Maybe you are interested in having a few plants inside to clean up the air, or beautiful flowers to just enjoy. Maybe you want fresh fruits and vegetables in your own backyard. Whatever reason you have for wanting to garden, it can be frustrating with the cost of seeds, plants, tools and soil. However, gardening can be free or even save you money if you know where to look.
Harvest seeds from a friend, neighbor, community gardener, or public place that allows collection of seeds. Save seeds with grocery produce, visit a free seed bank, look for giveaways on social media, or sign up for free seeds on websites. Some easy seeds to start are avocado, pumpkin, tomato, grapefruit, cucumber, and mango. Plants that may be difficult or time consuming to start from seed are grapes, strawberries, blueberry, orange, pear, peach and apples. Those types of seeds have low germination rates or need a cold stratification stage to sprout. Some types of seeds, like wildflowers, need a season of soaking in rain to germinate. Orange seeds need to be planted as soon as possible after leaving the orange, because when the protective shell becomes dry then the seed is no longer viable.
Two ways to multiply some plants are to divide the bulbs or regrow with parts of the plant. Divide baby bulbs, corms, or regrow with cuttings from leaf, stem, or branch. Some plants, such as succulents, can root when the leaves are broken off and left to dry. However, succulents like Aloe Vera do not root with leaves only. The leaves must have roots still attached to be successful. Make sure to keep the succulent part moist but not soggy for a few weeks so that the roots can regrow. Save vegetable parts to grow a new plant such as: onions with roots, potatoes with eyes, thick part of the lemongrass, carrot tops, or cabbage with the center still attached. Although plants can regrow in a cup of water they will do best in well-draining soil.
Tools and Soil
Tools can be free or found for cheap. Join as a member of a community garden, ask neighbors, or find deals at garage sale, bulk trash, or social media posts. Soil can be made using kitchen scraps, city mulch, or ask around for topsoil at neighborhood construction projects.
Other Free Items for the Garden
Keep newspaper, cardboard and cereal boxes to be used as mulch. Keep old blankets, towels, and sheets for frost protection or as a shade cloth. Keep plastic or paper cups to reuse as seed starters. Use old coffee grounds and tea bags to add more nutrition to the soil. Do not use meat, dairy products, or leftovers with salt or oil in compost, because it may attract animals and the salt and oil will harm worms.
Mulch can be free or purchased depending on resources available. Save those dry grass clippings, fallen leaves, or gather pine straw. Another option is to shred leftover tree branches or find wood chip mulch from the local city. Recommended wood mulch options are pine, cedar, pecan shell, straw, and shredded bark. Water the mulch so that it doesn’t blow away in the wind.
Preparing beds for the winter
Fall gardening might be too much work for some so this is a good time to take a break. Harvest remaining vegetables, pull out or trim dead plants, and dispose of or compost unwanted plants. Protect and improve the garden bed with mulch so that the soil doesn’t wash away, minimizes weeds, and supports the worm micro climate. Mulch not only protects the plant from the cold and wind, but it also protects the roots and bark from getting damaged by animals. Be sure to remove mulch near the base of the plant in the spring so the plant gets air flow.
Protecting sensitive plants
Although the winters in Texas are mild, there are a few nights and days that may freeze. For plants outside or plants in containers that are too large to move there are several ways to help them survive the winter. One way is to cover the plants with thick mulch and another way is to wrap the plant in a type of cage filled with mulch. Plants can also be protected using garden fabric, tent, garden row cover, burlap, blanket, cones, etc. Some plants can be pruned back to prevent disease, prune to dead head spent flowers, or prune to send signals to the plant that it’s time to go dormant. Pruning trees and some plants may stimulate new growth that can be damaged with cold temperatures, so be sure to check your type of plant first.
Organize and clean up by gathering tools, disinfect tools (with rubbing alcohol, bleach oil products, etc.), and throwing away broken junk. Repair or replace damaged garden beds or tools. Move plants into a greenhouse, garage, or protected area for the winter.
With cooler temperatures this is a great time to enjoy vegetable gardening and planting trees, shrubs, and bulbs. Success depends on the fall planting date relative to first date of average frost (32 degrees). In our zone, 8a, the average frost date is November 15. That means selecting plants that can survive a brief frost.
