Gardens: Cutting back

It's easy to burn money at the garden centre. But do you really need a fancy irrigation system or those outdoor lights? Anna Pavord takes a long, hard look at her horticultural budget
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"Money isn't everything," said wise Anon. "Usually it isn't even enough." And when the monthly account came in this week from our local garden centre, I looked at it with more than usual care. Where could cuts be made? What could I do without? How could I save what I spend on the garden? The bill totalled £63.87, rather more than usual because I had bought a new sprayer, a Hozelock Killaspray 7 that cost £20.69. I went out to spray creeping thistle in the field and found that the old sprayer was leaking at the on/off junction. The only way you can justify using herbicides is to deliver them precisely to their targets. Leaks won't do. So that's why I got a new sprayer. Too late, I realised that Hozelock sell spares, so I bought a bit of kit they call a dual operation tap to mend the old sprayer. In a fantastic and unusual surge of DIYing, I managed to fit the new tap on one end of the tube, but found the lance wouldn't go on at the other. So I got another bit of kit (yes, really) for £7.10 and couldn't fit that on either.

I'm hoping all this may resolve itself if Jonathon, number two son-in-law, comes for a weekend soon. He's a god, and has got a proper tool box with spanners for every occasion. With luck, I may end up with two sprayers that work. And that will be very useful for tackling the bracken this month. It is surging over the fields at terrifying speed and only Azulox herbicide can stop it. We've tried pulling by hand and it makes no difference at all. But for the moment, I have to face the fact that I've spent £13.96 (nearly two-thirds of the price of a new sprayer) on sundries that are redundant. But there's a principle in there somewhere. It's better to mend stuff than chuck it away.

Ratak (£2.59) I needed because mice had got into a cupboard and were nibbling my dusters. Tomorite (£3.99) I needed because if you grow crops in pots, they have to be fed. The mache I sowed last month has grown heroically, despite the fact that a courgette plant that appeared from nowhere in the same half-barrel is sitting on its head. The tomato plants in the cold frame need a bit of a treat from time to time, too. I wasn't going to do tomatoes this year. Blight was so bad last season, all the plants were on the bonfire by the beginning of July. But home-grown tomatoes are a particularly delicious treat and oddly, despite the downpours of mid-July, the plants are, so far, free of blight.

The three 56-litre sacks of Levington multipurpose compost on the bill (on offer at £12 for three) are as essential as diesel for the car. All through the summer, there's a non-stop call for plants for fêtes and fund-raisers. Self-seeded brunnera, Helleborus foetidus, onopordon, verbascum, Spanish daisy, divisions of bearded iris can all be potted up easily if you've got decent compost to hand. I use our own home-made compost in the big pots in the garden, but always top them off with the bought stuff. It suppresses the weeds that are an inevitable ingredient in home-made compost and it provides a better seed bed when you are sowing half barrels of cut-and-come-again salads. So no savings to be made there.

At various stages through the month, I bought three ivy-leaf geraniums at £2.85 each. If I'd been better organised and had taken more cuttings last autumn, I could have avoided spending that money. We did too many cuttings of scented-leaf geraniums (which, potted up, have been marching off to sales all summer), and not enough of the flowering kind. Memo: must do better this year. The geraniums sit in clay pots all the way down the steps to my hut and replace the tulips that grow there in spring. There are 15 pots, so there have to be 15 geraniums.

The final expenditure was £2.09 for a packet of seed: a climbing French bean called 'Borlotto Lingua di Fuoco' which I sowed, two to a pot, in the bought compost and then planted out round a willow wigwam, eight feet tall. I'd already planted the climbing French bean 'Cobra' (Thompson & Morgan £2.29) but fancied a change. The Borlotto bean can be used whole while it's young or shelled as a haricot. There were 75 beans in the packet, so there's plenty left over for next season, even if I don't save any of my own seed. Big seeds, like beans and sweet peas, last well from one season to the next. And the 'Lingua di Fuoco' – tongues of fire I think it means – is a pretty bean, with pods speckled all over in cream and deep pink. It'll go well with the sweet peas growing on wigwams next to it. They cost me nothing, as I save my own seed from one year to the next.

So on this month's bill, I could have saved on the geraniums – £8.55. It's not a fortune, but if I saved that much every month, I'd be £100 better off at the end of the year. More spectacular savings can be made by gardeners for whom the point of gardening is the having, not the doing. So if you're madly into drip irrigation systems, fancy lighting, water features, the potential to save is very much greater. A London gardener recently told me that his water feature, a rill running into a pond, cost him £400 a year in electricity alone. But it's a bit sad having a water feature that you only switch on for visitors. I think I'd make do with a tank or a half barrel sunk in the ground – anything that didn't need a pump to drive it.

Likewise, I'm happy with candles on those rare occasions when it's warm enough to eat outside at night. I can't imagine ever spending money on fancy lighting. Apart from the time of full moon, when the garden is silvered all over, the nights here are as black as pitch and I like it that way. But it's in this area that people are cutting down: patio heaters, fancy furniture, ornaments, gizmos. For the moment, sales of plants seem to be holding up. And because we don't put a cost on our own time, we can persuade ourselves that by growing our own beans and salads (Thompson & Morgan report a 40 per cent increase this year in sales of vegetable seed) we are saving a fortune. Good, I'll have all the more to splurge on the bulb order when it goes in next month.