GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — Gardening can be a relaxing and rewarding thing, but it also can be expensive.
There's more to keeping a beautiful landscape, or even a small vegetable garden, than a little soil and sunshine. Tools, seeds, plants, mulch, water, pots, fertilizer and decorative elements all come with a cost. It's not uncommon to walk into a home and garden store with a grand wish list, only to be discouraged by sticker shock.
However, there are ways to save money on each phase of the gardening season. All it takes is a little planning and creative thinking.
When Denver-based Master Gardener Jodi Torpey bought her current home, she had grand landscaping plans. She talked with a designer, made a list of plants and supplies, and marched down to her local home and garden center, eager to get started.
As her cart started to fill up, Torpey saw her bill rising. After a while, she became so discouraged that she returned home empty-handed. Her budget didn't match her plans, so she went back to the drawing board.
"Gardeners, we always want to jump in and we want to create these huge gardens. We want to do too much too soon," she said.
But Torpey found if you start small and build up to your ideal garden over time, it will save you money in the long run.
Container gardening is one way to do that. Gather pots of different shapes and sizes, and plant flowers or vegetables in those. You can move them in the sun when they need it or in the shade when it gets too hot. That saves on watering costs, and the small footprint of the pots will save soil, fertilizer and mulch, too.
If potted plants aren't your thing, start with a small plot in your yard and build onto it each year. That way, you can determine which plants do well in particular locations and which ones don't.
"As you can afford to plant more, expand the space and keep adding to it," Torpey said.
The idea of starting small also applies to the plants that you chose for your yard. For example, young, skinny trees are less expensive than mature trees. Buying a mature tree will not only cost more, but it will take more water and care to get established in your yard. The smaller the tree, the quicker it will take to your soil.
"When I first started, I wanted to have a mature landscape practically overnight," she said. "And that doesn't happen."
Gillette resident and Master Gardener Sharon Chyr Murphee said she plants hearty plants native to the region so she knows they'll thrive in her yard. That saves her money because she doesn't have to pay to replace plants that don't take to her soil.
"We also have perennials so we don't need to plant more year after year. They just come back every year," she said.
Everything from mulch and seeds to plants and tools can be found for little to no cost if you get creative and search hard enough.
— Create your own compost: If you don't have a compost pile, start one. Instead of throwing away those old banana peels and leftover greens, mix them in with soil and let them decompose. It will produce hearty compost year-round at no extra cost to you.
Grass clippings, manure, fallen leaves and coffee grounds are great to add to your compost pile. If you don't like the look of it in your yard, Torpey said you can always bury banana peels alongside flowers during the planting season.
"Those peels are fertilizing as they decompose over the season," Torpey said.
— Build a worm bin: Use a plastic, solid-color bin. Drill holes in the bottom, line the bin with newspaper and put your organic kitchen waste inside. Add some worms, and you have a simple way to get low-cost fertilizer. It's a nice alternative to a compost pile.
— Grow plants from seed: Start your seeds indoors early in the season, and when the weather warms up, you should have sprouts ready to plant in the garden. Many flowers and vegetables are hearty enough to grow from seeds, including marigolds, poppies, peppers and eggplant.
"Those of you who are afraid to grow from seed, I encourage you to at least try," Torpey said. "You can grow all of the same plants that you get at the garden center."
Gillette resident Janis Price grows lettuce and peppers from seeds in the winter and then plants them in her vegetable garden when the weather gets nicer. She yields a larger batch that way, which saves her money at the grocery store, too.
— Save seeds at the end of the season: Heirloom tomatoes are ideal for harvesting seeds to use next season. You won't have to buy new tomato plants or seeds the next year. If you use heirloom seeds, it will be the same fruit every year.
To save seeds, scoop out the seeds along with all the goop when tomatoes are ripe. Put them in a cup with some water and cover it with plastic wrap. Let the goop ferment so the seeds separate from the rest of the plant. Once they separate, strain out the seeds, let them dry completely and put them in an envelope to store in a cool, dry place until next season.
And tomatoes aren't the only plants that you can re-seed.
