Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Marin IJ Articles

Give Your Wallet a Break!

July 14, 2008
Nanette Londeree

Skyrocketing gas prices, plummeting home values and the escalating cost of food are taking a toll on our wallets. People are scrambling to find ways to cut costs, including gardening—especially if you’re mostly growing lawn and ornamental plants rather than food crops. What’s a gardener to do? Are there ways to save money and still have a healthy and beautiful garden? You bet. The highest costs related to gardening are feeding, pest control and watering. Here are a few ideas to help keep those greenbacks in your wallet:

Feeding your plants or lawn can cost a mint depending on what kind of products you use, when and how often you feed them. First off, don’t feed your plants if they don’t need it. Adding fertilizer too early in the season can be a total waste of money since plants really don’t utilize a lot of nutrients until the soil warms up. In the heat of summer, flowering plants often struggle to produce blooms, and the result can be some pretty puny flowers, so added nutrients may be for naught. If you have healthy fertile soil, and you added compost in the spring, that should be enough to keep plants going for much of the season.
Alternatively, rather than feed on a calendar-based schedule, watch your plants and feed them if they show signs of needing a particular nutrient, then give them only what they need. Why add lots of nitrogen to the soil if all you’re after is a boost in phosphorus? The cost of an all-purpose fertilizer is higher than using phosphorus rich bone meal.
Time-released fertilizers seem like a boon to the gardener—saving time and effort by a single addition in the spring. These little ball-like granules of complete fertilizer are coated with a substance that allows some of the fertilizer to be released into the soil when in contact with water. The products are significantly more expensive than a general purpose fertilizer, so take care where you use them. If you use a drip system for irrigating, this type of fertilizer won’t do you much good; it will just sit in the soil until the rainy season. If you water often with a hose, you may use it up quickly; and if you apply too early in the season, the nutrients can get flushed out of the soil by spring rains before the plant has the opportunity to use them.
Finally, don’t be swayed by fancy specialized products or high cost brand names; your plants won’t know the difference. Often, these products are simply nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in various concentrations and you can find them in less expensive, generic products. Read the product label, see what it contains to determine if it has what you really need—nitrogen for healthy green leaves, phosphorus for promoting flowering, fruiting and strong root growth or potassium for overall plant health.
Pest control may cost nothing if you don’t use any fungicide or insecticide. Letting nature do her thing will not only help your finances, but it’s good for the environment. If you do use pesticides, purchase the most concentrated material available. “Ready to use” products can cost as much as ten times more per application than the product you have to dilute. Concentrated products also last longer.
One of the most expensive types of products to use, and the worst for the environment, are multi-purpose ones that tout one-step care for feeding and protecting against disease and insect pests. Now why would you want to treat your plants or lawn with pesticides if they don’t need it? Would you give your family daily doses of antibiotics just in case one is exposed to an infection? Imagine the cost of that, the toll it would take on their system, and the fact that it may weaken their natural defenses and make them less able to fight off disease. Using pesticide in a preventive manner is basically the same approach for your plants. You’ll save a lot of money by staying away from combination products, and be kinder to the environment at the same time.
Do you use an herbicide to get rid of weeds? By adding 2-3 inches of mulch on the soil surface you can prevent weeds and the need for an herbicide. It will also conserve water. And, you can get if for FREE if you make your own compost. You can also get free wood chips to use as mulch from many tree services (make sure they are not from diseased trees), or the Novato Corporation Yard at 550 Davidson Street in Novato.
Watering is not only a very significant expense during the summer months, it’s a natural resource that can be in limited supply during drought periods. The most efficient watering method for most plants (other than lawns) is by drip irrigation. That delivers water only to the plant that needs it, and not to adjacent soil. Directing water use this way reduces overall volume and will keep weeds down at the same time. Water when the plants need it, again, not based on a schedule. And you can often water less frequently if you water deeply.
If you use one or more of these suggestions, you’ll likely save not only some greenbacks for your wallet but also take steps for going “green” at the same time. A pretty good bargain all the way around.

Top of page

Webmaster Email: banielsen@ucanr.edu