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How to have a gorgeous garden without spending a ton of money

Piggy bank illustration
Yes, it’s possible to have plants without breaking the bank.
(Julia Yellow / For The Times)
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Gardening doesn’t have to be expensive. But tell that to your pocketbook after you’ve made a trip to your local nursery or garden center.

Between the bags of special soils, tools, hoses, fertilizers, seed packets and, of course, plants, your plan to grow edibles or even a modest balcony of flowers was never going to be a budget project. Even worse: when all those new acquisitions result in a poor-performing garden, or it never even gets planted.

We’ve all been there, especially as beginners. Take a deep breath, forgive past indiscretions and read on for some practical ways to put more joy and less money into gardening.

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Make a plan and start small

Break your garden plan into several easy-to-accomplish steps. You’ll be less likely to spend impulsively on cool-but-unnecessary equipment or kill the plants you bought because you didn’t have time to plant them. Be realistic about your space and goals; do you really have time this weekend to prep your garden bed and plant 60 seedlings (that’s 10 six-packs of flowers and vegetables)? Do you have room for 60 seedlings? Spreading out the work will make things easier on your wallet too.

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Gardening experts say soil preparation is the most important thing you can do (after figuring out the sunniest spot in your yard or patio). Make your first task and purchases devoted to soil prep, whether it’s buying good organic potting soil for a few containers or adding organic amendments, such as compost, aged manure, coffee grounds and seaweed, to a garden patch in your yard.

Typically, you have to wait a week or two to plant after adding organic amendments because they raise the temperature of the soil as they decompose and “cook.” You can’t plant until the soil cools, so wait a couple of weeks to buy plants.

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Start with a few tools

You don’t need many tools to have a good garden, said Yvonne Savio, creator of the Gardening in LA blog and a retired director of the Los Angeles County Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program. She recommends starting with a sturdy hand trowel, a hand fork for scratching fertilizer and mulch around plants and a large garden fork for incorporating organic amendments into the soil. Using a fork instead of a shovel is easier on your back and better for the soil, she said.

You might also invest in a good shovel to dig large holes for trees or shrubs and a pair of sturdy hand clippers. Scout out garden tools at garage and estate sales. It’s wise to buy sturdy, well-made equipment, but high-quality tools don’t have to be the most expensive. For instance, Swiss-made Felco 1-inch hand pruners are the gold standard for garden tools (about $60), but Corona tools (based in Corona) makes excellent 1-inch hand clippers as well for about half the price (about $33).

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Check out local gardens

Before you plant, find out what grows well in your area. Go on an organized garden tour or two or visit nurseries and take notes about what plants you love and the conditions in which they’re grown. For instance, if you saw a beautiful begonia blooming under a tree in Santa Monica but you live in Riverside, where temperatures are higher and shade less plentiful, you might be disappointed. Protect your heart and your wallet by seeking plants in harmony with your growing conditions.

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And don’t forget your nearest resource: your neighbors. Many gardeners are eager to talk about what they grow and may even be willing to share seeds or volunteer to give you some seedlings or show you how to propagate plants from cuttings from their yard.

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Be realistic

Make a list again, this time of the plants you want and where you will put them, to keep impulse spending at a minimum. If you’re planting an edible garden, grow vegetables your family will eat, Savio said, and look for plants that provide the biggest bang for your buck. For instance, you might love cabbage or cauliflower, but they require lots of space and produce only one head per plant. Broccoli keeps producing smaller bunches of tender edibles after the main head is harvested.

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Find a garden buddy and share

Garden clubs abound in Southern California, from plant swappers to rose lovers, and most have members eager to share their knowledge and plants. Join a local garden club or cultivate a garden buddy and offer to share your excess seedlings (and harvest) if they will share theirs, Savio said. Call your local Cooperative Extension office (every California county has one) to find out more about their master gardener program and local garden gatherings. Savio also has a long list of garden resources on her GardeninginLA website.

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Grow with seeds

That doesn’t mean seeds only, Savio said, but some plants such as beans, corn, squash, leafy greens, radishes and cucumbers grow easily from seed. Instead of buying lettuce seedlings, for instance, buy just a few to get a head start on your harvest and sow the rest for a staggered crop. Savio is featured on a “California’s Green” episode with Huell Howser, describing many ways to use recycled items for starting seeds and deep watering in the garden.

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Compost

Compost is vital for healthy soil, and you can make it cheaply and easily from kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, fallen leaves, shredded newspapers and other materials that would otherwise go to landfills. Many municipalities offer free composting workshops and discounted compost bins. Check out this home composting guide distributed by the Los Angeles Department of Public Works’ Sanitation Bureau.

If you want more hands-on instruction, call your county or city public works department or go online to find composting classes and special deals on bins. Short on space? Lots of municipal and other government agencies, such as the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, offer instructions for worm composting as well as free workshops and discounted worm bins. which are small enough to fit on a balcony.


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Jeanette Marantos has been a writer for the Los Angeles Times Homicide Report since 2015 and the Saturday garden section since 2016, a yin and yang that keeps her perspective in balance.