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Free & cheap ways to garden: plant swap, rain barrel, classes

Two woman wander through the flower covered terraces at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in April 2014.

Two woman wander through the flower covered terraces at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in April 2014.

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Looking for more tips on saving money?

The News & Observer’s service journalism team is putting together a free

with tips to cut costs across several categories. We’ll be adding new stories often.


With inflation rising, we’re all looking for ways to save a little money and keep our budgets in check.

The News & Observer’s service journalism team is putting together a free Money Saving Series with tips to cut costs across several categories.

In this installation, we’re offering up tips for saving money while gardening. We’ll update this story with good tips we get from readers.

1/ Find free mulch, compost through your NC town

Get free stuff by checking in with your town.

Your city or county might offer free or reduced price garden materials, like compost, mulch or soil. Residents of Chapel Hill, for example, can get leaf mulch delivered (totally for free!) in the fall and winter seasons.

2/ Use rain water to lower your NC water bills

use rainwater: The N&O talked with Phyllis Smith, an NC State Extension agent in Forsyth County, to learn more about lowering your water bills by using rain water.

If your water is metered, meaning you pay for the amount you use, a rain barrel can be a simple way to lower those costs, Smith said. Most rain barrels hold between 40 and 50 gallons of water, and they fill up by connecting to the gutters of your home.

Here’s what to know about rain barrels:

  • They can stay full: “My personal experience with rain barrels is that we have enough rain in North Carolina to keep them filled up most of the time,” Smith said.

  • Water at the base: Since water coming from your gutter might have bacteria and debris. If you’re watering edible plants, like tomatoes or squash, make sure you’re not pouring your water over the parts of the plant you plan to eat, Smith said.

  • use netting: Without netting, your rain barrel will become a breeding ground for mosquitoes, Smith said.

  • Be smart about your stand: Rain barrels need to be elevated a little more than a foot off the ground, that way you can get your watering can underneath. A full rain barrel might weigh over 400 pounds, so you’ll need to buy a safe stand or, if you’re looking to DIY it, ensure the materials you’re using to hold it up are sturdy. This can be a safety hazard, Smith said.

“Rainwater harvesting has multiple benefits including water conservation, lower water bills, a chemical-free source for watering flower and vegetable gardens, and the potential to reduce water pollution of our streams through stormwater runoff reduction,” NC State Extension says.

3/ Save water, resources with native NC plants

Buy native plants: These plants typically require less water than non-native plants, which are in an unusual environment and need extra resources to survive and thrive, Smith said.

The NC Botanical Garden has expansive online resources for native plants, which can be found at ncbg.unc.edu.

4/ Safely reuse household water in your garden

Save household water by pouring leftover paste (or even dishwashing) water into your garden.

But don’t use it to water non-food cropssaid Emilee Morrison, an NC State Extension agent in Onslow County.

Here are some other tips for reusing household water in your garden:

  • Cooking water is fine. Pasta water or hard-boiled egg water will get the job done. But there are two rules: Only use unsalted waterand make sure it cools to room temperature before using, Morrison said.

  • If you don’t have a water softenerbathwater and dish rinse water without a lot of soap can be used to irrigate lawns and landscape plants, Morrison said.

  • Avoid chlorine and boron (such as borax), as washing products that contain these chemicals can become problems for plants, Morrison said. Check the label before using.

  • potted plants don’t like washing water, Morrison said. Their restricted root zones make them more sensitive to damage.

Instead of using washing water on potted plants, you can…

  • Catch cold water before your sink or shower heats up, then use that water for your indoor plants and outdoor garden, Morrison said.

IMG_sg20220207_seeds.jpg_3_1_T7LRDOER_L706175971.JPG
Instead of buying seedlings from your nursery every year, you can get a packet of seeds — which sometimes has dozens of seeds inside — and use it year after year until the seeds run out. (Photo by MSU Extension/Gary Bachman) Dr. Gary Bachman Mississippi State University Ext

5/ Start from seeds to save money in the garden

Grow from seeds: A packet of seeds can last years.

Instead of buying seedlings from your nursery every year, you can get a packet of seeds — which sometimes has dozens of seeds in a packet for under $1 — and use it year after year until the seeds run out.

For The N&O’s full guide to growing from seeds, visit newsobserver.com/living.

6/ Save your seeds to save money in the garden

Collect your seeds: Take seed-growing one step further by trying your hand at collecting them from some types of flowers, fruits, squash and more.

John Murphy, Bullington Gardens’ education director in Henderson County, wrote a blogpost about seed collecting:

“Collect seeds that are fully mature, or come from ripe (even over ripe) fruit. Make sure the plants are robust, healthy and free of disease as much as possible,” he wrote.

