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Weed out gardening expenses with these tricks

"Today" financial editor Jean Chatzky offers some advice to help keep costs down on home landscaping projects.

Gardeners, some like me aided by a good dose of Claritin-D, are feverishly planting, weeding, mowing and trimming in a giant effort to spruce up their landscaping.

More than 80 percent of households participated in some kind of do-it-yourself indoor or outdoor lawn or garden activity in 2005, according to the National Gardening Association. On average, they spent nearly $400. That's certainly less than you'd pay if you hired help to do your gardening for you. But in an environment where spiking gas prices mean you're counting every penny, here's a helpful reminder that pedicured lawns and periwinkle blue hydrangeas don't need to cost a fortune. Particularly if you can remember the following tricks:

Buy seeds not seedlings or plants. This is a great way to save money on flowers that you plant each year, such as marigolds, zinnias, cosmoses and other garden annuals. They are fairly easy to start from seeds, and you will only have to wait three to four more weeks than if you had purchased the plants as transplants.

The savings can be significant. For example, you may pay $4 for a six-pack of zinnias. Fifty seeds — which could potentially produce 50 plants — on the other hand, can be had for $2. Note: Consider starting the flowers indoors and later moving them outdoors.

Share with your family and friends. Perennial flowers generally need to be divided every three to five years. So instead of buying irises, lilies, daylilies, hostas and other perennials, find out if any of your friends and family members have them. You can offer to divide their flowers for them in exchange for a few samples to plant in your garden.

"If you take back a big enough division, it can be flowering by the following year," says Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist at the National Gardening Association. Keep in mind that you will be getting whatever plant they had, so make sure it is healthy. Discard any with insects or diseases. Also choose those that are located in a similar environment to your garden. For example, don't take a sun-loving Iris for a fully-shaded area. Then you'll have to explain to your donor why his formerly thriving specimen is now on life support.

Hold out for deals. Plants and landscaping and gardening supplies have a high season and this is it. Expect to pay full price in the spring. If you wait until fall, you will find steep discounts as stores attempt to move inventory out before the winter. The bonus: For most areas of the country, especially in the South and Southeast, the fall is a good time to plant. You must be careful that the plant is still healthy, however. Plants that sit all summer are more likely to be stressed.

Make sure the leaves still look good, and the massive soil around the root, known as the root ball, is still pretty solid and intact. Also, here in the Northeast, wait until the fall to fertilize. "Generally people think about doing it in the spring, but cool season grass really benefits most from fertilizing in the fall," says Kevin Morris, president of the National Turfgrass Federation.

Don't over mow. Grass looks like it should be easy to maintain. Wrong! One of the most common mistakes people make with their grass is to mow it too short.

Cool season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, should be mowed 2.5 to 3 inches high, which is generally one of the higher settings on home lawnmowers, says Morris.

When you set the mower too low, it stresses the lawn, which allows more weeds to enter. Then you have to pay for treatments to eliminate them. If you let the grass grow taller, its root system will build up, which makes it harder for weeds to come in. This prevents the lawn from declining, and, in the end, saves you money. Taller grass also shades the soil so it will not dry out as fast, which allows you to water less frequently and will help you.

Cut down your water bill. People tend to water too frequently but not for a long enough period each time.

"It is better to water twice a week and really let the water get down a foot or so in the soil than five times a week when it only gets a few inches on top," says Nardozzi.

In the long run this will significantly cut down your water bill. Also, don't overdo it at the beginning of the season. In the spring people often get overly excited about having green grass for the summer, so they begin frequently watering. Then they get their first water bill and decide to cut off the water to save money.

Notes Morris: "By making it lush and green and then stopping, that is more harmful in the long run than if they had never watered at all."

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .