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Cultivating your own food doesn't have to cost a bundle

  • Marybeth Kampman
  • Gardening is in. Everyone is trying his or her hand at growing his or her own. For some the decision stems from wanting to establish a relationship with the food they eat. For others it is a way to commune with nature and get exercise. And then there is the practical side of gardening - it saves money.

    I garden for all those reasons, but recently wondered how economically viable it is to grow your own. Viewing some of the prices at my neighborhood gardening center made me question the possibility of creating a flourishing garden on a budget. So I took the challenge and decided to see if it was possible to be a truly frugal gardener.

    Planning is the first step to starting a garden that will be truly sustainable. Planting a successful garden takes more than a strong back and a shovel. Some basic knowledge about your site and what it takes to make a garden thrive are necessary. Instead of hiring a garden planner, try joining the DYI (do it yourself) movement. The result may be that you will find yourself more connected to your garden. If you plan and understand your garden's underlying structure, your gardening efforts will be more successful and therefore more rewarding.

    Designate some time to do some online research. A great place to start is the California Gardening website (http://cagardenweb.ucdavis.edu), developed by the UC Statewide Master Gardener Program in conjunction with the University of California Cooperative Extension. Here you can discover your climate zone and find information specific to it.

    Along with gardening basics, there is information for plant selection, seasonal tips and dealing with pests and weeds. A helpful calendar of classes and events lists hands-on learning experiences for the home gardener.

    You can also download free PDF files filled with gardening and landscaping tips from the Bay-Friendly Landscaping and Gardening Coalition, a nonprofit that focuses specifically on promoting sustainable landscaping and gardening practices in the Bay Area (www.bayfriendlycoalition.org).

    Raise your beds

    For the new or urban gardener, raised beds or container gardening is a good option. When visiting gardening stores, you may be tempted by the beautiful but often pricey pots and containers. Try instead to get in touch with your creative side and repurpose and recycle containers and lumber into raised beds or planters.

    A good place to start is Marin Freecycle (www.marincountyfreecycle.org). Recently I searched gardening supplies and came up with offers for used lumber, pots and garden sculptures. Everything posted is free, and you can request items or advertise things that you no longer need. You may even find yourself making a plant exchange buddy.

    Another site that offers free materials along with opportunities to swap or barter items or services is MarinMax (www.marin max.org/index.cfm). It also lists garage sales and other resources for recycling.

    If you are feeling particularly creative, head over to the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse (www.creativereuse.org). It is a treasure trove of discarded goods just waiting to be repurposed into garden art, trellises, birdhouses or unique water elements.

    Build healthy soil

    Remember that gardens are all about the soil. Of course you should start your own compost or worm bin. You can find out everything you need to know, about composting at www.howtocompost.org/default.asp. Until your compost gets into full production, go to your local soil company; it's cheaper to shovel and haul your own soil, compost or mulch than to buy it by the bag in a garden store.

    Horse stables often give away bedding for free. To avoid burning tender plants, horse manure should be composted for three to six months before putting directly on the garden. Contact your local rabbit rescue organization for rabbit pellets, which make great fertilizer and can be directly placed on the garden.

    Many tree services offer free wood chips that can be used for mulch or decoratively for walkways. Be sure to inquire about the type of wood being chipped.

    Seeds and cuttings

    The least-expensive way to garden is to grow plants from seeds or cuttings. It pays, however, to be mindful of the origin of the seeds you are planting. MCSTOPP (Marin County Stormwater Pollution Prevention Program) offers a comprehensive list of nurseries selling natives and organic seeds (http://mcstoppp.org/garden.htm). Another great site to view images and find out more about a particular plant is CalPhotos(http://calphotos.berkeley.edu//flora), where you can browse plants by their scientific or common name.

    Once your garden is underway learn to save seeds by going to the Seeds of Change website (www.seedsofchange.com). Many local groups such as Sustainable Fairfax (www.sustainablefairfax.org) and Marin Open Garden Project (http://opengarden

    project.blogspot.com) include seed saving and exchange programs.

    Save water

    Creating a water-wise garden will save you money for years to come, as well as being kind to the environment. Learn about water-wise plants by using sustainable irrigation methods. Go to the UC Marin Master Gardener Water Wise Plant Selector Guide (http://groups.ucanr.org/MGPG/index.cfm). Once you have set up a system, use the Marin Municipal Water site (www.marinwater.org) to set a weekly watering schedule.

    You may also want to learn more about new laws for rainwater and gray water harvesting; find the latest updates online at Marin Municipal Water's site.

    If you are like me, your Web search will lead you to new ideas and options for creating a beautiful sustainable garden on a budget.