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Smart Money Advice for Rookie Gardeners

Gnomes at the Gnome Reserve, Devon, UK.
Gnomes at the Gnome Reserve, Devon, UK. MBP-one—Alamy

Before you dig in with plans for a big garden project, or an entirely new garden, consider this brutally honest advice from some experts in the field.

When the clueless aspiring gardener heads down to the local garden-supply shop or home improvement store and randomly scoops up whatever looks good, two results are likely: He’ll blow a ton of money, and not much will grow as planned. Yes, to some extent, gardening is a matter of trial and error. But completely winging it, without doing much in the way of doing research or seeking sound, practical advice from folks with experience, will be an exercise in futility—and wasteful spending.

Sources such as This Old House and Southern Living’s Grumpy Gardener blog are undoubtedly trustworthy and worth exploring for recommendations and insights. I’ve also come to enjoy the advice, attitude, and outspoken and opinionated takes on gardening at Garden Rant, an independent group blog featuring the work of gardening writers around the country.

We asked a few of the Garden Ranters to name the best (and worst) ways to spend money when trying to get a garden growing. All agree that there are smart and not-so-smart ways to allocate one’s landscaping budget, and they promised not to pull punches, especially when it comes to anything they consider a total waste of money.

Best Way to Spend Your Gardening Dollars
Here are some areas where it doesn’t pay to skimp. They may not be the sexiest or most eye-catching aspects of gardening—heck, they may not even be things that a newbie gardener thinks of for half a second—but they’ll help you lay the foundation for a beautiful yard, so they’re more valuable than even the prettiest plant.

Hardscape
According to Ranter Evelyn Hadden, the overall look of the garden can be defined by the stuff that doesn’t grow at all—namely, manmade structures like paths, patios, and walls. “Put in the right hardscape,” she says, “and the garden will feel comfortable and more finished even while the plants are small. Invest a little more in artistic paving and walls that will provide winter beauty.”

Structural Plants
Susan Harris, who recently launched DCGardens.com, a resource for gardeners and garden lovers in greater Washington, D.C., stresses the importance of basics such as shrubs, trees, and groundcover. Sure, they “may not ‘pop’ with floral display, but they’re the plants that make the garden in three years or so,” says Harris. Garden Rant colleague Elizabeth Licata is on the same page concerning the importance of structural plants. “Trees and shrubs also provide important habitat for birds and beneficial insects,” she says.

Trustworthy Gardening Books
Ivette Soler, the Ranter also known as The Germinatrix, advises against solely relying on the Internet for gardening information. “Buy the classic garden books for your climate and area of interest,” she says. “Many of the resources on Internet search engines are conflicting, confusing, or just give you a tiny bite of pertinent info. Go old-school and buy books. Look for the big, heavy books brimming with horticultural knowledge, and make sure the information is applicable to the area of the U.S. where you garden.”

For people living in the West, for instance, the Sunset Western Garden Book comes heavily recommended. No matter where you live, America’s Garden Book, featuring the input of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s staff, and Hortus Third: A Concise Dictionary of Plants Cultivated in the United States and Canada, are worthwhile classics.

Design Help
Even if you always imagined a garden as a purely DIY project, it’s wise to consult a professional landscape designer. (You can find them in your area listed here.) Using a pro to help with your overall garden design may save years of failure. “Good designers know the right places for the right plants,” says Harris. Licata points out that a designer can provide the equivalent of a handsome frame, which the artist—i.e., you—can fill with a changing palette of color and texture.

Hired Muscle
For hardscape installation and big yard cleanup jobs, don’t be a hero. Harris and Licata, among others, say that they save their backs for the fun stuff, and they never regret paying a crew of landscapers for a hard day’s work.

Worst Ways to Spend Your Gardening Dollars
Alongside your home itself, a garden can easily turn into a money pit. Stay away from the following traps that snag too many rookie gardeners.

Fancy Overpriced Plants
The kinds of books recommended above should clue you in as to what kinds of plants do well in your neck of the woods, as will a rudimentary look around at what’s flourishing in your neighbor’s yards. On the other hand, be wary of obscure and unproven plants, even if they are gorgeous in the store.

Licata cautions against the fancy hybrids of tried-and-true perennials: “Those glow-in-the-dark, double Echinacea (coneflower) may look great for one season, but they are not as hardy and reliable as the original pink varieties.” The biggest difference between the hybrids and their native forebears, she ways, is in price.

“And beware of those big, fat perennials,” adds Allen Bush, who works at wholesale producer and seller Jelitto Seeds. “They look tempting, but the smaller sizes soon catch up in size, and they’re cheaper and easier to plant, too.”

Seed Starting Kits
“If you’re not detail-oriented, save yourself some headaches and spring for the little plants,” Hadden advises. “Or start with easy seeds like sunflowers and peas that you plant directly in the ground.” Licata notes that in areas with short summers such as New England, seed-starters must emulate greenhouse conditions in order to be successful. That’s just beyond the capabilities of many home gardeners.

Commercial Pesticides and Fertilizers
Landscaping companies constantly mail out fliers to homeowners or call up out of the blue to give the sales pitch for special garden or lawn treatments. The Ranters say that homeowners should pass. “Not only are these expensive, most of the chemicals literally flow down the drain, polluting our waterways,” says Licata. “Even home applications of the store-bought potions can be expensive. And they often don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

Instead, she suggests that gardeners make their own compost and simply spread shredded leaves as a natural mulch. An organic garden creates its own protection against pests. Weeds in an organic lawn can be tolerated under the “mow what grows” policy, says Harris. And in perennial gardens, tight planting of healthy plants make weeding minimal or nonexistent.

Mass-Produced Garden “Art”
Soler is emphatic on this. “Just say no to tchotchkes!” she declares. “Let flowers, foliage, and hummingbirds be the art in your garden, plus a few high-quality pots.”

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