"I do the re-seeding. I'll take cantaloupe seed and dry them and then plant them the next year. I did that with my peppers, too," Price said. "I like to grow things that I eat."
— Divide plants: Echinacea, hostas, iris and day lilies make great plants to divide and replant as they grow larger. It's as easy as digging them up, separating the roots and replanting sections in another part of your garden. That way, you don't have to spend money on new batches of the same plant.
— Get creative with planters: You can use just about anything that has holes in it for drainage as a planter.
Compost bins, stacks of tires, cracked bird baths, leaky kettles, shoes, trash cans, even thick trash bags can serve as planters. They may not look as pretty as painted clay pots, but they do the trick.
"I planted potatoes in a trash bag and had pretty good success," Torpey said.
— Hit garage sales and thrift stores: Garage sales, auctions and secondhand shops are a great way to find anything for cheap, even gardening tools and decorations.
Make sure you read the plant information before you put it in the ground. Some take a lot of water while others take little, and some need sun while others need shade. If you group plants together based on their sun and watering needs, they'll be more likely to survive the season. You'll save money by not over-watering and by not accidentally killing your plants.
"This is something I learned the hard way," Torpey laughed. "If you put the right plant in the right place the first time, you won't have to spend money to replace your plants."
Before you go to the store, stop and think about anything you may have laying around at home from seasons past. Check your shed, garage or basement before buying something you may already own.
— Re-purpose and repair: Reuse hanging baskets, pots, window boxes and garden decorations every year. Add a fresh coat of paint and repair cracks in clay pots.
Recycle bottles or use existing rocks as edging around garden beds rather than buying stones.
Get creative. Use old chairs or other furniture to create planters and garden art. The seat of an old chair can be converted into a planter and serve as a nice conversation piece.
— Build it: Use sticks found in your yard to build a trellis. Eight long pieces can be zip-tied together in a grid and propped up anywhere in the garden. It's inexpensive and functional, and you have the freedom to construct the size and shape that fits your needs best.
As Torpey said, "I never met a stick I didn't like and couldn't use."
You also can buy rocks in bulk to build up larger or terraced flower beds, rather than paying a landscaping company to do it for you. The same goes for trimming shrubs and trees; do it yourself rather than paying someone else.
Campbell County resident Gayle Kuhbacher is reinforcing her raised beds with cement bricks. They're inexpensive, and they'll make the beds last longer than if they were lined with wooden planks that can rot.
"I get a lot more produce out of raised beds," she said, which means she can spend less at the grocery store.
"I thoroughly enjoy it. I raise tomatoes, mainly because I like to make salsa," she said.
— Spend where it counts: When you do buy new, buy things you know are going to last and buy plants that will grow well in your climate.
— Save money by saving water. Plant in sunken beds to reduce water runoff and direct water to plant roots with slopes or by positioning plant beds under downspouts. You can also use rock, sand or gravel mulch to catch and slow water flow, giving your plants more time to absorb the moisture they need. Any type of mulch prevents water evaporation, so cover your beds with mulch.
Another way to save water is to be sure your irrigation system is the right fit for your landscape, and be sure to maintain it year after year.
Murphee follows xeriscaping principles to save water in her yard. She particularly likes using drip irrigation for her smaller plant beds.
"With drip irrigation, the water goes right down to the roots, and we only water about two or three times a week," she said.
There are so many tools that you'll only use once or twice a year in your garden. If you start a community tool library, you and your neighbors can share the costs rather than all purchasing your own supplies.
If you're thinking of undertaking a big project, like building your own plant beds, see if your neighbors want in. Buying supplies — like large rocks for flower beds — in bulk and splitting the cost and materials will help you all save money.
"When you band together, you can get a lot more done," Torpey said.
Develop a relationship with the a local County Extension Office and master gardeners. They are a good resource for beginners or those who have gardened for years.
"The master gardeners do the Farmers Market in the summer. It's very nice that they do stuff like that, and everybody is so helpful with ideas and answering your questions," Kuhbacher said.
Gardening is fun and easy to build a community around.
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com