Saving Your Seed Money

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William Alexander once spent $1,219 to produce 19 perfect heirloom tomatoes in his garden. He got a book out of it: "The $64 Tomato" (Algonquin; $13.95). Luckily, the book helped him recoup some of his green, though he still describes himself as the "poster child for spending too much in the garden."

Chances are, however, that his approach won't pay off for anyone else. Last year Americans invested some $34 billion on their lawns and gardens, with three of every four homeowners getting into the dirt. That's $401 per family, and that doesn't even include the designer deck chairs, umbrella tables, outdoor kitchens, gourmet grills and weatherproof TV sets that have grown so popular in the last few years. It's lovely to enjoy the great outdoors, but not if it's generating so many bills you can't afford to leave work long enough to smell those roses. Here's a fresh crop of suggestions for saving money in the garden.

Start small. Smaller bushes and trees are less expensive to buy, and easier and cheaper to plant. They'll adapt better to your garden, too. Mail-order garden catalogs like bluestoneperennials.com and classygroundcovers.com specialize in selling tiny perennial plants for fewer dollars, so you can get more plants and then invest time, instead of money, in watching them get big.

But don't bother to start your own little seedlings indoors before it's warm enough to put them in the ground; that's a cost-saving myth, says Alexander. Do bother with seeds if you can sow them directly into the yard: cucumbers, lettuce, greens and some herbs do well this way, and you'll have enough left over to store or share.

Divide, share and conquer. Dig out older perennial plants and divide them to make more plants. Then you can trade to get new plants you want. Try your neighbors and local gardening clubs or visit online gardening swap sites, like davesgarden.com and gardenweb.com (search "swap"). And while you're sharing plants with your neighbors, team up to buy one tiller, edger, hedge clipper and leaf blower, too. You don't each need your own power tools for tasks you do only once or twice a season.

Cozy up to the government. Your city or county may well give away shrubs and trees, just to keep overstock from dying and to keep your neighborhood green. Some municipalities also distribute free mulch. You can check local horse stables for free manure, too.

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