Gardening on a Budget

When we moved into our south Anchorage log home I had glorious plans for the 1/3 acre lot. Some previous owner had chopped down every tree counting on the neighboring woodlands for green and shade. The house was near the street with a lumpy hilly and narrow backyard that ended in the neighbor's goat pen. I was young, enthusiastic and confident that my green thumb could transform our piece of Alaska into a glorious landscaped garden. Now, 20 years later the neighborhood has evolved from birch/spruce woods to suburban sprawl and I'm still working on the transformation and enjoying every season.

It was very important in those early days, to work on the cheap. With 5 small children the vegetable garden was more important than ornamentals. Composting was the only way I could afford to enrich a flower bed. What was once a necessity became a passion - creating self-sustaining perenial flowerbeds for less than $20/year.

Twenty years later, my garden is still a work in progress. I can and do spend money on plants now. And yet, gazing at my sitting garden I'm surrounded by the memories of those early days and the decendents of the first little slips of green I nurtured so carefully.

Zone 3 gardening on a budget isn't as hard as it sounds.

I started with a small clump of siberian iris that grew in the loose gravel driveway that first spring. One clump became 5, 5 became 10 and every year my irises are the center point of the growing season. With a little luck I won't have to divide my irises for a few more years, but think I know where I can add the next batch...

Near the front porch a shock of Maltese Cross is in full bloom. I rescued 3 plants from the woodpile behind the shed that first year, not knowing what they would be or how tall they would grow when cared for. I get more comments and compliments on these reclaimed wildflowers than any of the exotics I've tried. In the enriched bed, my Maltese Cross grow 3 feet tall with fist sized red flower clusters. Over the years, I've easily divided these plants and use them effectively in my borders.

More treasures that first year included a rosebush that had been nearly choked to death by siberian peas. We've called it a sitka rose but can't be sure. She's now a mother many times over as we've helped deliver healthy suckers that have grown into shrubs nearly 5 feet tall and more around.

Daisy's of course were and continue to be a beautiful pest. My oldest son took over a small "daisy garden" that I was threatening to burn to the ground. Not that he had to do anything more than help me keep the daisy's from taking over the rest of the yard, flower and garden beds!

The second summer I used my budget at a close out table from a nursery in early July. By July, nurseries have little selection and many of the plant markers have disappeared. However, this is my favorite time to shop for plants because the mark downs are practically giving plants away. Every year since, I've added some treasure from one of these sales. The first was a spreading Veronica (who knows what variety), that grows so prolifically, I can use them for garden trades every year.

The third summer I discovered wildflower seed mix. That was the end of bare spots for my yard and provided the original plants that have now been moved to more organized and cared for beds. Columbine, forget-me-nots, lupin, and several varieties of poppies continue to thrive and surprise me.

My favorite plants are are the one's that were free or practically free. The frugal gardener can find dozens of ways to create a sea of color without spending any green. Some of my most successful tips include:

  • Recover/rescue. Abandoned gardens often have plants that will thrive with a transplant and a bit of loving attention.
  • Divide and conquer. As your established plants spread, find new homes for their babies.
  • Trading Treasures. When you divide a favorite plant, set aside some of the babies to trade with other gardeners.
  • Search the sales. Your garden is a process that usually takes years. Don't think your planting season is over just because summer's nearly over. Hit the nurseries throughout August for a great deal.
  • Beautification programs. Every once in a while, communities and businesses will sponsor giveaways that can really payoff. We've added several trees from Arbor Day and Earth Day programs.

A word of caution though. Many areas have laws prohibiting you from digging up native plants from wilderness areas. These natural habitats are not free-for-alls and should be left alone. When in doubt, call the appropriate government agency and ask. While I don't "steal" from state parks, I've been given the go ahead to "rescue" lilacs, rubarb, and other abandoned plants from city land taken by eminent domain before a road or bike path was constructed.

Your patch of yard can become a garden no matter how tight your budget. Just get a bit creative and never be afraid to ask for cuttings. Compost for black gold and remember to think long term. You'll never be poor when you live surrounded by flowers.

JoMarie Thomson was transplanted to Alaska over 25 years ago. Editor and Publisher of she is known to run her websites and web design company, with a laptop from her South Anchorage garden. Beauty, JoMarie insists, inspires beauty.

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