Emma Townshend's 12-step programme to transforming your garden while staying solvent

Addicted to spending a fortune in garden centres over the Bank Holiday? Read our gardening expert's money saving tips...

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The Independent Online

OK, I have to admit that taking advice from me on this subject is a bit like taking advice on how to give up drinking from Charlie Sheen. The last time I went to the garden centre for "research", I spent nearly £90 and came home with not just deep-pink geraniums but also, um, a jam funnel. However, here are some of my hard-learnt lessons…

1. Embrace the table-top sale

Hundreds of gardens will be opening for charity this Easter; many will have plants at 1990s prices. Use the garden finder at ngs.org.uk to find your nearest.

2. Don't buy plants, buy seed

Chase down James Fenton's poetic vision of a flower bed filled with annuals "A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed" for inspiration. Go for reliable germinators, such as nigella, poppies and sunflowers, and pick a patch with a good daylength of sunshine. Ten "Mongolian Giant" sunflower seeds are £2.19 at thompson-morgan.com.

3. Make your bare soil beautiful

Got bare patches? Neatly finishing your flower beds with a layer of manure will leave them in better shape for the summer as well as making it all look, well, more intentional. For more like £5 a square metre than £50.

4. Clean and clear

Much more tedious than buying trays of pink geraniums, but cleaning, pruning and clearing will do more for a garden's looks than a wallet-based blowout.

5. Just plain scrounge

The loving gardeners you know will inevitably have odd seedlings growing on in pots. Go round and scrounge, or send an email. My neighbour Bob completely redid his front garden last year like this and it looks great, with roses, ceanothus and euphorbias, as well as being a sweet reminder of friendly relations.

6. Head for the bargain trolley

My local garden centre has "Manager's Bargains" this week on daffs that have finished flowering and hellebores that are almost over, both worth investing in for next spring. But your best finds are hebes, penstemons and other ground-covering plants which will quickly recover from shop-floor neglect and flower again before the summer is over.

7. Instead of buying new pots, buy a tin of paint. And sandpaper

Plastic and terracotta pots will both take ordinary oil-based paint in bright colours, plastic requiring a little sanding first. Choose a deep blue for a Greek seaside feel, or red for a glorious burst of pre-flower tint.

8. Don't overfill containers

To have window boxes look great on Day One, you need to cram them. However, they won't spend the summer looking their best if you subject your containers to a Darwinian struggle for existence. Put one or two things in each pot then look after them properly.

9. Spend the money you've saved on automatic watering

If you could do one thing that would ensure your garden looked healthy for the next six months, it would be to install a discreet set of snaking rubbery tubes to deliver water to your plants all the time. A stupendous 20 Pot Hozelock kit is £54.98 on Amazon.

10. Check your roots

Don't be tempted by big shrubby purchases until you've lifted the plant out of its pot and had a look at what's really on offer. Ascertain that there is a healthy rootball, with lots of growth on show, and that the plant's roots have not become a king-rat tangle.

11. Walk as fast as you can past the jam funnels

Also the Portmeirion jugs and the Lightning McQueen socks.

12. Physical prevention

Finally, take only cash. Set a budget you think is reasonable, and leave your cards at home.