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Thrifty Gardening


Thrifty Gardening, or “Scrounge, Save, Share” – Notes prepared by Maria Ciavarella, My Green Garden, April 2024

Practicing a bit of Nanna-Technology in your garden will save you heaps and make your garden a lot more sustainable too!


The most important thing you can do for your garden is to make compost. Compost has a myriad of uses in the garden and, best of all, it’s free for you to make. Make more by scrounging for valuable by-products from local shops, especially using waste like coffee grounds and newspapers. Collect autumn leaves by the sack-full and always look out for organic matter that you could add to make more compost. Do you have friends with backyard chooks, rabbits or guinea pigs? Ask if you can take some of their manure to use in your compost. For beginners to compost, learn how to start a compost bin easily.
Use compost:
1. As a general soil conditioner, to add valuable organic matter to your soil, keep water and nutrients where you need them, act as insulation for plant roots, attract worms, add healthy soil microflora etc etc – what’s there not to love?
2. To bulk out less expensive potting mix – see below.
3. Whenever you need to add organic matter to your soil for your vegie garden – it saves buying in commercially made compost.
4. As a liquid feed – make a compost “tea bag” and dilute the resulting brown liquid before use in your vegie garden.


Planting in the Ground

Scrounge for as many manure sources and make compost to improve existing soil BEFORE planting. If the ground is too difficult to dig, make a No-Dig garden using the manures and composts. No-Dig garden beds use layers of straw and other carbon-based materials, such as dried leaves and dried garden prunings; alternating with nitrogen-based materials, such as manures, compost and even coffee grounds. This breaks down to form a lovely rich nutritious planting base for vegies, which can be planted into only weeks after putting it together.

Planting in pots

Larger pots are better for vegies as they won’t dry out as quickly but they do use more potting mix. Polystyrene fruit boxes make good planters and you can make them look more attractive by using any odd bits of household paint to colour them in and make a work of art out of them. Don’t be tempted to use garden soil instead of potting mix, but you can use regular grade potting mix (cheaper than premium grade) and supplement with homemade compost to give it some nutrition. Use large containers with drainage holes as quirky pots, rather than expensive terracotta or glazed pots. If the budget allows, add also some water saving crystals and slow release fertiliser to the mix.
If you scrounge and find large plastic pots that you would like to re-use, clean them well and then sterilise with a diluted bleach solution (1:10) so as to kill off any nasty bacteria that might be lurking.
Seedlings can be grown in used seedling punnets (cleaned and sterilised), or make your own biodegradable pots using newspaper, so the whole pot with its seedling can be popped straight into the ground. Toilet roll inners can be used this way too.

Potting Mixes

These can be very expensive so it is good to know that you can go for a regular grade one and bulk it out with some home-grown goodness to save some money. Or make your own regular grade potting mix with the recipe below: (These recipes and more can be found in Millie Ross’ book “The Thrifty Gardener”).
In a big, tall pot, vegies don’t need depth more than 30-40cm deep of soil, so fill the bottom with broken up pieces of polystyrene fruit boxes or chunky mulch over which you can put a piece of cardboard or shadecloth to stop the potting mix falling through.

Rejuvenating and re-using old potting mix

Remove the dead plants and empty the pot into a wheelbarrow or large tub. Remove as much of the old root material as possible. Give the potting mix a thorough watering, making sure it is wet through. Add compost and/or decomposed cow manure, mixing it thoroughly. Add some worm castings too if you have them, for added goodness. If you have any water-saving granules, they can be added to aid water retention. (In the interests of keeping your new plants disease-free, don’t re-use soil that has grown tomatoes, potatoes, chillis or eggplant with any of these plants again).

Maintaining potting mix

Soak the pot in a tub of water with some weak liquid seaweed to re-wet the mix. If it is too large to soak, water with a wetting agent at least every 6 months. Use worm castings to then add some goodness back to the mix and cover with mulch. Worm castings made into a slurry are good to use as a soil re-wetting agent as they encourage good bacteria back in to overcome the water-repelling bacteria which is making your soil hydrophobic. If the plants have outgrown the container, consider moving them to a larger one, or trimming the roots to activate some new feeder roots.

Vegie Potting Mix
❖ 3-4 parts regular potting mix
❖ 1 part compost
❖ 1 part well-rotted manure

Propagating Mix for Cuttings (1)
❖ 1 part coir fibre
❖ 1 part perlite

Seed Raising Mix
❖ 2 parts regular potting mix
❖ 1 part compost or worm castings
❖ 1 part perlite

If there are any large chunks in this mix, take them out before sowing.

