Free Gardening

In its purest form, gardening is, if you’ll pardon the expression, dirt cheap. Grab a pack of seeds for a buck or less, score a few used tools at a thrift store or yard sale, and you’re good to go. Most of the other essentials—soil, water, sunshine, and time—don’t have to cost much at all. Even if your ambitions exceed this bare-bones approach, you can still make or find a surprising amount of stuff for less than the cost of a single high-end hydrangea at a nursery. All it takes is imagination, though a power tool or two won’t hurt.


It’s not unusual to find a stop or two on gardenwalks in the area (particularly the smaller ones) offering a box of freebies. If you’re ready for something a bit less one-sided, keep an eye out for plant swaps; Urban Roots often kicks off its spring season with one (, and they are a regular feature of several local garden clubs.

An even easier source for free plants is your own yard. Many annuals—including marigolds, California poppies, and morning glories in our area—will happily self-seed if you allow them; some perennials do, too, while others produce volunteers by other means. All sorts of things sprout in compost bins (including tomatoes and ornamental gourds), and it can be fun and educational to watch what the mystery seedlings turn into. Two warnings: You can’t always count on offspring to resemble their parents (think Charlie vs. Martin Sheen), and you may not feel comfortable with the fine line between welcome surprise guest and over-enthusiastic party crasher.

Lawn care

Once again, the cheapest, easiest, and possibly best source of lawn love is already waiting in your back yard—and your front one, too. It’s astounding how many people still bag their grass clippings and fall leaves, then pay big bucks for fertilizers and mulches. Cut grass left in place, raked slightly to spread it around more evenly, provides much-needed nitrogen and other nutrients to the rest of your lawn. Leaves do need to be raked every autumn, but if you run a lawnmower over them, you’ll wind up with a perfect mulch to protect your garden from winter’s ravages, most of which will decompose by spring. Need more of either of these items? Hit the streets on trash night and reap the benefits of your bag-obsessed neighbors’ hard work. (But beware: You don’t want grass treated with chemicals, and you may soon discover that other gardeners and landscaping services tend to toss some extremely inorganic things in their bags of “organic waste;” I’ve come across candy wrappers, rubber gloves, and rusty bolts, among other instances of Not Grasping the Concept.)

Compost and other soil amendments

Every home needs a compost pile or bin, and you can make a simple one in half an hour with things you already have on hand. There are books and websites aplenty to show you how, but don’t let them intimidate you with complicated formulas and brown-stuff-to-green-stuff rations. Think of it as making soup: Take a little of this (leaves and grass clippings not used above) and a little of that (non-meat food scraps), add moisture when dry, stir now and then, but mainly leave it alone to simmer. If you find you’re not able to produce enough on your own to meet your needs, there is a pair of excellent low- and no-cost alternatives in the area. The Amherst Compost Facility (560 Smith Rd., East Amherst, 689-1280) has long been praised by local gardeners for the high quality of its product, which can also be used as mulch. A garbage can’s worth will run you about four bucks. UB has begun converting its kitchen waste into compost and giving it away; call 645-2832 for details. In both cases, be sure to bring your own containers and shovels (and be aware that Amherst does not accept cash—only checks and credit cards).

Coffee grounds are excellent sources of nutrients and micronutrients in compost. Starbucks encourages individual stores to pass along used grounds to gardeners who request them; fewer and fewer local stores participate in the program these days, but if you hit the right employee at the right spot on the right day, you can still leave with a good-sized bag of brown gold. I recommend asking at other coffeehouse chains and indie outfits, too; if enough would-be customers ask, it may just provoke a policy change.

Ornaments and accessories

Here’s where your imagination can really come into play. On various GardenWalks over the years, I’ve seen bowling balls used as ornaments, broken clay pots repurposed as a water feature, CDs transformed into bird-scaring devices, discarded doors and mirrors repainted and mounted on fences to heighten the “outdoor room” effect, and all manner of things (shoes, baby carriages, wheelbarrows) deployed as planters. One household I know turned the iron-scaffolding-based set for an independent film into a series of trellises and arbors.


Rain barrels are all the rage these days, though you don’t really need to spend the hundred or two bucks they can run you at nurseries and big-box stores. The internet is rich with how-to guides for making your own, but all you really need to do is study a few of the fancy ones, take note of their three essential features (a big watertight container, a spigot on bottom to get the water out, and a screen on top to keep mosquitoes out), and then get creative.


The essence of gardening is trial and error—but you can still spare yourself a lot of wheel-reinvention and solve a lot of specific problems by consulting more experienced fellow travelers. Start with friends whose handiwork you admire; if you see something you like on a GardenWalk, ask the homeowner about it. Then there are more institutionalized resources with a regional connection: The Cornell Cooperative Extension ( is a tremendous statewide service, our local Botanical Gardens ( can answer some questions, and (as noted elsewhere in these pages) the library ( offers both classes and personal assistance—as well as a vast supply of books on the subject, of course. I’m a longtime fan of Ken Brown’s call-in show every Saturday morning from 11 to noon on WGR 930 AM and Sally Cunningham’s columns every Friday in the Buffalo News (and every month in Spree). On a more national/international scale, cooperative extension websites and university-based horticultural databases across the interwebs are useful reference sites with staggering amounts of information for the cost-conscious among us. 




Ron Ehmke is an associate editor of Buffalo Spree.

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