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By The Numbers

7 lessons the global economy teaches us about gardening

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Jun 28, 2013

Let’s just get this out of the way first: I just spent $124 on worms. Actually they’re microscopic worms called beneficial nematodes. They are supposed to kill the eggs and larvae of harmful insects. We spread some out around the garden a few weeks ago.

And that get’s us to garden tip No. 1, straight from Wall Street.

1. You’ve gotta spend money to save money. That’s because after the worms, my other splurge this year was architectural in nature. I just spent $60 on some fancy hoops and netting designed to keep bugs off plants. I plan to use them to protect my kale. Sometimes you have to make one-time expenditures like that, to keep your garden healthy. But you don’t have spend an arm and a leg.

So without further ado, here are the other six reasons that all you need to know about frugal gardening you learned in Econ 101:

2. Just like compound interest and your 401(k), you need to start early: It’s much cheaper to buy seeds than plants. If you’re really organized, you can start your plants inside in the late winter/early spring, and have your own seedlings ready to go when it gets warm enough to plant. I’ve never been organized enough to do this. But I’m vowing to try it next year.

3. Cooperative economics work! You can split the cost of seeds with a group of friends. Then swap the plants you grow. Marie Iannotti does that — she’s a master gardener and’s gardening guide. She says starting a plant swap is easy. She told me:

“You don’t need all the seeds in a packet. If you can get a group of friends and you each decide what you want to grow and split the cost and split the seeds. Have one person start the tomatoes and another start the kale and then you have a plant swap when they’re all up and you’re ready to start planting.”   

You can also get together with your buddies to buy stuff in bulk. It’s much cheaper to have a truckload of soil delivered than buy separate bags of compost at the hardware store.

4. Don’t forget about opportunity cost. Some veggies, like potatoes and cabbage, are sold pretty cheaply at your grocery store. So plant things that cost a lot in your produce department. Things like fancy lettuce, and herbs.  Jessica Patel is a personal finance analyst at She focuses on food and gardening. Patel says you can buy an entire basil plant for the cost of a bunch of fresh basil in the store.

She tells me, “If you go to a store and you’re buying organic basil you buy it in a little bunch and it’ll cost you around $5. I know for me, when I would buy basil, I would use it for that night, and then after that, the rest of it would go to waste in the fridge.” Patel says, if you plant your own herbs, you avoid wasting food and money.

5. Adaptability and flexibility beat high-priced talent, every time. Both Patel and Iannotti say you don’t have to buy expensive toys. (I hang my head in shame.) Those fancy hoops and that netting I bought to cover my kale? I could have made them easily, according to Patel. She says, just bend old coat hangers into the shape you want. Find some cheesecloth to drape over it and you’re done! Patel even made a trellis out of coat hangers. Iannotti uses old coffee cans to stake things and ripped-up tee shirts for ties. You don’t need to buy special weed-killing ground cloth. (Like we did.) Just cover the ground with newspapers. They’ll choke out the weeds.

6. Seasonality rules and timing is everything. Buy tools and other garden supplies in the fall. Stores are looking to empty their shelves of summer things, to make room for Halloween and even Christmas items. And scour yard sales all year round for garden stuff.

Iannotti  says, “People who’ve given up on gardening will often try and get rid of all their gardening supplies… a lot of  times you can find tools.  Sometimes people have netting that they’ve never even opened.”

7. As they say in the West, “liquor’s for drinking, water’s for fightin:”  We pay for our water and boy, does it add up! We installed an underground irrigation system. It’s an initial expense, but it saves lots of water, and money, in the long run because it cuts down on evaporation. Don’t want to invest in irrigation? Don’t worry. You can still save by watering in the early morning or evening, when you’ll lose less to evaporation.

OK  — there you have it. Seven easy ways to save. The big question is, will I be able to follow my own advice? I’m doing an experiment this summer. Roughly keeping track of what I spend on my garden. To see if I at least break even. I’m tweeting about it. You can follow me:  @MarshallGenzer 

If I fall off the wagon and buy more fancy gadgets I don’t need, I’ll confess! But, for now at least, I’m feeling frugal.  

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