Propagating Mix for Cuttings (2)
❖ 2 parts sterilised* garden soil
❖ 2 parts sand
❖ 3 parts coir fibre

Propagating Mix for Cuttings (3)
❖ 1 part sterilised*garden soil or potting mix
❖ 1 part sand
❖ 3 parts coir fibre

To sterilise garden soil, place the soil on a shallow tray in the microwave. Placing a potato in at the same time will give you an idea of when sterilisation is complete ie when the potato is cooked your soil has its nasties gone.

Seeds or Seedlings?

It is much cheaper – and more fun – to raise your own plants from seed and generally food plants are not difficult to get started. You do need to be a bit more organised because the main advantage that punnets of seedlings have over seeds is time saved for you. Plants that are best and cheapest grown from seed include: Lettuces, Rocket, Beans, Peas and Snow Peas, Radishes, Coriander, Asian greens, Broccoli, Sweetcorn, Carrots and Dill.
When growing from seed, follow the directions on the packet carefully, especially with respect to the best time to plant and whether you can sow directly into the soil or need to plant them into punnets before transplanting. A great (and free!) online resource to help you plan your planting can be found at It will also send you fortnightly or monthly reminders of what to plant when.
One major source of seeds failing is planting them too deeply or out of season. No deeper than twice the size of the seed. Find out if your seeds need a warm start in life or cool. These factors can make all the difference.
Other plants are easy too but you may not need a whole packet of seeds if you only want to grow only one or two plants, so buy a punnet and share it with another keen gardener. Plants that you may not need too many of may as well be bought as seedlings, such as Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Eggplants, Capsicum and Pumpkins. Or commit to growing several from seed and share the resulting excess seedlings with other gardeners. Great to bring to vegie swaps!

Saving Seeds

If you have grown non-hybridised (or heirloom) plants you can allow some to set seed and save that to grow on for the next season. We save seed from the best of the crop, which might mean the earliest plant to set seed, or the last, depending on the vegetable. Easy to save are tomatoes, so keep some seeds from your favourite varieties. Some plants will even oblige you by self-seeding and appearing as volunteer crops without you even needing to re-plant! Great candidates for this are lettuces, coriander, parsley, rocket and carrots, but you do need to let them go to seed first.

Soil Care


Usually straw or hay-based mulches are used in the produce garden which can get expensive as you usually need to top up at least once a year. If you can buy some spoilt (usually wet and maybe a bit mouldy), it is just as good. You may need to pull out resulting seedlings that might sprout from your bale of straw. You can also grow your own mulch by planting a clump of comfrey. This is a very valuable plant in the garden as it is very high in nutrients and its rich luscious leaves are a powerhouse of goodness for plants. Cut them back and use the leaves as a mulch. A word of warning: comfrey has a tendency to spread so be very careful to contain the plant when planting it directly into the soil; or grow it in a large pot, which will need regular watering over summer. It grows easily from root division.


If you can get hold of free animal manures, such as rabbit, guinea pig or sheep, these make wonderful fertilisers in their solid form. Or if you can get cow, horse or chicken, you can steep a shovel-load of these in a large bucket of water and let it brew for a few weeks and use it as a liquid feed for your plants. It will stink, so make sure the bucket has a lid. Make the most of any weeds collected around your garden by doing the same thing. Drown them in the water and this will get rid of any seeds that have the potential to spread in your garden. The resulting slush of weeds can go into your compost after several weeks and the liquid used in the garden. If it looks really strong, dilute it to the colour of weak tea. NB This one stinks even worse than the manure teas. If you can aerate the ‘tea’ by bubbling air through, it won’t smell as bad as the bacteria brewing won’t be the smelly anaerobic ones.

Worm Farms

The contents of a worm farm make a wonderful fertiliser for your plants. You can make your own out of 2 polystyrene broccoli boxes with one lid. To get worms for your bin, look in your compost – you may be able to source enough out of there instead of needing to buy worms.

Lime and Potash

This is a nutrient that is not usually well supplied by animal fertilisers but can be obtained from the ash from wood fires. This is very alkaline so can be used around plants which can tolerate a more alkaline soil. It also adds some potash to your soils. Add a sprinkling to your compost Another source of potash is banana peels.


Save empty eggshells, dry (a hot oven helps) and then crush thoroughly. The finer you can crush them, the faster they will release the calcium.

