Nine landscaping, gardening skills to pick up to save money

Love the outdoors – and your backyard? Learn these nine skills to not only make your lawn and yard beautiful, but also to save you money.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
A woman works in her garden in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, on August 30, 2011. Planning your garden in advance will give you an edge over nature and will save you some serious money.

Like most activities, a little planning and preparation will save you money in the garden. Why? Because many of the tasks that help make a garden grow need to be completed weeks, or months, before you actually begin planting. Planning your garden in advance will give you an edge over nature (which will do its best to destroy your garden) and will save you some serious money.

The following nine skills will help you to plan, plant, and enjoy a healthy garden (while saving some money, too).

1. Soil Analysis

Okay, you're not expected to become an actual expert on soil pH, but if you doubt that your soil provides ideal growing conditions for the plants you intend to grow, it would behoove you to test your soil's pH before planting your garden. You can either use a DIY soil pH test or buy a soil pH kit online or from your local hardware store. Once you know if your soil is acidic, neutral, or alkaline, you can plant your garden according to pH, or try to change your soil's pH to meet your plants' needs.

Also, being able to ascertain if your soil type meets the needs of the plants you are sowing can save you time and money in the long run. What kind of soil do you have in your garden? Knowing which of the six types of soil that you are dealing with can help you better plan and plant your garden so that you don't lose any plants to soil compatibility problems. Soil type can vary even within your yard, and will determine, as much as sunlight, what kinds of plants are successful in a given spot.

Of course, you can always alter soil by removing or adding elements. If you have soil that is too sandy for your needs, you can remove some of the sand, and add silt and clay to it to aid water retention and infuse nutrients.

Speaking of nutrients, you can save lots of money if you do your own…

2. Composting (or Worm Binning)

Composting is a great way to reuse yard waste, lawn clippings, and food stuff that you might normally throw away and turn it into nutrients for your garden. Yes, of course you can buy commercially produced compost, but if you have the space and the time, why not DIY it and save some money?

Composting can be a bit smelly, but there are ways to compost while minimizing odors.

Composting is fairly easy to get started, and will provide you with plenty of excellent, nutrient-rich soil for your garden. To be ready for spring planting, start your compost bin/pile in early autumn.

3. Sun Exposure Charting

Another key consideration when planning your garden is to determine how many hours of daily sunlight each part of your garden receives. My neighbors, recent transplants from Southern California, recently planted a bunch of shade-loving plants in their front yard, assuming that because we live in a mossy, rainy area, those were the types of plants that would do best. What they didn't consider is that, during the summer months, their front yard receives about six hours of direct sunlight per day.

You can use DIY sun exposure charts to determine how much sun your garden receives, or buy a sunlight meter for less than $20 and let the little machine do the work for you. Once you have your garden mapped for sun exposure, you can plan for your plants.

4. Seed Germination

Buying seeds is a smart way to save money, especially if you buy them on sale at the end of summer and plant them the next year. Seed starts are usually much cheaper than buying grown plants or seedlings (although this depends on the size of your garden; if it's quite small, buying grown plants might make more sense). Buying seeds also gives you the option to seek out unusual or heirloom varieties of the flowers, fruits, and vegetables that can't necessarily be found in plant form at your local nursery.

Some plants can be sown directly into your garden soil, and other seeds need to be germinated inside and transplanted as seedlings after the final frost. Make sure to read the instructions on the packet of each type of seed that you buy to understand the best way to plant.

5. Planter Building

If you want a slightly more ergonomic garden (and a leg up on pest control), you'd be smart to consider building raised garden beds yourself. If you can't stand the thought of doing this, you can always buy raised garden beds, but trust me, building them is much cheaper.

6. Diligent Pest Control

I have to be honest — I'm perfectly comfortable using chemical sprays and slug death pellets in my garden, because I've had no luck with copper tape or bug traps. Whatever your preferences for pest control (organic and earth-friendly pest control or death-to-bugs-type methods), pest control is a money-saver. After all, letting all your veggies succumb to some creepy-crawly insect isn't a wise investment of time or cash.

Veggie gardeners who prefer natural pest control methods report success when planting flowers like zinnias, nasturtiums, calendula, cosmos, and sweet alyssum in their vegetable gardens. These plants attract predator bugs that take out annoying pests like tomato hornworms and aphids. You can buy batches of ladybugs online and in garden stores, too.

7. Pollenating

You've probably heard about the significant decline in the bee population. If you want your trees and bushes to bear fruit, you're going to need pollinators like bees and moths to visit your garden. You can attract these helpful insects by planting bee-attracting wildflowers in your garden, either interspersed with your fruits and veggies or alongside them.

If you aren't seeing the volume of pollinating insects that you normally do, you can use the trick my husband uses to get our tomatoes to yield more fruit through airborne pollen — run an electric toothbrush against the back of your blossoms. After all, there are few things more frustrating to a gardener than a paltry tomato crop!

8. Tool Care and Maintenance

You don't have to buy expensive garden tools in order to be a good gardener, but you should treat your gardening implements well in order to keep them in working order for years. I'm a lazy, lazy gardener, and I can attest that having to buy a new shovel every few months is not only costly, but it's also kind of stupid.

To keep your garden tools in good working order, remember to clean them, hang them up dry, and occasionally oil what needs oiling. Clean, well-stored tools will continue to work for you season after season.

9. Intelligent Harvesting and Pruning

Part of being a smart gardener is knowing how to care for perennials, and that means learning when and how to prune your plants. Pruning isn't just about keeping plants a manageable size; it's the art of learning what superfluous matter to cut away so that a plant will concentrate its energy on producing what matters most to you — whether that's fruit, flowers, or perfect leaves.

If you are growing food in your garden, you'll want to learn how to prune your vegetable plants and harvest herbs, fruits, and vegetables in a way that allows the plant to continue growing. For instance, pruning herbs like mint can actually promote more plant growth.

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