Friday, February 27, 2009

Gardeners: Start saving newspapers!

As Vulcan remains gripped by this long, cold winter, it's not surprising I've developed a fixation with spring. And, with thoughts turning ever-increasingly to growing things, gardening often comes to mind. It's a marvelous way to keep the budget tamed and some good produce on the table but how, you may be asking, can you bring even greater thrift to this already economical activity? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

First, if you haven't already done so, start a compost pile or bin to cut fertilizer costs. Working compost into your garden each spring can be as effective as manure and other commercial fertilizers. A compost pile is also a great place to toss vegetable trimmings and leaves, helping to relieve the garbage burden headed to the curb each week. Proteins don't "digest" well in the compost and they attract pests and critters, so keep things like cheese, meats, and egg out of there. Crushed eggshells, however, are a terrific slug deterrent when placed around susceptible plants in your garden. Composted soil can also be used for indoor plants, but that requires sterilization.

Once your compost starts producing, you'll have another use for its rich black loam. Throughout the growing season, you can make a feeding solution from it. Simply fill a tightly-woven sack -- an old pillowcase works great – with a heaping shovelful of composted material. Then, suspend the sack into a deep barrel or other large water container (minimum 25-gallon capacity.) Fill the container with water and let "steep" for several hours or until the color of strong tea. In areas with heavy rainfall, you'll want to cover the barrel so rainwater won't dilute the mixture. Use this compost-tea to spot-water any plants which need feeding, making sure to refill the barrel with water after each use so you'll have a ready supply. When the water becomes pale, simply replenish the composted material, re-submerse the sack, and allow it to "steep" again before using. At the end of the season, the barrel should be emptied and overturned.

Many of you may already be recycling newspapers. However, if you're a gardener, you may want to recycle them in an entirely new way. When laid on pathways between garden rows newspapers are very effective at keeping weeds down (without the use of herbicides,) and they'll offer a little extra cushioning when kneeling to tend your garden. The newspapers should be kept whole, and laid to overlap, much like roof shingles. Keep in mind to lay the papers in a downhill direction – water will run off the top and not underneath where it will rot the paper faster. Unless you're in a rainy area, these newsprint pathways should last the season. Then – or, whenever weather reduces the paper – they make an excellent addition to your compost. Just make sure, before using any newsprint in your garden or compost, that the inks used are vegetable-based. If you're not sure, don't use them as any toxins in the ink will leach into the soil.

Another excellent way to cut costs is seed collection. Most gardeners strive to harvest their crops before they go to seed. It's usually the wisest thing to do. However, if you find a hard-to-come-by seed stock, or a variety you've had particularly good results with, you may wish to leave a plant or two in the garden. The seeds you collect from those successful plants are proven in and acclimatized to your garden, and their seeds should remain viable for the next year if treated properly. Make sure to gently clean (no water; just toweling) and air-dry the seeds before storing in dark containers and in a cool, dry place. Label those containers, noting the plant particulars and the year of collection. Home-collected seeds won't last as long as commercial seeds, which have been chemically treated to prevent loss of viability. That said, I've had limited success with herb and flower seeds saved for up to four years!

Speaking of seeds, they are one of the most cost-effective ways to garden. Seedlings are time-saving and convenient, especially if germination space is an issue, but they can be costly: for the price of one seedling, a whole packet of seeds can be purchased and will produce several plants.

For those of you who, like me, no longer have a garden plot available to them, container gardening is an alternative to consider. Pick items you eat regularly, and don't waste space with specialty plants. I grow the salad fixings: lettuce, radishes, scallions, and cherry tomatoes. Growing your own herbs can also bring huge savings, if used frequently. Herbs also grow well as houseplants, so you can enjoy their fresh flavors year-round.

Now, what are some of your thrifty gardening tips?