Q&A: All the Dirt on Gardening with a Small Budget

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A drive around town is the quickest and best way to figure out what kind of plants will thrive in your yard. You should water your plants longer, but less often than you do. Anything claiming to “revolutionize” the way you garden is probably a waste of money. Once you eat home-grown tomatoes, it’s really disappointing when you go back to eating the bland store-bought variety. Without good soil, your garden is hopeless.

These are some of the great gardening tips offered by Maureen Gilmer, author of the new book The Small Budget Gardener: All the Dirt on Saving Money in Your Garden, and I swear that one of these days I’ll try to incorporate her advice in my own backyard.

What are some of the things that garden stores and big box home centers sell that gardeners really don’t need? Do you really need a garden weasel, for example?

Maureen Gilmer: Funny you should mention Garden Weasel as it’s my favorite example of the kind of products people buy that they rarely if ever use. Truth is most soil is far too hard for this tool and that soft, fluffy TV soil is just that — TV soil. Very little has changed in the last century when it comes to hand tools, and I am always suspicious of new products, particularly when they claim to “revolutionize” gardening. Many of the tools I use today were purchased back in 1979 when I started my first gardening business, which illustrates just how long lasting that original purchase can be.

Of the things that a gardener really does need, what are some tips for getting them cheaper than simply heading down to the Home Depot or wherever with your credit card?

MG: I am a garage and estate sale geek. Whenever there is one we stop to check for tools, pots and decor items for the garden. For the young family, buying tools this way is a great means of expanding your range of specialized gardening tools such as aluminum scoop shovel or leaf rakes. However, I recommend buying a good new shovel, spading fork, and iron (bow) rake as these are the work horses, and the new lightweight composite handles can make them a lot easier to use.

What are some of the most common mistakes made by folks who are new to gardening? Is it planting stuff that doesn’t take? Skipping a key step that proves costly down the line? Or what?

MG: My aged mentor told me in my early years that the most important thing is to learn the basics, because these direct EVERYTHING you do. Basics begin with soil, and when it comes to gardening, feeding that soil is vital to how plants perform. It is the foundation of organic gardening. Soil prep has everything to do with how well plants root, how water reaches those roots, how fertilizer feeds them and how it all is drawn into the shoot. If there is one thing you must get right, it’s ensuring you plant in well-tilled, rich, fertile, well-drained soil. If you doubt that, just imagine trying to sleep on a concrete slab compared to a bed — poor soil is equally hard on plants, but if you give them a nice soft “bed” they’ll return the favor!

What are common ways that people waste water on their gardens? And what are some easy fixes to help you conserve water?

MG: One of the biggest water wasters is hoses left on or sprinklers allowed to run for hours. I love the plastic timers you can put on every spigot in your garden. You can set it to a designated time such as ten minutes, do your watering or set the sprinkler, and then forget it as the timer turns off the water on its own.

If you have an established sprinkler system, turn it on and examine each head to ensure it’s set at the optimal position. Often they’re knocked out of position by a car tire, basketball, or skateboard, and you never know it because they run at night. Heads out of position may water paved surfaces or unplanted areas leaving plants dry elsewhere. Also, look for fully or partially clogged heads, leaking risers and cracked lines, which are often invisible water wasters.

When I contributed a chapter to The Experts’ Guide To 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do, I detailed how to water properly. To me this is among the most essential basics that helps to conserve water by ensuring every drop is used by your plants. It’s important to first understand the density of your soil and how slow or fast it’s able to absorb water. Next, I warn against wetting the dirt as this may look like watering but it offers nothing to plants. Watering deeply and less often lets moisture penetrate deep down where it won’t evaporate and remain available to plants. Deep rooting plants are far more drought resistant and their root systems aren’t concentrated near the surface where they’re subjected to heat and dryness.

At this time of year, lots of people are cleaning up their yards — gathering sticks and fallen branches, raking leaves, and so forth. What should a gardener do with such materials, beyond carting it off to their town’s compost pile?

MG: Last week at the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival I gave a slide show on dozen things you can do with sticks from your garden such as creating rustic fences, a twig gazebo and staking flowers. Pruned sticks, if dried flat, can be very strong and make natural looking problem solvers.

One big mistake mentioned in the book is planting something in a place where it doesn’t belong. So how do you know what kind of plants and vegetables will grow well in your yard?

MG: Gardening, and in particular, plant selection is a super local thing. Plants that remain year in and year out in the garden must be adapted to your climate. Sure, people grow things that aren’t well adapted and they spend their time performing all sorts of tasks to keep them alive. If you select plants native to your region, that is they grow wild there without any help from people, you can be sure they’ll be just as happy to dwell in your garden. You can also select plants from climates similar to yours around the world, expanding your choices. To learn what plants like your town, drive around your neighborhood and look at what other people are growing. If you see a plant at young, medium and old age at many homes, it’s a good bet. If you only see babies, or if they’re only in the gardens of expert gardeners, then you know it takes special care.

What are some of your favorite resources (websites, stores, etc.) for buying seeds?

MG: Seed packets are the easiest of all garden items to send in the mail. This has made seeds one of the best buys online because most companies have great sites and you don’t waste resources with a printed catalog. Seeds of Change is my favorite heirloom seed source and Johnny’s Selected Seeds is without question my favorite for food crops. Both have excellent online catalogs with a mind boggling selection. Of course you can buy seeds in the stores too, but catalogs give you much more information that helps you select varieties best for your local climate.

In your experience, what vegetables have that rare combination of low hassle (in terms of tending them) and big payoff (in terms of providing you with lots of food)?

MG: I can tell you what I grow because my space is limited and I live in a hot climate. Always tomatoes top the list because store bought is so disappointing. I am super keen on peppers because they’re vital to salsa and grilling. Japanese eggplant grilled is so incredible I always grow them too. Lemon cucumbers are also a must-have for summer salads since greens are not happy here in the summer. Early in the season nothing beats Chinese snow peas and snap peas because both of these have edible pods.

If I lived in a cooler moist climate I would put greens at the top of the list, both pot greens for cooking and fresh lettuces and their kin for fresh salads. If you cut leaves and don’t pull the plant they produce far more and for much longer.

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