How many of you have started summer gardens as a way to defray your family’s grocery costs? James had some great tips for container gardening back in February. And I had some ideas last Fall about stretching your food dollar by gardening. As we head into summer, many people have probably already planted their gardens and are smack dab in the middle of the maintenance phase. Here are a few things that can help you cut back on gardening-related expenses this summer. The whole goal was to reduce your food costs, right?

1. Collect gray water in a bucket. I have a 5 gallon bucket that stays in the kitchen sink. Whenever I wash my hands, rinse vegetables, or rinse off dishes, I collect the water and then take it outside to water the plants. It’s a little unbelievable how much water you can save this way. Just be sure that you’re using phosphate-free soap and you’ll be OK using the gray water on flowers or on vegetables. The soap even helps to keep the soil loose, especially in containers, where the soil can get packed down tight.

2. Mulch. Mulching helps the soil retain water, and it will help you do less weeding. Yard clippings and dried leaves are great sources of free mulch. You can even mulch with shredded paper from your office. Just make sure you put a light layer of soil over the paper so that it doesn’t blow away. Last year I didn’t mulch my containers – I only mulched the plants I had in the ground. This year I mulched everything, and my plants are so much happier, and I’m using a lot less water in the garden. I only have to water once a day instead of twice.

3. Recycle old containers. There’s no law that says you have to buy your containers at the gardening store. We’ve recycled old kitty litter containers (rinsed out, of course), old storage bins, and even an old wash bin in the garden. The trick is drilling some drainage holes in the bottom of the container so that your plants’ roots don’t get water logged. My tomatoes don’t know they’re living in a kitty litter container. They’re going bananas outside, and the container was free.

Once you start building your garden with recycled materials, you really have to stop yourself from going a little overboard. When we take the dog for a walk, I’m always spotting something in the alley that could be recycled in the garden – used pallets, containers, etc. Don’t worry – I’m not picking things up and taking them home. I’ve got enough plants to tend, and we just finished cleaning all of the junk from our yard that go left behind from the previous inhabitants. However, don’t be shocked if you start eyeing wooden pallets and plastic milk crates and thinking of how you could re-purpose them in the garden.

4. Shade cloth. If you don’t have an abundance of free shade in your yard from trees, consider buying some shade cloth at the garden center to help your plants beat the heat. A big roll will last you several seasons. And the shade cloth provides many of the same benefits as mulching – you’ll use less water because it won’t evaporate as quickly.

I hope you’re having as much fun in your garden this year as I am. If you haven’t already mulched, why not get outside this weekend with a rake and your gardening gloves, turn up the Bob Marley (plants love it), and spend some quality time with your plants. They’ll be glad you did.