The Smart Gardener

The savvy person's guide to this psychologically renewing pastime.

Posted Mar 31, 2016

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Gardening is among our more psychologically and spiritually healing activities. Indeed, there is horticultural therapy.

Even for the most emotionally together person, gardening can be a restorative escape from the gray-area, unpredictable challenges of human interaction. As sung in The Fantasticks, "Plant a radish, get a radish, never any doubt."

It's no surprise that gardening is America's most popular recreation.

Alas, unless you're pretty savvy about how you garden, it can be more trouble than it's worth. These tips help ensure you receive a bounty of pleasure and restoration, and without it costing you much money.

Buy plants that yield maximum pleasure for minimal effort.  Of course, your taste many vary but many people find the following plants yield a lot of pleasure per dollar and hour spent:

  • Tomatoes. These are available in six-packs and produce pounds of tastier-than-supermarket fruit in just two to three months. And April through June are the perfect planting times. Big Beef is a nationally well-regarded variety.
  • Marigold, Zinnias, and Impatiens. Also available in six-packs, these give non-stop color from spring until frost. And impatiens do it in shade. I particularly like Magellan Coral Zinnia.
  • Free trees. Many cities and The Arbor Foundation give free trees selected to grow in your locale to renters and homeowners alike. Just google "Free trees."  A lovely tree that does well except in frost-free areas is Crabapple Prarifire..Or pay $20-50 to buy a wider range of larger trees, including fruit trees. Usually, you need water a tree for just the first year or two and then, for many years, just watch them create beauty and shade, and add to your property's value.
  • Reblooming azaleas. These mannerly, disease- and bug-resistant shrubs, bloom spectacularly three seasons a year, thrive in part-sun, many are winter-hardy and the shrubs last for years. The two leading series are Bloom-a-Thon and Encore.
  • If you live in a frost-free climate like I do (near the California coast), you can grow near-year-round blooming tropical delights like bougainvillea, oleander, and my favorite: orange trees. They're ornamental even when without fruit and when in flower, the fragrance is heady. In my area, the Trovita Orange is especially beautiful with delicious fruit in great quantity.
  • African violets are remarkable indoor plants. They thrive on a windowsill just away from direct sun. For much of the year, they bloom in bouquets on on plants just 6" tall and 6-12' wide, The only real requirement is moderate watering with a weak fertilizer solution. The slogan is "Weekly Weakly." And they're available in supermarkets and big-box stores for under $5 each. Oh, and they can live for years.

Buy seeds.  To see the miracle of growth in full dimension, buy seeds. If you don't want to make a trip to the local nursery, eBay offers a huge selection and often with free or low-cost shipping unlike the big catalog companies like Burpee and Park Seed, which charge about $7 just to ship one packet of seeds. Start your seeds in a $10 mini greenhouse like The Ferry Morse.

Buy the smallest plant size. A six-pack of veggies or flowers costs $2 to $4, or about 50 cents a plant. The next size up--a 4' pot or quart costs a few dollars for just one plant. A gallon-sized plant can set you back $10. And a major part of the gardener's pleasure is seeing the miracle of growth and if you're buying a big plant, it's already at or near full-size. Many nurseries hide the six-packs in an inconspicuous because they're less profitable, so if they're not apparent, just ask. They're around.

Use drip irrigation on a timer. A drip irrigation system saves you a lot of time and some money. Your local big-box store sells a variety of kits and timers. The whole package should set you back less than $100.

You don't need fancy tools. A basic shovel, trowel, gardening gloves, and pruning shears may be all you need. Total cost is about $40 at a big-box store although twice that at most stand-alone nurseries.

You'll save big at a big box store. Especially where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, many people have political reasons for not shopping at a big box store but, assuming you don't, know that prices on everything gardening-related are typically half that at stand-alone nurseries. But what about the plant quality? Because the big-box stores sell so much, the stock is likely to be at least as fresh..And the big chains usually get first dibs on the best varieties. If you were a commercial grower, wouldn't you save your best varieties and best plants for your biggest customers?

Stand-alone nurseries claim to offer better customer service but I've found the advice hit-and-miss at both big-box stores and stand-alone nurseries. Wherever you shop, if you're not confident in the first person's answer, ask someone else. Or search on the Internet. And worst case, a cheap plant bites the dust.

The takeaway

Gardening is a great de-stresser and, if you're a savvy one, even the cost won't stress you out.

His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.