How to Grow a Designer Garden for Less

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Story Updated: May 2, 2013

If you admire beautifully designed gardens but don't have the budget to hire an expert, there are plenty of ways to get a professional-looking garden on your own. Just follow these simple gardening tips.

"The key to a beautiful garden is to choose two or three [easy-to-care-for] plants like ferns or grasses and repeat them throughout your garden," says Vickie Cardaro, principal of Buttercup Design Group, a landscape design firm that creates gardens on the east end of New York's Long Island, New York City and Connecticut. "Create drifts of three or four plants, each of the same kind, anchored by a shrub such as boxwood."

Aesthetics aside, how can you get the designer look for less? Consider these easy garden décor and maintenance tips for creating an outdoor space that will be the envy of the neighborhood -- without emptying your wallet.

Start Plants From Seed
Packets of seed from your local garden store cost just a few dollars. Choose easy-to-grow annuals such as zinnias, cosmos, marigolds, morning glories, nasturtiums and sunflowers. Opt for these tried-and-true annuals first, especially if you are a newbie gardener. On the back of the seed packets, you'll find easy-to-follow directions for how to plant and care for your new seeds.

Exchange Garden Plants
Join a garden club, volunteer at a local community garden, or ask your neighbors and friends to share any extra plants they may have. Perennials -- such as daylilies, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, phlox and hostas -- grow better and produce more blooms if they are divided every three or so years. Dividing is a simple process: Just dig up the plant, exposing the root, and gently pull apart individual plants with your hands, keeping their attached roots in place.

Water Your Plants on the Cheap
To create a beautiful garden, you'll need lots of water. But instead of running your hose and raising your water bill, consider installing a rain barrel at the end of your gutters. Kits from Fiskars, for example, allow you to easily erect a barrel that will collect rainwater that would normally run off and be wasted. A spout on the bottom of the barrel hooks up to your garden hose, and gravity helps the water flow out and water your plants, courtesy of Mother Nature.

Remember: Compost is King
The best way to feed your plants is to pamper them with rich compost you make yourself. Simply select a spot in your yard (preferably a sunny corner, but a shady spot works as well), pile up your garden and compostable kitchen refuse, and let nature take its course.

To keep things tidy, contain your compost in a circle of wire fencing, a box made of cinder blocks, or a plastic compost bin with a cover. Fill it with grass clippings, fallen leaves and organic kitchen scraps such as peelings, coffee grounds and eggshells. Do not put meat products or bones in your compost, as these might attract animals looking for a meal.

Keep adding to your pile, hose it down when it's dry and turn it over with a shovel or pitchfork from time to time to help speed up the decaying process. In as little as three months, you'll be able to dig underneath the compost pile and extract nutrient-rich "black gold" (as gardeners like to call it). This is perfect to till into the soil around your plants. You'll know it's ready when it resembles dark chocolate cake. This soil not only feeds your plants, but also keep weeds at bay and helps the soil retain moisture so you don't have to water your garden as often.

Harvest Seeds
In the fall, when your annuals and perennials turn brown for the winter, collect the seeds from spent flower heads. Put the seeds in envelopes that are clearly marked with the plant name, then store the envelopes in a cool, dry place.

The following year -- about six weeks before your last estimated frost date -- plant the seeds in soil blocks you buy from a garden center (or make DIY blocks from cleaned-out yogurt containers). Water them lightly but keep the soil moist, not wet. Cover them with a plastic bag to create a greenhouse effect, still letting air in through the sides. Lastly, give them plenty of light -- at least 14 hours a day. When your plants get a second set of leaves or are about two inches in height, plant them in your garden when all danger of frost is past.

Pay Attention to the Edging and Paths
Good garden design is defined not only by trees, shrubs and flowers but also by the "bones" of the garden -- such as edging and pathways. Harvest fieldstone from your yard for edging, or contact a tree trimming company and ask them for birch, cedar or oak logs with the bark still intact to use for a natural edging, Cardaro suggests. To fill in pathways on the cheap, ask the tree trimmer for some chipped mulch and lay that in the path, or buy inexpensive bagged pine nuggets.

"Put down layers of newspapers [in the path] first and lay the mulch on top of that," Cardaro says. The newspaper will decay over time but it will help stop weeds from popping up in your pathways.

Shop Wisely
End-of-summer clearance sales are a great place to find discounted trees, shrubs and perennials for your designer-inspired garden décor. Most nurseries and garden centers slash prices on plants and garden accessories, such as containers and statuary. And fall is the perfect time to plant: The soil is still warm while the air is cooling down, which plants love. Just select healthy plants, get them in the ground quickly and water well through the fall to help promote root growth before winter sets in.

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