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Most of the work I do inside my home is reversible. My unending tasks are those that most certainly need to be done, but those that spend more time undone than done. Scrub a sink and it is instantly stained. Sweep a floor and it is soiled. Make a meal and it is eaten.  This sorry state of affairs can have a deleterious effect on my fragile state of mind some days, and once or twice a month the desperate predictability of it all cumulates to such a point that I must pull out various tools and materials and begin a reasonably irreversible home improvement project – though the house is filthy, the children prance around like street urchins, and dinner will be served courtesy of Van de Camps that night.

Anyone who has ever tended a garden has felt the same desperation. Pull a weed and twelve have taken its place. Stack rocks on a low stone wall and children come from miles to play balancing games. There is never any one time in the garden where everything is done at the same time; and those who think this is a reachable goal spend sixteen hours out of every twenty-four perpetually grumpy.

But just as a modest household project can save me from ruminating too long over the inexorable treadmill of my life, so too can a project in the garden; a project that my kids can’t eat, my husband can’t break and that will make my life that much easier and more beautiful. Over the years, this definition has applied to new beds, new walls, new plantings and new, quirky ornamentation, with some special qualifications attached to the word “new.”

I’m cheap.

It’s in my genes I’m afraid, and it’s a terminal case. If I won the lottery tomorrow I might not be cleaning my own bathrooms any more, but I’d still be jumping up and down over the Ann Taylor blouse I managed to score at a neighborhood yard sale. This intractable character trait makes new garden projects a little trickier to navigate, but also makes them that much more satisfying when they are eventually completed.

First I start with what I want. Recently, it was a garden arbor to separate the north side of the garden from the front. Price tag: upwards of $100. Once I established that there was no way I was going to part with that kind of money, but there was equally no way I was going to give up on the dream, I began part two of my project process: looking at the raw materials around me.

This is where the average homeowner gets stuck. It’s technically not our fault. Unless we’ve been lucky enough to have been trained by Depression-era grandparents from an early age, we have been, up until recently, extremely profligate as a culture. Spoilt by thousands of choices of thousands of products, we know that we can find exactly what we want when we want it; and therefore nothing else will do. After enough time in this matrix, we lose any skills we may have had to effect satisfactory substitutions. And if money is no longer available to fund this state of want, we are faced with two choices: debt or deprivation.

Debt is a big no-no, and no one likes to feel deprived, so the trick is to change your perspective. It must become a game of how much you can save doing it yourself, not how much you can’t afford to spend. So it’s time to look at things a little differently if you wish to continue improving your home and garden with new projects in a time of economic uncertainty.

The "new" arbor in a barren April garden

In terms of my arbor, that meant grabbing four tall iron bars I pulled out of the woods years ago, pounding them in as vertical supports, and then cutting up foot long buddleia stems to serve as horizontal supports lashed together with a roll of jute cording. Thick wild grape vines topped the whole thing with an arch, and voila – I had my arbor, minus the hefty price tag. The look is natural, rustic and (two months later) covered in a green mass of sweet autumn clematis.

In today’s economy, and most probably tomorrow’s, looking at your home and garden in a different way is crucial to coping with a new baseline. Don’t think of what you can’t do – think of what you can. And if the rampant consumerism of the last two decades has erased your creativity, use books or the internet to connect you to others who have come up with ingenious ways to have the garden they want at a price they can afford.