A beautiful garden can be done on a budget. It might mean that you will have to forego hiring that garden designer or landscaping company, but simple observation of the gardens you like can provide ideas of design and some choices of landscape material that do well in our coastal climate. If you see a lot of pruning, and herbicide/insecticide use, steer away from those plants. Visiting the local garden centers will provide you with many plant choices, but do some research before you buy –not all of those annuals and perennials will survive the intense heat and humidity that coastal Zone 9A brings. Look at the American Horticultural Society’s Heat Zone Map, a map similar to the USDA’s map for plant hardiness. Instead of being based on the cold temperatures a plant can tolerate, the Heat Zone Map is based on the number of “heat days” a plant can withstand.
Always remember the time and effort that goes into ensuring good quality well-drained, organically rich soil for your plants are the keys to healthy plants. Everyone can compost, and there’s information on the web that tells you how to do it. One of my friends went to Sam’s Club and bought a seven cubic foot composting barrel that has made composting very easy. I had to admit that watching her adding kitchen scraps and giving it a spin seemed a lot easier than turning my compost in my homemade compost bin! It does take a lot of compost to improve sandy soils. I add moistened peat moss to the compost to increase the quantity. If you can’t afford an overhaul of poor quality sandy soil, go native or choose plants with drought tolerance. I’ve seen spectacular garden beds using sedums, cacti, hens and chickens, Madagascar periwinkle, portulaca, lantana, agastache, yarrow, Russian sage, coneflower, allamanda, croton, and Gaillardia. And that’s just a short list.
Container gardening makes my life very easy. A few well-placed colorful containers can add ornamental interest without straining the budget (or one’s back for that matter). The trick is to buy plants with long seasons of interest. First, I have plants that are now going into their third, fourth or fifth year such as jade plant, aloe, croton and Christmas cactus. I plant other containers just twice a year, in late April and early November. I choose plants that will last and bloom throughout that time period. Most of the time, I buy hanging basket plants, because they are easy to plant and fill a large space. I remove the plants from the purchased basket and plant into my containers. Recently at Lowe’s, I purchased three hanging baskets of trailing Madagasgar perwinkle to fill the space of a 2x4 homemade raised planter, a single hanging basket of portulaca and one of allamanda for my two 15-inch pots. These plants replaced the sweet allysum and pansies planted last fall. The purchase of a single Knock Out Rose last spring has done nicely in a large 22-inch pot I found at Sam’s Club. By placing it on the patio, I have managed to keep browsing deer away from it, one reason there are no roses elsewhere.
A very cheap way to obtain flowers is to buy seed. Zinnia, cosmos, celosia, marigold, cleome, globe amaranth and sunflower are all very easy to grow in 4-inch pots and are easily transplanted into the garden. I like to start the seeds indoors under an inexpensive grow light system by late February to mid-March so that they are ready to go outdoors in April.
Buy good potting soil, but don’t spend a fortune to fill large containers. There are tricks to reduce the amount that you need. Most annual plant roots don’t grow below 6-12 inches. Simply invert a smaller pot in the bottom of the large container, being careful not to block drainage holes, and then add the potting soil. Or, add packing peanuts to the potting soil, mixing them in with the soil; they take up room and also make a large pot a little less heavy! I just saw a friend space empty plastic 16 oz. water bottles with caps screwed on around the perimeter of a large pot before adding soil … crazy, right? She says it works. Her plants attest to it.
I am an advocate of mulching planting beds and gravitate to bales of fresh long-leaf pine straw. Due to time constraints and budget, fresh mulch is applied once a year in late April after our wonderful oaks have shed their leaves and the male catkins. Old mulch is raked out, beds are weeded, fertilizer is applied and new mulch is tucked in, particularly along the driveway and paved paths. In those areas, we use a long-handled steel edger for a crisp look.
Do what you can, when you can and where the impact of your efforts will get the most notice. And that includes by you and not just your neighbors. I love looking out my back door at my container plantings just as much as visitors enjoy the front porch container plantings that greet them.