I've been thinking a lot about landscaping since we moved here. They stripped the land of topsoil, and the sand over slag is depressing. Over the last few weeks I've tried to throw some eggshells on the plants that need calcium (flowering plants first, then poor growers), and tried to water here and there, but much more needs to be done. The yard is practically bare. Not a lot of earthworms, either.
The soil is poor and needs to be enriched, but dirt is the last thing I want to spend money on. A little Googling and some creative thinking, and I've come up with an on-the-cheap gardening plan that includes finding things free or dirt cheap:
1. Free Compost. Lasagna or hole composting appeals to me -- this is where you layer "browns and greens" in a hole or strip. (Browns are papery -- dry leaves, paper, or cardboard; Greens are kitchen scraps, green leaves, anything with life left in it.) Cover it with soil and mulch and let it cook over several months. If you want to plant in the bed immediately, most advise you include some "finished" compost, worm castings, or enriched soil to the mix; however, if you can wait the winter you can just let it be.
My Plan: Collect free composting materials around the house, and dig holes around existing plants and trees. Improve the beds with Lasagna Composting once November hits. I'm also considering worm composting, but honestly that grosses me out,
and I can't seem to discover what the native worms of Maryland are, in
case they escape.
Browns: Shreded newspapers. I usually just recycle, can be used to tamp down leaves, but their high Carbon/Nitrogen ratio makes them poor choices for a compost heap. (Cardboard can also be used to tamp down weeds in a bed, but is a poor brown because of the high carbon rate.) Fallen leaves are the best choice for browns, as are, oddly, corn stalks and hay (grass clippings). I'm having trouble coming up with browns.
Greens: Kitchen scraps daily include 3-6 eggshells (the twoddlers eat a lot of eggs!); 2-3 banana peels. 1 cup other kitchen greens. The occasional spoiled veggie/fruit. Deadheads and twigs off existing plants.
I plan to save the day's scraps in an airtight container for a 2-3 days, outside where the heat will make them start to rot quickly. Then I dig one small hole, and fill it with the scraps and twice as many browns, a 2:1 ration being the easiest rule to follow. I'm starting with a bed that I don't plan to plant soon, but which has several young boxwoods that need nutrients badly. It may not be the best plan, but it's doable right now!
2. Grow items from seed. Duh. This is cheap, and instructive too. The twins can learn how to grow flowers, and one little packet provides 20-50 plants.
My plan: I'm starting with Purple Coneflower and Mammoth Sunflower seeds, for the excitement, and the seeds the sunflowers will provide wildlife. Later maybe I can dry the stalks, like Corn stalks, for more browns. Chives I've heard are beneficial to roses. Seed packs cost about $1 at most stores, and I bought about $10 worth to get started, but I should have checked into sales because at the end of the season I've heard you can get seeds for 10 cents a pack. Free seeds can be had from other plants; I plan to liberate some Redbud seeds from a local park -- just a handful, 50 or so. Then I can start some of these beautiful trees this winter indoors, and in a couple of years, hopefully I'll have enough to line the side yard.
For containers in which to grow seeds, I'm saving cardboard egg crates. I cut them into four pieces: the egg side, the lid, and the tab I cut off and and cut in half. I thread the two tab halves through the holes in the lid, to create a more secure seal. Then I'm going to put the egg crate inside the lid (nested) to provide extra protection again overwatering. The seedlings can be easily cut apart and planted whole, like a peat cup, providing some "browns" to the soil when I plant.
I'll also need plastic containers, but these are widely available free.Or I can line a styrofoam egg crate with the cardboard variety. It's also easy to stockpile pots included with any plants I do buy. For big, cheap pots, the Dollar Store has nice 3-gal cleaning buckets into which I can poke holes for drainage.
3. Get Free plants
Here's a place to get creative. Plant co-ops, plant exchanges, or a friend and eager gardener with a mature garden can provide you with free plants. I've read you can also get plants free if you see someone digging up a display and they're throwing them away. I saw this a week ago and missed out! Is someone ripping down another old-growth forest near you? Ask for permission to remove saplings and other plants before they do! Keep a plastic bag and a container in your car -- I'm thinking a box lined with a bag -- for this purpose.
An aunt with a lot of volunteer trees in her yard offered us free saplings, and we're taking some river birch and maybe some holly's. I'd love some Eastern Red Cedars!
4. Get cheap plants
I spotted the 50% off bin at Lowes the other day, but only walked away with a $5 verbena in fine shape. Dunno why it was on there, except most of the flowers had bloomed and it was really lopsided for a hanging plant. Verbena in a pint pot is $4. I got at least enough verbena in one hanging plant to equal 6 of those, so a savings of about $19.
I've read you can ask nurseries if you can look through their castoffs, which may appear dead. You're taking a risk here that the plant is dead (or worse, diseased), but at the minimum you get a plastic pot and some free dirt.
5. Use Native Plans
The Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources lists lots of native plants for your garden. The Maryland Native Plant Society lists local growers and providers of native plants who hold annual open sales; the MNPS also has sales in the spring. Haven't made it to one yet, but I'm committed to using only native plants. They are lower maintenance and far better for the environment than imported invasives. Locally grown means lower shipping charges, less water (natives are used to the local rainfall to provide what water they need), and less maintenance all translate into more savings.
6. Invest in big specimens.
"The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago." No one planted any here to shade the enormous, south-facing deck when they built it, and no one planted any in the 20 years since. If I can't find the Eastern Red Cedar or a fast-growing shade tree, I may have to buy a couple.
Become a member of the Arbor Day Foundation and get 10 "free" trees for a $10, 6mo membership fee ($15 annual). You could theoretically repeat this to as many adults as live in your house, or a friend/family member could gift their trees to you for their membership fee! This is an astoundingly good deal. There is NO S&H.
As a bonus, you can easily access several lists of trees that will work in your natural environment. If you're a minimalist about research, just go on the site, click on the free tree offer, and plug in your zip. You can then choose the "Flowering Tree Mix" for a list of 5 trees for your region, or the "10 Tree mix" for a list of deciduous trees that will work for you. Or you can order 10 of the same tree for several varieties. Then you can research just those trees for your soil type and available light.
So what's the Catch? The trees are 2yo saplings only about 8 inches tall, and need to be planted within 5 days, and protected from pests who just love a tender sapling; also, they only ship trees Spring and Fall.
My Plan: Join the ABF for $15 (1yr), upgrade to $25 member to get their Guide to Trees normally $15, which I can use for shopping, education, and in my back yard. (Interestingly, if you get the $10 membership they also offer you the $25 upgrade to include the Guide, so if you want the Guide get the $15 membership because it's the same effective cost ($25) and you get an extra 6 months of membership). You get 33% off all tree purchases as a member, BTW.
My goal is to spend as little as possible of course. We're already in for trees, but I plan not to spend money on anything but big specimens and needed equipment
Lastly, garden ornaments. Chairs, tables, pots, all cost money, so I'll be trolling the summer yardsales and flea markets, not to mention the thrift stores, and Craig's list, looking for pots, plants, and gardening equipment.