A group of gardeners from the 1930s digging a large hole
Golden age gardening: but James Max is concerned about the 21st century costs © Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

A recent trip to the garden centre drained nearly £1,000 from my resources. I only went in for a few seeds and some compost, but was distracted by begonias, a truckload of annuals, some artisan bread and a nice bush.

Gardens cost heaps of money to landscape and maintain. Children are taught that plants grow from seeds and nature provides free flora. Nonsense. 

There’s no way I can grow an abundance of flowers for my poolside pots or extensive beds without buying them in. With the current crunch on finances what savings can I make? 

I have no plans to let it grow wild. Like avocado bathroom suites, this trend will pass requiring a multi-hundreds of thousands garden makeover to fix. Nor will I install a range of objets that would be better placed in a skip.

Maintenance, however, is an ongoing albatross. The first lesson? Don’t open your garden for charity. My neighbours have just been to this movie. The event raised much-needed funds for a worthwhile cause from the hundreds of visitors. However, the time absorbed reduced these good friends’ availability for drinking fizz while the investment required could have bought a small family car.

Still, their garden looks amazing and the water feature burbles and trickles, while mine is overrun by green sludge. Another task on my list. 

Even without showing your garden there’s a lot of expense. I have a gardener for six hours every week. I’ve no intention of reducing his hours. There’s a lot of stuff to watch on Disney+ to validate my subscription. The lawn is big. So he needs a ride-on mower. That’s £10,000 to buy and a few hundred a year to service. Don’t forget the petrol, lawn feed, weed killer and path clear. 

You’ll probably need a scarifier too. And a high-pressure hose to keep the oh-so-expensive garden furniture clean. Special offer at Farm Foods this week. A Kärcher Professional heavy duty washer on sale for £229.99 down from £354. Value! The gardener snaps spade handles like it’s a sport. John Lewis inexplicably charges £48.99 for a Royal Botanic Gardens branded replacement. Save a few quid by popping to Robert Dyas and you’ll get pretty much the same thing for £14.99. But this kit all adds up. 

We’re told you can save money by growing your own fruit and veg. If my fruit and veg patches were entered as a garden into RHS Chelsea, I’d win gold. They’re full of weeds (this year’s flower show favourite).

The gardener doesn’t “do” fruit and veg, so leaves it to me to look after. However, it’s a fallacy that growing your own is economically viable. I’m encouraged that my cucumber plants are on the way. Knowing that each plant will have to produce more than four cucumbers each if I’m to make a return on the investment in compost. At least I saved the seeds from last year’s crop to avoid paying the £2.89 for a pack of 25. Win. 

However, this is offset by my crop of broad beans that has been ravaged, either by pesky pigeons or the hungry muntjac, leaving parts of my garden stripped like supermarket shelves during Covid. All I have left to show for my hard work is a few stumps that are unlikely to produce anything. Fail. 

I’ve picked a few bowls of strawberries, but I should have protected them from the birds if I wanted a glut. By the time the birds have had their fill, I’ve got enough for a Frinton mess, my take on the famous pud.

Berries are great. Excess supply provides an opportunity for a very sticky kitchen, making jam or sliced and diced and put into the freezer. Ready for plopping into a delicious Reverend Hubert upscale summer cup cocktail. Mixed with fizz, not lemonade, it’s the perfect drink to use bottles purchased at value supermarkets because they’re “such good value”. 

I always grow loads of different beans. Constant harvesting, de-stringing, blanching and freezing leads to a plentiful supply throughout the year. So, there’s little wastage. And I’m well acquainted with the art of staggered potato growth to ensure the harvest is extended.

 I’ve planted a variety of tomatoes to keep the produce interesting. When it comes to dealing with oversupply, I roast, sieve and make passata that’s frozen for year-round pasta sauces. Is that cheaper than the 49p a packet stuff available at the supermarket? Of course not. Even if the green unripened ones are transformed into a tasty chutney. 

Last year I made the ultimate investment, a dehumidifying oven, which is perfect to deal with excess apples and pears. It was £95 well spent. A dried fruit ring makes for a delicious and healthy snack. Your garden will surprise and delight but always provide unwelcome but necessary expenditure, usually when your bank account least expects it. 

Apparently, DIY is a thing. It’s just not my thing. Professional fencers were required to replace the hundreds of metres that had become more hole than fence. I waved goodbye to £7,500. Trees need regular surgery. Another £7,500 down the hole, but at least I got a pile of wood chippings out of it to keep down the weeds. 

If there’s no hosepipe ban, you’ll need to water everything regularly, including the grass, unless you want a brown field. Cue the big water bill, not forgetting to buy the hoses and sprinklers too. And if you want to layer your plant beds, perennials cost a fortune. A designer hydrangea will set you back £24. Plant in groups of three, they say. Sure, go to Aldi or Ikea for a bog-standard plant. But inevitably you’ll want the one that’s a particular shade of fuchsia or hue of elephant’s breath requiring the equivalent of a designer flora emporium. Kerching.

The more I get into gardening, the more I realise it’s a hobby, not an exercise in thrift. You’ll receive benefits and rewards along with your fair share of disappointments and unexpected costs too. 

However, when the sun sets on a warm summer evening, a gentle breeze wafts its way through the trees, the rose garden is awash with colour, the table setting comprises stems of freshly-cut dahlias and you’re tucking into a homegrown selection of produce, a garden isn’t about saving money. It’s about wellbeing, tasty crops and a connection with nature. And that’s worth a few quid. The only real saving I can think of is to invest in better protection from the wildlife. They’re ravaging the fruits of my labour. 

James Max is a broadcaster on TV and radio and a property expert. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax

Letter in response to this article:

When gardening requires some blue-sky thinking / From Harold Mozley, York, North Yorkshire, UK

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