Frugality and gardening go together

Garden Muse

I grew up in a family that struggled to make ends meet. As a child, I couldn't understand why we always shopped the clearance racks for clothing, and why my parents saved everything - scraps of foil, string, rubber bands.

But unconsciously, I absorbed my parent's thrifty habits. With a modest income as a garden designer and writer, I've learned how to find enough low cost materials and plants to garden happily. You don't have to be rich - if you're innovative, you can garden on a shoestring.

Free manure

When I first took landscaping classes at Portland Community College's Rock Creek campus, I discovered rabbit hutches on the campus. I volunteered to clean out the bedding straw and manure, shoveling it into buckets (free from the neighborhood donut shop). Piling that material on top of new beds improved the soil, adding tilth and nutrition. I also spread it around shrubs to keep them moist and to smother weeds.

A thrifty friend brought me steer manure he'd salvaged from stables near his home, in exchange for plants from my garden. We traded over a period of years, until he was saturated with plants.

Making compost

Composting not only gives you great mulch, but also saves on the garbage bill. Vegetable peelings, coffee and tea grounds, egg shells, grass clippings, leaves and soft weeds break down into dark loamy compost.

Bins keep the piles tidy - I made mine out of recycled wooden fence boards - and I also make big piles (three feet or more) and let them rot on the site of an area where I'm building a new bed. Compost breaks down fastest in sun, especially when kept damp.

For a tidier look you can make chicken wire cylinders to contain the materials. Place them behind shrubs and let the contents rot over the winter. Then slide the cylinders up, allowing the compost to fall to the ground, and spread it around the shrubs to nourish them.

Starting new beds

Sculptor Patrick Gracewood says 'Cheap is my mantra when gardening - so I'll have money to spend on that expensive plant I gotta have.' He started his studio garden by layering up to four sheets of cardboard (broken down from free cartons), and topping them with three to six inches of free wood chips from arborists.

'Cardboard decays within a year,' he says. 'When you're ready to plant, pull back the mulch, cut a hole in cardboard (if it's still there), dig and plant and pull the mulch back around the plant.'

Just the other day, I stopped a tree service truck carrying a truckload of chips and asked the driver if he'd drop them at my garden. This free mulch will insulate my dahlias from winter's cold.

Free materials for walls

You'd be amazed how many folks want to give away concrete chunks, bricks and pavers from old sidewalks or patios they've torn up.

One small posting on the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon's list serve brought me recycled materials for a low wall to frame a raised bed for tomatoes. Many of the donors helped me load the heavy chunks of concrete into my Subaru, and one woman even delivered a load in her pickup, along with a hand truck she no longer needed! I still have an overflow of materials for future projects.

Free plants

We all have friends with plants that we admire, and gardeners are a most generous tribe. Actually, be sincere when praising a plant, and make sure that you really like it - the next thing you know your friend will dig up a division for you to take home.

It's also easy to start plants from cuttings, especially with a little help from experts. I've started rose cuttings in damp sand in my greenhouse, and you can even do it on a windowsill or a shaded deck. Patrick Gracewood recommends reading Rose Rustling by Mel Hulse at

Growing starts from a friend's garden is not only fun because they're free, but the added value is remembering your friend whenever you walk by the plant. I think of Connie O'Reilly when I stroll past her 'Black and Blue' salvia, of Jenny Dunn when her orange columbine colors up and of Susan Mahony when her purple and white irises bloom. I remember Marian Kuch when her coral Abutilon opens, Maryellen Coutu when her hardy orchid flowers and Tom Vetter when his ferns unfurl.

Want to share your thrifty tips and tricks? You can reach me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Coming events

• The Miniature Garden, Learn to Create a Terrarium, presented by author Wally Wagner. 10 a.m. to noon, Oct. 10, The Berry Botanic Garden, 11505 S.W. Summerville Ave., Portland, Oregon  97219-8309. Fee: $10 general public, $8 members, $5 children 12 and under.

• Creating Vibrant Indoor Containers, 10 a.m., Oct. 17, Al's Garden Center, 1220 N. Pacific Highway, Woodburn, Free and open to the public.