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6 Tips for Saving in the Garden

Swapping plants and collecting rainwater can cut your growing costs.

Starting and maintaining a garden doesn't have to cost a fortune. Swapping seeds and plants, making your own compost for fertilizing and collecting rainwater are among the many smart ways to get that bumper crop without going bankrupt. As a bonus, gardening is a great activity for keeping fit, enjoying the outdoors and meeting the neighbors. Here's a closer look at some of the best strategies for saving money in the garden.

See also: Money-saving uses of eggshells.

1. Swap 'til you drop

"One of the best ways to get plants for free is to exchange with your neighbors or friends," says Joanie Bolton, a 68-year-old blogger and self-described penny-pinching grandma in Gulf Breeze, Fla., who rarely pays for her plants. "I might be at someone's house and see a beautiful plant and ask them for a cutting."

If hitting up your neighbors for plants during a social visit isn't your thing, then keep an eye out for formal plant swaps. Many neighborhoods organize them in the spring. Check online community message boards and look for fliers posted at local libraries. Not only is a plant swap free, but it's also a way to forge relationships with neighbors you might not otherwise meet.

2. Sow your own seeds

Another option that involves less socializing is to buy seeds instead of plants. Seeds require more time and TLC, but they can save you a bundle. According to Susan Littlefield, horticultural editor for the National Gardening Association, a single young plant can cost about the same as an entire packet of seeds.

3. Skip the spring rush

Savvy shoppers who lack patience or a green thumb forgo seeds, opting instead to wait until after the growing season is under way before buying plants. Once the initial frenzy of planting has passed, nurseries are more likely to lower prices to move surplus inventories of plants, mulch and the like. Gardening tools can also be had on the cheap later in the season.

Next: Trim your water bill and make your own fertilizer. >>

4. Roll out the rain barrel

Water bills, especially in the summer, can add up fast unless you have your own well. But plants and flowers need a lot of water to thrive. To save on watering costs, you can collect rainwater instead of tapping the municipal spigot. You can buy a basic rain barrel, starting at around $100, that attaches to a downspout. Check local ordinances for any limitations on rain barrels, and make sure to put a screen on the barrel to keep out unwanted debris.

5. Water wisely

If you live in a dry climate, you can save money on watering costs by using a drip irrigation system or soaker hoses. Both distribute water at the soil level, where the plants need it most. An overhead sprinkler may cost less up front, but a lot of the water ends up getting lost to evaporation or the wind. Another option, albeit slightly more exerting, is to use a hose or water canister to water your plants manually, which could end up being therapeutic for your own health as well as your plants'.

6. Make your own fertilizer

A necessary component for a healthy garden, fertilizer doesn't come free — unless you make your own. You can do so by starting a compost pile, which is basically a collection of partially decomposed organic material that can be added back into the soil to nourish plants. Throw almost anything organic into your compost, including rotting leaves, leftover vegetables, banana peels, coffee grounds, carrot peels and even eggshells.

You can designate a small corner of your garden for a compost pile. Keep in mind that it could take up to a year for all of the waste to break down, so start composting this season with next season's garden in mind. Some local governments provide compost bins to residents at little or no cost to encourage waste recycling. Do a search on your city or county website, or check with your local cooperative extension.

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