By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia
Gardening can be an expensive hobby. But, it doesn't have to be. You can have beautiful flower gardens or bountiful vegetable gardens without spending a fortune.
"One of the biggest costs to gardeners is pesticides," said Marco Fonseca, the Master Gardener coordinator for the University of Georgia Extension Service, in Griffin, Ga. "You can cut those costs by buying high- quality plants."
The trick to getting good plants is timing.
"Most garden centers put out fresh, new plants on Thursday and Friday," Fonseca said. "Saturday's high traffic can leave plants trampled and mishandled."
On Monday, plants can be damaged and mislabeled from the busy weekend gardeners. "Monday is not a good day to buy vegetables," he said.
Save money on seedling plants for vegetables that have large seeds, too. "Never buy plants that have large seeds like cucumbers, squash, melons, corn or beans," Fonseca said.
"Some people feel like you're buying time by buying seedlings," he said. "But you aren't, because these seeds will germinate and grow at about the same rate as the seedlings."
Problems are more likely to arise with transplants than seeds, too, he said.
"In most cases, those plants don't grow very well until the soil temperature is around 65 or 75 degrees," he said. "That's when the seeds will germinate anyway. So just plant seeds for these vegetables."
Start with fresh seeds
Some gardeners swear by saving seeds from year to year to shave cents off the price of gardening. Fonseca says it may be more trouble than it's worth.
"I don't think it's worth saving seed from one year to the next," he said. "Seeds are probably the (smallest) expense in the garden. Plus, companies change cultivars all the time. They grow and harvest seeds from all over the United States and the world, and they also have very modern, temperature-controlled storage."
Saving seeds on your own requires growing the plants to seed, collecting the seeds and then properly drying and storing them for next season. That's not so easy under uncontrolled conditions.
Another big expense in the garden is fertilizer. Two things can help you cut these costs: compost and soil tests.
Home compost bins can help you improve the condition of your soil and add nutrients back into the soil. All you need are a few supplies to build the bin and plenty of grass clippings, leaves and food scraps to make compost.
Many gardeners waste money on fertilizer by using too much or the wrong type. A simple soil test can help you find out precisely what your soil needs so you don't overfertilize.
"The most economical way to fertilize your garden is by using slow-release fertilizer based on the recommendation for your soil analysis," Fonseca said.
One of the most precious garden expenditures, besides sweat, is water. While the drought is all but over in Georgia and many areas have eased watering restrictions, it's still a good idea to conserve.
"Water only when needed," Fonseca said. "Often just once a week is more than sufficient."
He also recommends installing low-cost soil meters (tensiometers) to let you know when and how much to water.
To get more information on gardening to conserve water or Xeriscaping (water-wise planting), or to get a soil test kit, contact your county UGA Extension office.
(Faith Peppers is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)