The A-Z of credit crunch gardening

The world's greatest flower show reflects the spirit of the times this year, with an emphasis on saving money as well as saving the world. Victoria Summerley reports

The Chelsea Flower Show opens on Tuesday with an unashamedly recession-busting theme. There will still be magnificent show gardens, and skilled nurserymen and women showing off their latest varieties, grown to the high standards one expects from one of the most famous flower shows in the world.

But in deference to the spirit of the times, there will be a big emphasis on growing vegetables and edible plants, on recycling, and on water use. For domestic gardeners, this may provide just the inspiration they need to make the most of their plot without breaking the bank.

Indeed, you could argue that this year's Chelsea will be more of a people's show than it has ever been before.

The loss of corporate sponsors - there are 13 big show gardens this year, compared to 22 last year – has made way for quirky and inventive designs that reuse everyday materials and do not require a huge budget or a vast staff of gardeners to maintain them. One example is gold-medal winning designer Sarah Eberle's Overdrawn Artist's Garden, which incorporates crushed CDs, sculpture made from scrap and, of course, vegetable patches.

If you're visiting the show itself, be sure you don't miss the urban and courtyard gardens, which are much more similar in scale to the average back garden. They're often created by private individuals or horticultural colleges who don't have access to vast corporate sponsorship, so they tend to be brimming with low-cost ideas.

If you can't make it to Chelsea, there are lots of ideas here on how to find advice and inspiration for the credit-crunch gardener. Details of the show are also on the RHS website at www.rhs.org.uk.

A is for Allotment, now more popular than ever. If your local council has a waiting list, try contacting Landshare ( landshare.channel4.com /) which links people who want to grow their own with spaces where they can. Food Up Front is a similar scheme operating in south London, but their website ( www.foodupfront.org ) has links to other groups nationwide.

B is for Birds and Bugs. Without pollinators, there would be no fruit and flowers, and without the food they provide, birds and frogs find it difficult to survive. Save money by not buying pesticide (birds and frogs help keep slugs and snails down anyway), and go to ww.buglife.org.uk to read about how invertebrates play a crucial role in your backyard.

C is for Cuttings. Guy Barter, head of the RHS horticultural advisory services points out that tender plants such as fuchsia, marguerites and pelargoniums strike easily to provide free plants. C is also for Club. Join a gardening club to do swaps and get advice from people who are familiar with local soil conditions. If there isn't one, start your own. And C is for Compost, a must for the thrifty gardener. Check out your local authority or water authority for free or discounted composters.

D is for Drainage, a controversial topic. Paving over front gardens to provide space for parking increases the run-off from rainwater, which in turn leads to a greater risk of flooding. Permeable paving, as showcased by Marshalls in their Living Street Garden, helps prevent this.

E is for Edible, which doesn't just mean fruit and veg. Pat Fox's show garden, Freshly Prepped by Aralia, aims to be totally edible, and includes an outdoor kitchen and what is claimed to be the first edible living wall to be exhibited at Chelsea.

F is for Fruit. Don't worry, you don't need an orchard. As gardens have got smaller, there has been a huge demand for dwarf fruit trees and it is now quite easy to find fruit trees suitable for growing in a container. Look for dwarf rootstock (M27 for apples, Quince C for pears, Pixy or St Julien A for plums, damsons, peaches and nectarines, and Colt or Gisela 5 for cherries). .

G is for Grow Your Own. The RHS is mounting a series of grow your own events around the country (details at www.rhs.org.uk/growyourown/events.asp ) and the BBC's Dig In campaign has a dedicated website at www.bbc.co.uk/digin/ with a free growing guide and recipes. If you're planning to take part in Tim Smit's The Big Lunch on 19 July ( www.thebiglunch.com ), buy a Suttons' grow your lunch kit for £9.99 and it'll include two £5 seed vouchers so the pack doesn't even cost anything. It has seed for beetroot, beans, carrot, salad, and six patio pouches to grow them in.

H is for Herbs. Save on supermarket bills and grow pots of basil, mint, thyme and rosemary outside the back door. At Chelsea, look for inspiration in the Pilgrim's Rest garden by Chris O'Donoghue, which hopes to recreate the spirit of a medieval monastic herb garden.

I is for Internet, one of the most vital tools for the 21st century gardener. The smaller nurseries were slow to catch on initially, but now you can buy anything from anthriscus to zantedeschia online. It's invaluable as a virtual reference library, with blogs and websites offering information and tips for the thrifty gardener.

J is for Jekka McVicar, the herb expert, whose 2009 Chelsea exhibit is entitled "The Power of Plants". Two of the many herbs on this display are normally thought of as weeds. Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale agg, is traditionally used in the treatment of the stomach, liver, gall bladder and rheumatic complaints; and the leaves of the stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, can be used as a nutritional supplement, as they are rich in minerals and vitamins. Who needs a chemist if you have a local hedgerow?

