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Recession Renovation: Spruce Up Your Yard for Cheap

As a gardener, I’ve always wondered if non-gardeners have a true appreciation for how expensive gardening can be. Most take the green foliage and colorful blooms for granted, but those of us who shop for them know that plants can range from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars and that even small projects are likely to set you back a few Franklins. Just last week, I was lamenting the cost of plants to a landscape architect and she said, “Yes, gardening is for the wealthy.” Well, I’m certainly not wealthy and I don’t think that should preclude me from gardening. Yet every time I open a gardening magazine or look on a gardening Web site, with their perfectly blooming perennial beds or bountiful vegetables, I’m well aware of how much time, money, and sweat was poured into them. The perfect gardener is one without a job, with an endless budget, who lives in a nice Mediterranean climate, and hasn’t seen a pest all year. But that’s probably not you or me.

Perhaps you are without a job (not by choice), without the endless budget, but are looking for ways to spruce up the yard—perhaps even redo the yard—without spending much. Can it be done?

I believe it can, with a little flexibility, creativity, and of course, sweat.

Divide, Split, and Move
Dividing plants is a great way to turn a large plant into numerous small ones. Plus, it’s actually a beneficial practice. Many plants, including perennials, grasses, and bulbs, need to be split or divided for their health. Perennials and grasses can get too big and rangy; bulbs, corms, and rhizomes will slow their production of flowers when they become overcrowded. Take stock of your yard, especially if some of the plants have been there for a long time, and you’re likely to find a sage that could use a trim or irises that can be divided. The best time to divide is when the plants are non-flowering or dormant. If you have enough extras, you can turn a brown patch of yard into a new flowerbed in no time.

Cut and Propagate
Who says money doesn’t grow on a tree (or succulent or perennial) branch? Taking cuttings and propagating new plants is an essentially free source of new foliage and will save you time and money. However, it does take patience, as you have to wait for the small cutting to grow into a normal-sized plant. That said, some plants, especially succulents, grow fast and easily from cuttings. Just cut off a stem piece, dry it out for a day or two to let the cut heal, and repot it in well-drained soil. If you don’t have succulents in your yard, you might stroll the neighborhood looking for a plant that needs a small pruning. While I’ve had luck with succulents, I find propagating perennials frustratingly slow. However, the idea is the same and if you don’t mind waiting, it’s a cheap way to fill up the yard.

Sow the Seeds of Savings
Did I mention patience? If you have some, seeds are the ultimate way to go. They’re dirt cheap and can produce a multitude of annuals, perennials, and vegetables. Vegetable seeds are great because you can order heirloom and exotic varieties that you aren’t likely to find as grown plants in nurseries. And there’s nothing quite like coaxing a small speck of seed into a wonderful fruit- or vegetable-producing plant. You might even be able to get your seeds for free; in my town there’s a seed exchange library where you can “check out” seeds, grow the plant, and then collect seeds to bring back.

When shopping for seeds, make sure you’re buying some that are amenable to your climate, as there’s nothing more frustrating than spending money on something you either kill or have to have to devote loads of water, fertilizer, and time to save.

Recycled and Reused
I love the idea of turning something that was once thought to be trash into something useful and the garden presents tons of opportunities to do just that. Things like old bathtubs, wheelbarrows, and buckets can serve as funky potters and planters for colorful wildflower displays that give an antique and whimsical look to the yard. Old garden tools or branches can serve as poles for climbing beans, a defunct fence can be made into a rustic arbor, and small, loose rocks can be assembled into a wall or raised bed while larger ones can serve as a focal point. Although I long for beautiful pieces of new slate, right now I’m using old concrete from my backyard as pavers in the front and it doesn’t look half bad. I’m also taking a broken bird bath and using the bottom as a sculptural item, and using cardboard and wood chips (which you can get free from tree companies) as a mulch layer and weed suppressor. Since yards are supposed to look natural (it is nature after all) forgoing the shiny, new stuff might actually help the aesthetics. And remember the ultimate repurpose is compost, which turns food scrap into fertilizer so you don’t have to buy it.

Swap Plants, Make Friends
Gardeners are generally happy, friendly people who love to talk shop. They learn from each other, lament over the loss of plants, and complain about weeds. So chances are, when you’re in need of some new plants, pots, or tools, there’s someone in your community who might have some extras to spare, or wouldn’t mind sharing. Talk with neighbors, look for plant swaps, and check Craigslist or for free plants or moving sales. (Potted plants are usually cheap or free.) Although you may not get the exact plants you’re looking for, what you get may help fill a vacant space or add some color to a pre-existing yard. Similarly, springtime is a great time for plant sales and many nurseries and native plant societies have annual sales. 

Sprucing up the yard doesn’t necessarily mean purchasing or adding. Sometimes the best makeover ideas in a yard are the free ones. Weeding, doing a nice job pruning a tree, mulching to tidy up an area, or cutting back dead foliage are all tasks that can lend a new look to a tired yard. And though you won’t have to spend a lot of money giving it a new look, now you’ll have to find the time—which is just as hard!