This decade's economic shenanigans have hit most of us squarely in the pocketbook. Values in our 401Ks have plunged. Real estate trusts and other investments, likewise, have ticked down. Serious doom-and-gloomers whisper that we could be headed for the next Great Depression. No matter how all of this shakes out, I'm reminded of a little rhyme my grandmother — herself profoundly influenced by the Great Depression — taught me many years back: "Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do, or do without."

That old saw applies especially well to gardening. Grandma never purported to be an environmentalist, but, thanks to necessity and hardship, she became one of the earliest "green" gardeners around. Wasting nothing, she drank a pot of coffee a day and always scattered the spent grounds around her vegetable plants. Turns out the grounds are a valuable soil amendment. Further, she composted her used coffee filters. The cardboard inserts from toilet paper rolls went in, too, along with every last fruit rind and vegetable scrap, no matter how small. Religiously, she turned the compost pile with a pitchfork, ensuring that all of that organic matter would decompose quickly, and it did.

She didn't need one of those fancy, plastic bins to do it, either. Hers was an open compost pile, tucked away near a storage barn. Mine, too, is more open than most, fashioned from free, wooden pallets and some repurposed chicken wire. As you might expect, it isn't pretty, but it works. To block what might otherwise be an unsightly view for my neighbors, I've installed native perennial flowers on three sides of my improvised bin. And, like Grandma, I didn't run out to buy the plants I wanted. Instead, I root my own cuttings or swap seeds and starts with friends. I also use newsprint and cardboard instead of expensive weed barrier fabric. Newspaper is handy for fashioning seedling pots as well, and that means money saved on plastic pots or seedling packs. Lucky for all of the newly cash-strapped, when it comes to making things "do" or doing without in the garden, the possibilities are nearly limitless.

Story by Susan Brackney. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Depression-era gardening
Old-school values can be applied in many aspects of life in today's messy economy.