K is for Knowledge, which every gardener is keen to acquire. Chelsea 2009 features a series of lectures in the Gardening Matters marquee (seating on a first-come, first-served basis) by designers and experts such as Roy Lancaster and design guru Andrew Wilson. Sarah Eberle, who has designed three show gardens with a credit-crunch theme, will also be talking about how to create a garden on a low budget. And don't miss the Continuous Learning section in the Great Pavilion, which has exhibits on how gardening will change in the future.

L is for Layering, another of Guy Barter's favourite "free plants" techniques. It's a quick and easy way to propagate many shrubs and climbers Bend a shoot to ground level, and after lightly wounding it (by twisting the stem), bury it in the soil and secure with two U-shaped wire pins made from an old clothes hanger. With luck it will have rooted by autumn, or certainly by this time next year. L is also for Leaves. Save every one and turn them into leafmould to add to your compost.

M is for Mulch. It's one use for all that compost you're going to make. Spreading well-rotted organic matter on your beds will help conserve moisture, keep down weeds and improve the soil. It sounds like magic, but it works.

N is for the No 1 gardening book in the Amazon gardening best-seller list – James Wong's Grow Your Own Drugs. N is also for Nasturtiums – easy to grow, brightly coloured and they taste good too.

O is for Office, as in garden office, featured in Mark Gregory's garden for the Children's Society. It allows you to cut down your carbon footprint along with your annual season ticket bill, and see more of your family. Or go to Shedworking.co.uk for more ideas. O is also for Organic, and the charity Garden Organic ( www.gardenorganic.org.uk ) is a great place to go for advice.

P is for Ponds. Even a small one will attract damselflies, frogs, toads and even newts, not to mention herons. Don't add goldfish if you want to see tadpoles but do add a small fountain or pump to move the water if you're worried about midges breeding.

Q is for Questions. Every gardener has them so invest in membership of the RHS (£48 for individuals, £21 for under-25s). As well as a monthly magazine and free entry to dozens of gardens, you'll be able to use their advisory service, available by post, email or telephone. And if you're going to Chelsea, take the opportunity to ask all those growers how they get their plants to look so good.

R is for Recycled and Reclaimed. For inspiration, check out the Giles Landscapes Fenland Alchemist Garden at Chelsea, which uses only reclaimed or discarded materials to highlight the importance of sustainability. Another show garden which uses recycled materials is the Eden Project's show garden, The Key.

S is for Seeds, the cheapest way to grow. Join The Cottage Garden Society ( www.thecgs.org.uk/ ) and/or The Hardy Plant Society ( www.hardy-plant.org.uk ) who both operate seed exchanges. If you live in the South-east, check out Seedy Sunday ( www.seedysunday.org ), held in Hove in February. S also stands for skips and salvage yards, both of which are good places to find recyclable Stuff.

T is for Tranquillity, which is what we all need in these stressful times. Two of the exhibits in the urban gardens category at Chelsea concentrate on this theme. The Witan Wisdom Garden, designed by Nicholas Dexter, and Nature Ascending, by Angus Thompson and Jane Brockbank, aim to enhance the sense of wildness as a way of escaping from the pressures of urban life.

U is for Unloved, as in those overlooked urban spaces that lie dank and neglected. Eco Chic, an urban show garden designed by Kate Gould, shows how easy it it to transform these spaces to create gardens for all year use, using leafy shade-tolerant planting.

V is for Vegetables, of course, now enjoying enormous popularity (you can even buy vegetable seeds in M&S). But V is also for vertical gardening. Use walls and fences to grow climbers that provide food and shelter for birds and bugs. The Aralia garden at Chelsea even has an edible vertical wall, planted with salad crops.

W is for Water, a vital resource. Harvest rainwater where possible in a water butt. These are often available free or at discounted prices from your local authority or water authority. Future Nature, a Chelsea show garden designed by green-roof pioneers Ark DM and the University of Sheffield landscape department, centres around water cycling system that is the ultimate in rainwater harvesting. W is also for Wildlife. You don't have to buy expensive boxes or feeders, just try to provide food, water, shelter and places to breed. Think about planting nectar and berry-producing flowers and shrubs as they will help.

X is for Xeriscaping, or Xerogardening, which basically means using plants that don't need a lot of water. If your backyard is hot and dry, it's obviously not the place to start a bog garden. Look instead for Mediterranean or drought-tolerant plants, such as lavender, cistus, cordylines and sedums.

Y is for Yellow Book, the directory of the National Gardens Scheme. From grand estates to tiny city plots and even allotments, these gardens, mostly privately owned, are a rich source of inspiration. Admission starts at around £2, but the proceeds go to charity (mainly cancer-related) and there are often plants on sale. Easy-to-use website at www.ngs.org.uk .

Z is for Zero, as in do nothing. Don't cut all the trees down, don't pave over everything, leave the weeds, let the grass grow, don't tidy up. You may get disapproving looks from the neighbours, but the local wildlife will think it's paradise.

The Chelsea Flower Show runs until Saturday 23 May. For more information and to book tickets, go to www.rhs.org.uk

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