You can discover your green fingers with some help from the experts, says John Cradden
For many years, gardening was a relatively inexpensive hobby. It tended to be the preserve of the hardcore green-fingered, and it usually took many years of patience rather than wads of cash to create a beautiful garden.
Then, during the boom years, the humble old gardening trade flourished into a serious industry with new garden centres and designers who could create beautiful gardens in a matter of weeks.
These days, of course, not many of us have the money to splash out on 'instant gardens'.
But by following a long-established culture of thrift in amateur gardening plus a few tricks picked up from the instant gardening trade, you can really spruce up your garden in a very short time.
1 Buy the best tools you can afford
Gerry Daly, editor of Garden.ie, says: "Buy good quality, serviceable tools, the best you can afford. They are easier to use and last longer."
Ian Gomersall, a professional gardener who runs organic gardening website Gardening.ie, says cheap tools can actually be dangerous as well as a false economy.
"Cheaply made hand tools are not only a waste of money, they are really dangerous when they break under normal working conditions."
2 You don't need too many fancy tools
The experts agree that when it comes to equipment, most gardening can be done with very few tools, such as a spade, fork, secateurs, rake, hoe, mattock (pickaxe), shears, hand trowel and watering can.
"There are a lot of cheap, novelty gardening gadgets on the market designed to be impulse buys, and end up in the bin after a short time," says Gomersall.
3 Source plants at local sales
There are many places to buy plants, but locally based sales, such as church fares, charity plant sales or bring-and-buy sales, can be great for value, says Daly.
However, he adds that you should do some plant research before buying. "Be wary, as some of the plants on offer can be a touch too vigorous."
4 But don't discount supermarket plants
Daly also suggests buying discounted supermarket plants as well as those in garden centres, but focus on small plants, "as they are much cheaper than larger, older plants".
He also suggests making the most of what you buy from these outlets. "Buy perennial flowers in a garden centre, grow them on for a year or two and split them into several plants for re-planting," says Daly.
However, Gomersall is sceptical about the quality or suitability of plants sold at supermarkets. "Some of the supermarket plants and flowers come straight from controlled environments ideally suited to their growing needs," he says, adding that once they fall into the hands of a consumer, they are usually short-lived.
5 Share plants and seedlings
Daly points out how the social 'glue' of gardening also contributes to it being relatively inexpensive as a hobby. For instance, many gardeners will have swapped plants and produce with friends and neighbours for many years. "There is a great tradition of plant swapping, and passing on, in gardening," he says.
6 Join bartering groups
Gomersall reports that LETS (local exchange trading system) groups, where people buy and sell goods through bartering, are growing again around the country after being neglected during the economic boom.
"The active groups do a lot of trading in plants and vegetables. Groups such as the GIY (Grow It Yourself) set-up are growing, too, in many areas, and local gardening clubs are more popular than ever."
7 Join a club or use social networking sites
"Join a gardening club in your locality and avail of proven local expertise and advice," says Daly.
Social networking is a great resource for obtaining information and tips about basic garden design, says Gomersall, and there's loads of great websites and forums on the subject as well as computer programmes created to help you design your perfect garden.
8 Recycle items for use in the garden
The world of gardening has long been a hotbed of recycling activity.
"You can recycle lots of items for use in the garden, such as plastic packaging trays for seeds and yogurt cups for seedlings, drinks bottles for covering early plants," says Daly.
Other funky recycling suggestions we picked up include re-using old Belfast sinks, wheelbarrows, buckets and even old wellies.
9 Check out allotments -- but only if they make sense
If you have no garden at home, allotments can make sense for growing your own veg, but only if they are really close to home, says Gomersall.
"The community gardens on housing estates will prove to be the most cost-effective and popular options in the future as you will generally be able to walk to the plot and deal directly with your veggie-growing neighbours."
In rural areas, by contrast, most will favour growing in their own garden, even if it is less social.
10 Sound out an expert
If you are completely clueless but want to get a head-start in building your garden sanctuary, it may be worth your while seeking out professional help.
"It could work out good value for money getting a professional in to design a complete plan for the garden as alterations can be costly later," says Gomersall.
He suggests looking at three or more of the designer's gardens and working out a contract before starting.