Other thrifty ideas


Keep long and straight tree prunings for quirky stakes, useful for plants such as tomatoes and beans that need support. Sometimes if they are fresh hardwood prunings, they may even re-sprout branches!

Plant ties

Old pantyhose is ideal, or thick twine, old shoelaces, dressing gown belts….even cut up supermarket ‘green’ bags make long lasting ties.


Essentials are secateurs, a hand trowel, garden fork and watering can. You can pretty much do most things with these. Add more as you do more gardening but look at garage sales for bargains.

Pest Control

Try to stop the pests getting to the plants in the first place. Old netting (lace curtains) and drink bottles cut down can all act as barriers against marauding pests. Avoid using any pesticides and this will also encourage beneficial insects to come in and do some pest control for you!

Rewetting agent for dried out soils

Make a slurry containing half a bucket of water and three big hand trowel-loads of worm castings and slosh this onto the soil.

2 Litre Plastic Milk Bottles

These have a myriad of uses in the garden. Making several holes in the lids with a hot metal skewer (be careful!) makes a great watering ‘can’ for seedlings. The cut off handle, lid included, makes a useful scoop for potting mix. Upside down, take off the lid and the potting mix can come out in a narrow stream, useful for narrow pots. Cut off the bottom and you have a protective cloche for seedlings in the garden. Cut some strips and use a permanent marker to make lasting plant-tags.

Propagating from other plants

In the productive patch, there are various methods you can use to make new plants from old.
Clump division – eg Globe Artichokes, Chives, Lemongrass, Banana, all Mints, Oregano, Thyme
Root division – eg Comfrey, Rhubarb, Yacon, Raspberries
Layering – eg Thyme, Oregano, Sage, Bay, Mint, Brambleberries (eg Boysenberry) or any other plant with stems flexible enough to secure to the ground with a metal peg.
From scraps – eg Spring onions, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions, pumpkin seeds, pomegranate seeds, chilli seeds. (Potatoes shouldn’t be grown once sprouted, unless they are certified disease-free.)

Cuttings –Different types of cuttings are made in the different seasons of the year. Remember to 1. Take cuttings on a cool, wet or overcast day, so that they lose less moisture. If you’re not going to use them immediately, wrap them in damp newspaper, put them in a plastic bag and put them in the fridge. 2. Be patient with cuttings. Some will root quickly, others take much longer. A gentle tug will give you an idea of whether or not they have taken. 3. To stop the cuttings wilting before new roots have formed, cover the pot entirely in a plastic bag, keeping the bag clear of the cuttings with sticks or skewers. 4. When moving cuttings into other pots or into the ground, choose another cool or cloudy day.

Spring to early Summer = Soft Wood Cuttings (young tender tips of new shoots) Try rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, wormwood, pepino. These are quick to root but must be protected to be kept moist, by covering with a plastic bag or soft-drink bottle. Reduce the amount of leaf on the cutting, but leave the tip growth intact.

Late Summer to Autumn = Semi-Hard-Wood or Semi-Ripe Cuttings (firmer shoots, brown stems) Try bay, rosemary, loquats, shrubby plants. These are slower to root but you should see some movement in a month or two. Use pieces about 10-15cm long and half pencil width. Don’t remove the tips.

Winter = Hard-Wood Cuttings (deciduous trees and vines, once they have lost leaves) Try figs, grapes, mulberries, kiwi vines, blueberries. These will take ages to root. You may see some growth as they start to leaf in spring, but give them time to form decent roots. Take cutting lengths about pencil width and 15-20cm long, with nodes that will be below the soil (to produce roots) and above the soil (to produce shoots).

Taking hardwood cuttings

Many deciduous trees take readily from hardwood cuttings in winter.
1. Take cuttings that are about pencil thickness and about the length of a pencil. Cut the bottom end flat and the top end on a slant, so that you can distinguish which end is up.
2. Take off any leaves that may still be on the cuttings.
3. The bottom end of the cutting must have a node at its base. Dip this into plant hormone powder for a better strike rate.
4. Use a chopstick to make a hole in your propagating mix.
5. Carefully insert the cutting into the soil to half its length.
6. Cuttings are ready for planting out when you can see roots coming out of the holes in the pots.
References: Jackie French “New Plants from Old”; Annette McFarlane “Organic Fruit Growing”

Thrifty Gardening, or “Scrounge, Save, Share” – Notes prepared by Maria Ciavarella, My Green Garden, April 2024