, leaving clippings on the lawn does not cause a buildup of thatch. Thatch is caused by overfertilizing, so save money by not adding extra fertilizer.
"It's one of those things where guys think if a little fertilizer is good, more must be better," Meyer said. "But that makes your lawn susceptible to disease and causes it to grow faster, which means you have to mow it more and creates a layer of thatch."
Douse weeds in cracks of sidewalks and patios with boiling water or vinegar, which will kill them and cost a lot less than commercial weed killer. Save money by diluting vinegar with water, using just one part vinegar to two or three parts water, Meyer said.
Many gardening experts advise buying good-quality gardening hand tools rather than cheaper ones likely to break within a single season. But you don't have to buy them new. Check yard sales, especially of older people who might be selling quality tools made decades ago. If you have a small garden, skip power tools. Use hand tools, which are less expensive and will probably save time because you don't have to deal with electrical cords or fuel, Tudor Erler said.
With gardening power equipment, such as a tiller or lawn aerator, it will pay to coordinate with neighbors and rent equipment. "Then you're not buying and storing something you don't need every day," Meyer said.
"Composting is the most valuable tool for succeeding in gardening," Meyer said. "You don't need a bin. You don't need unusual tools. All you need is a 3-foot-by-3-foot space."
Pile on your grass clippings, egg shells, coffee grounds and pretty much anything that was alive but not part of an animal. "This makes the best possible fertilizer for your garden--better than you can buy," Meyer said.
While composting is free, it is a slow process. You will have to wait about nine months to start using a passive compost pile. But if you are more conscientious about mixing materials carefully, such as balancing vegetable waste with leaves, and rotating it to allow in air, you can have good compost in three months, Meyer said.
The composting process highlights a general point about frugal gardening: You can save money if you're willing to wait, Tudor Erler said. Buying smaller plants, such as trees and shrubs, is cheaper but requires patience before they become the size you envision.
-- Mulch for less
Dyed hardwood mulch for garden beds is not only expensive but soon fades to the color of undyed mulch, so you're paying extra for a temporary appearance. Mulch also could be as simple as shredded leaves saved from the fall; you can run over the leaves with a lawn mower.
"It's great mulch, and it costs you nothing," Meyer said.
Straw is also a cheap alternative to wood mulch, and stone is more expensive initially but less costly over the long term because it doesn't need to be replaced.
You also could ask a local tree-trimming service to deliver chipped-up branches for use as mulch. They are glad to get rid of it because it saves them dumping fees. But the mulch will have leaves in it. Garden-wise, that's fine, because they will decompose, but it won't look quite as good as paid-for mulch, Tudor Erler said.
-- Sharing seedlings
Swapping cuttings and divisions of plants with friends, relatives and neighbors is a free way to introduce new plants into your gardens. Local nature preserves and botanical gardens often host plant sales and sell their plant divisions inexpensively.
You and your fellow gardeners also can take seeds from mature fruit and flowers, dry them out and save them for planting the following year. That way you're engineering plants that will thrive in your area, Meyer said.
One way to save money on your water bill is to attach a barrel to your home's downspout to catch rainwater. Ideally, the barrel would have a spigot for easy access to the water, but filling watering cans works too.
Use soaker hoses where you can. It is the most efficient way to deliver water to your plant roots and wastes less water.
And, in general, water gardens deeply but infrequently. Light daily sprinklings are a bad idea because they encourage shallow roots in plants, which in turn require more frequent watering.
"If it hasn't rained, water no more than once a week and give it a good soaking. Then let it go," Meyer said. "That goes for your lawn too."
At first, growing vegetables won't be cheaper than buying them at a supermarket because of start-up costs with a garden. But over time, vegetable gardening can end up being less expensive. And garden produce will almost certainly be higher quality, Meyer said.
Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa., a Tribune Co. newspaper. E-mail him at email@example.com. For additional discussion on spending wisely, see the Spending Smart blog at http://blogs.mcall.com/spendingsmart/.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times