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Dig up garden bargains

Helene Watson can spot a garden bargain from a mile away.

If a bag of fertilizer is ripped, she'll buy it for half off; if a pot is chipped she'll ask for a discount. And if a plant appears to be dead she just might get it for free and nurse it back to life.

"I'll just walk up to the counter and ask them, "Are you going to throw this out?' or "Is there any charge for this?' Sometimes they're glad to have me take it off their hands," she said.

Watson is always pinching pennies when it comes to her landscape, and for good reason: Aside from being one of the top outdoor leisure activities, gardening is also one of the most expensive. According to the National Gardening Association, landscaping costs an average of $532 annually for U.S. households that garden.

But gardeners don't necessarily have to shell out a lot of green to add color to their landscapes, as experts such as Watson demonstrate.

"It just feels good to save money when buying plants," she said. "There's a sense of accomplishment in it."

A gardener for most of her life and a member of the Columbus master gardener program, Watson, 63, has learned that patience can greatly cut the cost of her favorite hobby.

At the start of spring _ when gardeners are itching to get their hands dirty again _ prices are higher because consumers are more likely to buy on impulse, Watson said. For example, a tray of annuals that now costs as much as $15.99 may drop to less than $10 next month.

"You just have to wait," she said. "It's hard, but it's worth it. There's no reason to pay more than $10 for a tray of plants."

Being disciplined about cost is a habit that pays off, agrees Joan Burgins of Atlanta, founder of the Tightwad Gardener newsletter. Before plunking down your money, she said, browse the nurseries and make note of the prices of your favorite plants.

"You'd be amazed at the huge differences in price for the same plant in the same size container," she said.

Burgins, 50, an avid gardener for more than 25 years and a self-proclaimed tightwad, recommends having a battle plan when you start buying. Knowing what you like and where you want to plant it will help determine the number of plants you need, and will also keep you from drifting into impulse buys.

And make sure you've done your homework on plants that grow well in your zone. Central Florida, considered to be Zone 9, is too warm for a number of plants that thrive in climates farther north.

"You save money by planting correctly because you don't lose them," Burgins said.

Watson also recommends going over them carefully, checking for bugs or signs of disease. As she does this, she also carefully lifts the leaves and searches for "bonus" plants _ extra seedlings that took root in the soil cup during propagation. These seedlings can be separated into two or three healthy plants for the price of one.

Separating plants is not only a good deal for the gardener, but it's also better for the plant.

"They'll grow shorter and bushier," Burgins said. "And they're more likely to bloom better since they aren't crowded."

Great deals can be found where you least expect it, Burgins said. While nurseries offer great deals on plants, so do grocery stores, street vendors and even gas stations.

And don't forget the discount stores: Big Lots and Wal-Mart, for example, often sell packets of seeds for a fraction of their cost in garden specialty stores _ even as low as 10 cents. Most of the time these seeds will be dated 2001; however, even if they are dated 2000 they should still be viable.

"You just never notice them until someone points them out," Burgins said.

Burgins also recommends tracking down gardeners who sell inexpensive plants and seeds.

"Make an appointment and visit these gardeners," Burgins advises. "They are very generous with their plants and a wealth of information about tips for growing."

Because the plants are locally grown, it increases their success rate in your own yard.

Sometimes, you can even score plants for free _ just take a look at the yards in your neighborhood.

Patti Coody of Columbus said she'll drive around town looking for landscape ideas. When she stumbles on a garden she really loves, sometimes she'll knock on the door and ask permission to make a few small cuttings.

"Gardeners are very gracious," Coody said. "If you ask, most people are very willing to share their plants with you."

Watson said she loves sharing cuttings with friends. Swapping plants can add diversity to the landscape at no cost _ although sometimes you don't know what you're getting.

"I just have to be surprised," she said. "I let it bloom out, and if it doesn't flower, well then, I just have something green."

This year, while pruning rose bushes with her master gardener class, Watson clipped off a few branches and is going to try rooting them.

"It's going to take a while, but if it works, I won't have to buy them," she said.

Begonias and impatiens are ideal plants for rooting, Burgins said. If you plant the cutting in a seed-starting mixture and place them outside in the shade with plenty of moisture, you can grow your own plants and "save a fortune," she said.

Burgins, who estimates that she has managed to cut her gardening costs by 75 percent over the years, said saving money isn't the only benefit of being a thrifty gardener.

"The more you know, the easier it gets and the less expensive it becomes," Burgins said. "You start to enjoy it more and you're spending less."

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To subscribe to the Tightwad Gardener, send $12 to Tightwad Gardener, P.O. box 190076, Atlanta, Ga. 31119-0076

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