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Dirt Cheap

Blooming a garden on a budget

By David Templeton

I'VE NEVER BELIEVED in spending lots of money on my garden," insists Margaret Parkerson, glancing out over her own front yard. "I'm a child of the Depression. Not spending money is very appealing to me."

Not to say that Parkerson does not believe in the cultivation of gardens. In fact, her small, westside Petaluma home is snugly cradled by ferns, flowers, and grasses--everything lush, eye-catching, and lovingly tended--the result of the retired librarian's own green-thumbed devotion to making things grow.

It's just that she believes in doing things thriftily.

She is not alone. While small, high-priced, mall-based, gardening boutiques and catalog companies seem to be springing up like weeds and landscaping supply companies continue to peddle glamorously pricey bits and pieces to free-spending homeowners, there are a small number of horticultural hobbyists who stand apart from the trends and traps of the marketplace--at least as far as their gardens are concerned.

"If you can do it another way, why spend money?" Parkerson laughs. Her own methods have included scrounging at the dump, picking through demolition sites, and the occasional dumpster-diving expedition. Coupled with a lifetime's worth of gardening know-how, such penny-pinching derring-do is enough to grow an Eden on almost any old plot of ground.

To a novice gardener faced with a desolate front yard and little or no money to spend, Parkerson has a number of suggestions.

"First thing I'd do," she says, "is to plant some wonderful, tall native grasses. You can buy them in gallon pots for very little money and divide them up into two or three clumps. Plant a few different kinds of grasses along the borders."

Such grasses can often be found growing wild, she points out, and grow in almost any kind of soil. Gardeners lucky enough to know someone who lives in the country might want to visit them with pails and shovels. Should they crave a less adventuresome method, Parkerson recommends Muchas Grasses in Santa Rosa.

Though mainly a wholesale native-grass supplier, the 5-year-old business is open to retail buyers on an appointment-only basis (573-GRAS) and sells decorative species for around $5 a gallon can.

"Where you really save money with grasses is in overall maintenance," says Bob Hornback, co-owner with Jeff Allen of Muchas Grasses. Among others, he suggests Muhlenbergia rigens, nicknamed California deer grass for its ability to hide deer (though they won't eat it). Especially beautiful, it is long and slender, grows 3 feet high, with 5- to 6-foot-long flowered spikes that bloom in what Hornback describes as "a botanical fireworks display."

Other kinds of greenery and plants can be obtained cheaply as well. Though legally tricky (ask permission first), the dumpsters behind major nursery retailers often contain shrubs and flowers that require some nurturing, but are salvageable. Parkerson suggests joining at least one gardening club, such as her own DIGS (Digging in Gardens in Sonoma), where meetings frequently involve the division of plants among the members. "You can get a big clump of something wonderful for as little as a quarter," Parkerson beams.

So much for the part that grows. What about the other things that make up a garden, such as pathways and planters? This is a good question for the scavengers. Though Parkerson's paths are made up of everything from chunks of cement begged from constructions sites to large field and river stones, and even a number of historic old street pavers that she and her husband carried away from a San Francisco construction site (yes, they asked first), her choices are tame compared to some: one woman in Berkeley uses salvaged grave markers as steppingstones.

"I know someone who paved their walk with old PG&E water-box covers," laughs Judy Smith, site manager of Recycletown, the recycling center at the Sonoma County Landfill, a must-visit spot among cost-conscious gardeners. In an effort to keep usable items out of the landfill, Smith and fellow reuse specialist Joel Fox make such booty available to the public for next to nothing.

"People have taken old bed frames to use as flower beds," Smith adds. "They take old sinks, bury them, and make a water garden." Fox recently sold three old hot tubs for 20 bucks apiece, destined to become backyard koi ponds.

"It doesn't cost much to create an interesting yard," Fox says. "You just need a good imagination and a bit of tenacity."

A final pragmatic tip comes from Hornback, who says, "The best thing you can do is befriend as many established gardeners as you can. We tend to be a fairly generous lot. We love to give stuff away."

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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