Be Frugal in the Garden with Tips for Pallets, Perennials, Tomato Cages and More

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Photo by Rex Hammock

Saving money where you can is always a good idea and the garden is no exception. Pennies saved here and there can all add up.

Don’t get me wrong, there are always new gadgets and new methods that prove worthwhile. However, it is easy to be taken with the “latest and greatest” to the point where we think that our garden just has to have them. Sometimes, what you have on hand or what you can fashion from materials on hand work just as well or better than some new products that gardening centers and seed companies would like you to buy.

DIY Tomato Cages

A good example are tomato cages. Most of those three-pronged ones that you buy just don’t last. They get bent and are not strong enough to hold the plants up in the first place. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to stumble onto collapsible ones at a greenhouse that are sturdy enough to hold up the most robust plants and also fold for easy storage. But, you guessed it, they are also much more expensive than the regular ones.

With a couple livestock panels and a little ingenuity, you can make your own. Simply, take a panel and cut it lengthwise to the desired height that you want your cages to be. Don’t discard the piece you cut off — another use for that later. After you get the height, cut the panel into four equal sections just as wide as you want the cages. Using zip ties, secure the four panels together and you have a cage that is sturdy and made from something that was probably just taking up space in a barn.

Now, for that long section that you cut off previously. It is probably somewhere near a foot wide. If you have raspberries, you know that they have a mind of their own and like to spread everywhere, establishing roots and new plants wherever they go. Attaching the sections of livestock panels that you cut off for the tomato cages make great grids for training raspberries to stay where you want them. The holes are big enough for the vines to fit through. These sections can be attached to fence rails around the garden, if you have them, or can be fastened to stakes horizontally to the ground.

Pallets, Prunings, and Perennials

Photo by Davie Bicker

How many of us don’t have old pallets laying around? They are almost screaming “free lumber!” A reciprocating saw easily cuts through nails so you can break them down into boards. Then, cut the boards to length to make planter boxes, using the smaller ends to strengthen the corners. Make them whatever size fits your fancy — and your space.

OK, back to those tomato plants that are growing in the cages that you made. Tomatoes have suckers, small shoots or leaves that appear at the junction between the stem and a branch of the tomato plant called an axil. If left to grow, a sucker will become a mature plant with its own set of suckers, flowers and fruit. Leaving these on the plant will yield more fruit but it will be smaller and could be of lessor quality.

If you remove these, the original plant’s fruit will be larger and usually of better quality. When the plants are small, just pinch off the growth below the lowest bunch of flowers. When the plants are larger, you may have to cut them off with pruning shears.

The good news is that these prunings can be planted in a pot with moist soil and will be become new tomato plants in a couple of weeks. This will save you buying so many plants initially and these new starts will mature and produce after the original plants, thus extending the tomato season. Many plants besides tomatoes can be propagated in this way, saving you money at the garden center.

*On this same note, avoid buying new plants whenever you can. This means more money in your pocket. If you save your own seeds from the previous year and can start them in early spring, this is the best way. You will always have your supply of seeds and you will never have to worry about finding plants. Remember that some plants do best if planted directly in the soil in the spring so you don’t even have the hassle of messing around starting them indoors.

When you do buy plants, keep in mind that bigger isn’t always better. I am probably the guiltiest of falling prey to this. I go to the greenhouse and am always tempted to buy a couple of the three-foot tall tomato plants because they will produce big, juicy tomatoes early in the season. These plants cost at least triple the amount of the smaller ones and usually don’t end up producing any earlier. The bottom line here is resist the urge and save your money.

Don’t forget about your perennial flowers. Many varieties like irises, peonies, bachelor buttons, bee balm, black-eyed Susans, garden mums, phlox, daisies and many more do better when divided every few years and the bonus is you get more plants.

Garden swapping is another way to get what you want for free. Everyone wants different varieties of different plants and have excesses of plants, seeds and tubors. Put an ad on your local marketplace or in your shopper and your area could swap seeds and plants.

Save Money on Mulch

When folks think of mulch, they typically think of local garden centers. Before you frequent them, consider free sources. Grass clippings make excellent mulch. You can put them directly on the garden or “smoke” them. Pour a thin layer on plastic and wrap it up and let them cook in the sun for a while. The moisture will evaporate and you will have dry mulch.

Shredded leaves make an excellent mulch. If you have enough of your own that is great and, if not, many neighbors will be more than happy for you to take them off their hands. Simply shred them with your mower, let them set over winter and you have a rich additive for your soil in spring.

Don’t forget about wood chips. Many tree services are usually looking for places to dump their chips. Check with your local tree cutting services or visit for a list of companies in your area that participate.

If you do need to purchase garden soil or mulch, remember that bulk is the name of the game. If you have a trailer or means to haul it, buying in bulk saves money and time by not having to deal with all the bags. However, if bagged soil or mulch is your only option, look for broken bags. Most places will sell these at a discount, sometimes up to half off, just to get rid of them.

Cut Out Waste

One of the biggest ways to save money in the garden is not to waste produce. Every year it seems like I get more than I can use of certain varieties. Friends used to run when they saw me coming for fear of being dumped on with more zucchini. Eggplant is great, but enough is enough. Plan before harvest by collecting different recipes and coming up with new ways to use garden produce. After all the work you put in, it’s such a shame to waste the money and time by having produce go to waste.

With just a little ingenuity, there are many ways to save money in the garden and to “grow on a budget.”

Lois Hoffmanis a freelance writer and photographer covering rural living with more than 20 years of experience, contributing to Successful Farming, Country, and Farm & Ranch Living. She lives on a 37-acre hobby farm in Pennsylvania. Read all of Lois’ GRIT posts here.