A flower garden may seem like a frivolous expense in these tough economic times, but experts say there are plenty of ways to cultivate a beautiful and varied collection of blooms when money is tight.
Options for gardening on the cheap range from the labor-intensive — growing flowers from seed — to the neighborly, such as swapping plants with friends or asking a successful gardener down the street for cuttings, cup-of-sugar style.
Even flower lovers without green thumbs can find ways to save. Those who lack the time or expertise to do anything but stop by a greenhouse for annuals can cut costs by choosing low-maintenance varieties that spread out in the garden, requiring fewer plants to fill a space.
Some annuals are cheaper when purchased as bulbs rather than plants.
Still, there is no way around it: Achieving significant savings can take time and effort.
"Growing things from seed is absolutely the cheapest way to go," says Ann Hancock, a horticulturalist at Michigan State University's DeLapa Perennial Garden in East Lansing, Mich. "You pay a premium for buying already-started plants from a greenhouse."
To novices, nurturing plants from seed may seem tricky and tedious. It can require close attention over several weeks, with no guarantee of success.
Ms. Hancock and other horticulturalists suggest some simple steps:
— Plant the seeds in sterile seed mix rather than potting soil, to avoid weeds and fungus that can weaken or even kill young plants. It's OK to plant the seeds densely. Start them about six weeks before you intend to plant them outside.
— Use clean containers with holes in the bottom for good drainage. Wash them in a solution of bleach and water for at least three minutes if they've been used before. There's no need to invest in new plastic pots — even paper cups will work.
— Keep the seed mix moist by checking it frequently and misting it with a sprayer, rather than pouring water on it.
— After planting the seeds, cover the container with plastic wrap to help prevent them from drying out.
— To ensure adequate light and minimize the risk of the seedlings drying out, put the containers under a fluorescent shop light or ultraviolet light rather than in direct sunlight. Hang the light about 3 inches above the containers.
— When the plants come up, remove the plastic wrap.
— When the plants become seedling size, transplant them to a tray with cells, using soilless mix and putting one plant in each cell.
— When the seedlings get three or four leaves, they're ready to go into the garden.
Plants that can be started indoors or seeded directly into the garden include zinnias, marigolds, snapdragons, sunflowers, and nasturtiums.
Sunflowers in particular can be started from seed pretty easily, and there are many kinds to choose from, says Charlie Nardozzi, a National Gardening Association horticulturist based in Burlington, Vt.
"Some of the newer varieties are not as big as the old varieties, and they have multiple heads," Mr. Nardozzi says. "They produce from midsummer right to frost."
A bonus with sunflowers: birdseed.
Other good varieties to start indoors from seed include cosmos and cleome, also known as spider flower.
Plugging into a network of flower enthusiasts can be another way to save, says Ellen Hartranft, a horticulturist at Brookside Gardens, a public botanical park in Wheaton, Md.
Check your local botanical garden for plant society shows and sales, go to charity plant sales or take part in garden club plant exchanges.
"If you can't find a formal sale, just ask your friends and neighbors. If someone you know has a beautiful garden, they're often willing to share cuttings or divisions," Ms. Hartranft says.
Spring is an ideal time to ask, because that's when gardeners are often dividing perennials into multiple plants.
"It's a good way to get a more established plant even than you would if you purchased it at a nursery," she says. "A division of a sturdy, successful, hearty plant is more likely to succeed in your garden."
Daylilies, bee balm, black-eyed susan, phlox, and hostas are among easy-to-divide, easy-to-care-for perennials.
For novices, buying plants from a greenhouse is often the safest option, Nardozzi says.
Greenhouse annuals that grow to cover a lot of ground include impatiens, petunias, cosmos, snapdragons, and marigolds. Annuals and perennials that can be cheaper if purchased as bulbs include caladiums, begonias, and dahlias.
And plant prices come down after peak growing season.
"They might be a little ragged-looking, but you can save 40 or 50 percent," Nardozzi says.
The plants can bounce right back with a little tender loving care, he adds.
Gardeners in areas with poor soil can save by creating raised beds, building up the sides with cinderblocks, brick or other material and then putting fresh soil in, to lessen the chance the soil will flatten out or leach away and have to be replaced, Nardozzi says.
Those who decide to skip flowers this year would do well to put in a cover crop such as buckwheat or rye grass that can be cut or turned under, Nardozzi says. That will look nice, build up the soil's fertility for next year's garden and help control weeds.
Still, even in the Great Depression people had flower gardens, Hartranft notes.
"People can actually grow vegetables in their flower borders," she says. "The act of gardening relieves stress, and it's important to have beauty when you're surrounded by depressing news."
Adds Michigan State's Hancock: "I would never advocate buying flowers if you have a house payment or an electricity bill to pay. But having said that, if you have your basics covered, you know, flowers are good for the soul."
(Editor's note: We invite you to visit the main page of the Monitor’s gardening site , where you can find many articles, essays, and blog posts on various garden topics.)