However, many plants cannot survive a hard freeze (25 degrees) without protection. Examples of fall vegetables to plant are beets (October 15), carrots (November 10), garlic (October 15), radish (November 25), spinach (November 15), and turnip (November 1). Ambitious gardeners may want to extend summer crops, but tomatoes may stay green and not ripen, vegetables requiring pollinators may not fruit, and plant growth may slow down.
Tree and shrub transplants benefit from the cooler weather because there’s no heat stress and most bugs are gone. The earlier the transplant can be put in the ground the more time it will have to get established and survive the winter. Due to the extreme hot and cold climate in Northern Texas it is recommended that trees and shrubs are selected with drought tolerance and/or are cold hardy.
At this time plan to divide and replant bulbs such as iris and daylily, store and chill tulips for December/January planting, cut back spent flowers, and sow wild flower seeds (some wild flower seeds need cold and moist stratification). Cool weather also means watering less often, but do not stop watering because plants will be better protected with watering right before a frost.
Each spring, beautiful displays of wildflowers can be seen across the state. The most iconic Texas wildflower is, of course, the bluebonnet. While bluebonnets are often seen along roadways, you can also create a bluebonnet patch in your very own yard!
Fall is the best time to plant wildflowers that are native to Texas. Bluebonnet seeds can be planted between Sept. 1 and Dec. 15, but you will see the best results if they are planted no later than mid-November. Planting in the fall allows the seeds time to germinate and grow throughout the winter months, developing a heavy root system and a sturdy plant that is ready to produce spring flowers.
It is important to be aware that not all of the seedlings may germinate successfully in the first year or two. This can be frustrating for gardeners who want a full bluebonnet display in the first year after planting. Bluebonnets produce large, hard-coated seeds that are adapted to survive drought conditions. Over time this coating will wear down from abrasion and decay, but it may take a few years. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center offers a few tips to help increase bluebonnet germination rate.
The recommended seeding rate is 10 to 12 pounds of seeds per acre. At this rate, one ounce of seeds will cover approximately 200 square feet. This means that you will distribute about five seeds per square foot. Using this seeding method, you can expect to reach the maximum display two to three years after planting.
If your area is small or you would like a good display quickly, a seeding rate of 8 to 10 seeds per square foot is recommended. At this rate, one ounce of seeds will cover about 135 square feet.
Keep in mind that these seeding rates are determined on a single species basis. Modify the seeding rate if you plan to plant other species along with your bluebonnets.
When selecting an area for planting, note that bluebonnets require full sun exposure. Many species of Texas native plants can handle shade, but this is not one of them.
Texas bluebonnets are adapted to rocky, alkaline soils and they even thrive in heavily disturbed poor soils. While soil preparation is not necessary, the real key to success is good seed-soil contact. The soil helps retain moisture around the seeds, which is necessary for germination to occur. If you will be sowing seed in turf areas, it is important to scalp the grass as low as possible with a mower and rake up any thatch that could prevent the seed from contacting the soil.
Small areas, like your yard, can be sown by hand or with a mechanical hand device. After distributing the seeds, press them firmly into the ground with your hands or by walking over the area.
After the seeding process is complete, cover the seeds with less than one-quarter inch of soil. This protective layer of soil will keep the seeds from being eaten by birds or baked by the sun. Water the soil thoroughly and continue to lightly water the area every three days for about three weeks, if rain is not present. While bluebonnets do require moisture to germinate and grow, they do not thrive in saturated soil.
Fertilizing is not recommended as it will produce more leaves but not more blooms. However, if the seedlings do not appear to be growing vigorously, they may need Rhizobium, or you may want to fertilize lightly in early spring.
Also, the plants should not be mowed until they have formed mature seedpods. This allows the plants to reseed for the next year. Typically, bluebonnet seeds mature six to eight weeks after flowering. Pods are mature when they turn yellow or brown and begin to dry.
Typically, bluebonnets begin to bloom around March 15 for the southern part of the state. In more northern areas, flowers may not show before May 1. The flowering period for bluebonnets is about one month.
Although bluebonnets can be tricky, once your patch is established, the bluebonnets should reseed and reappear each spring.