“Seeds need to be fully dry before storing them away. They are best stored in cold, dry environments and can be done in a jar, or plastic container in the refrigerator.”

For the full post, visit henderson.ces.ncsu.edu/2021/09/seed-saving.

7/ Get free plants and tools (by swapping!)

Attend a plant swap and get new plants for free. You might even walk away with tools, cool gadgets or a handy garden trick.

Remember, plant swaps are exactly what they sound like — swaps. You might be able to offer transportation, advice or something else that’s not a physical item, but these events are intended for trades, no free giveaways.

Here’s a short list of some regular plant swaps in the Triangle:

  • Hi-Wire Brewing: The monthly plant swap in Durham takes place 6:30-10 pm on the first Monday of each month. Swap and trade plants, cuttings, tools, tricks and more. (Info: hiwirebrewing.com/event/plant-swap).

  • The Optimist Raleigh: Check the Raleigh coffee shop’s Instagram page for upcoming plant swap events. (Info: instagram.com/theoptimistraleigh)

(Should we know about any other regular plant swaps in our area? Let us know by emailing ask@newsobserver.com.)

8/ Free gardening classes in the Triangle

Find free gardening classes: NC State Extension, the NC Botanical Garden, Duke Gardens and other trusted places in the Triangle host free workshops to help you get your garden in tip-top shape.

For free upcoming programs at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham, visit gardens.duke.edu.

NC State Extension‘s county centers hold free events and courses. Visit your county center’s website for a calendar of upcoming programs. The Durham County Extension Center, for example, has free courses and events listed online at durham.ces.ncsu.edu/events.

For courses through the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, visit ncbg.unc.edu/learn/adult-programs.

9/ Reduce, reuse, recycle to save money gardening

Use what you have at home or what you can take from neighbors. (And let your neighbors take from you!)

Here are some ideas:

  • Yogurt cups & K-Cup pods: Clean and poke holes in the bottoms to make containers for seed starters (used K-Cup pods already have the hole poked). Egg cartons can also be used for seed starters.

  • detergent bottle: Clean and poke holes in the top for an upcycled watering can.

  • shoelaces and other kinds of tough string can be used to tie and trellis tall, lanky plants.

  • wood planks: And other wood materials left over from other home projects can be turned into a raised garden bed.

You can create a ListServ for your neighborhood (or see if one already exists) to swap materials and ensure things that would ordinarily wind up at a landfill or recycling plant can be put to good use in your garden instead.

10/ Save money by gardening in community

Grow in community (and share!): “By gardening in community with others, we can share what we are learning and growing,” said Kavanah Anderson, Director of Learning and Community Engagement at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.

“Think of gardens beyond what we are personally responsible for, and take a step back to see how we can create vibrant communities filled with plant diversity,” Anderson said.

“If my neighbor is growing squash, perhaps I don’t need to also grow squash, then we can share with each other. If my neighbor has beautiful oak trees that are hosting caterpillars and supporting the birds and helping our ecosystem, I can look for different species of trees to continue adding to the biodiversity of our region.”

11/ Visit, tour free gardens in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill

Visit the Triangle’s many free gardens: And take as many photos as your camera roll will allow.

It’s free to visit Duke Gardens, the NC Botanical Garden and JC Raulston Arboretum. Slather on some sunscreen and go for a stroll. This immersive experience can help you brainstorm ideas for your own garden and teach you a few growing tricks.

“In the Triangle and in North Carolina, we are fortunate to live in an area that’s filled with gardens and many examples of ways to garden,” Anderson said. “You can visit gardens in Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh, and they’re all free. They have many examples of different ways to garden and different reasons to have and keep a garden. For no cost, you can visit and experience and learn a lot.”

Find visitation information for each of these gardens:

12/ Compost. Here’s how you can do it

Compost: While making your own compost keeps you from shelling out money on the packaged blends at your local gardening store, there are other cost-conscious benefits of composting.

Here’s how composting can help you save money:

  • Keep track of your waste, and note how you can cut costs at the grocery store next time. Are you constantly throwing slimy spinach in the compost pile? That’s your sign to skip it at the market next time.

  • Make the most of your scraps by throwing about-to-go-bad food into a catch-all recipe. Pantry pastas and soups are great ways to use food on the brink of its expiration.

  • Save on collection costs by turning yard waste, like leaves and grass clippings, into compost for a nutrient-rich garden.

For The N&O’s full guide to composting at home (and finding local programs to help), visit newsobserver.com/news.

Share your money-saving tips with us

Have a tip for saving money? Share it with us in the form below, or try accessing the form here.

We might use your tips in a future story.

This story was originally published June 17, 2022 2:39 PM.

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