I moved into my home about seven years ago. Like many planned neighborhoods in middle class communities, professional landscaping didn’t come with my house–or rather, the previous owners didn’t spring for the $10,000 upgrade. Instead, I had a mismatched, poorly placed amalgam of shrubs and weekend project landscaping. That meant most of of the shrubs were planted way too close to the house, were half dead and just plain ugly and all of the hardscaping was wonky and random. Most of the bushes were spirea and yew, two of my least favorite plants. So that very first summer I tore out a lot of bushes. The previous owners also had built up this weird pile of dirt in the backyard that they surrounded with rocks. It had some firebushes in it, but mostly just weeds. It looked bad, but I wanted to use what they had already started, so I had a professional come in and build a retaining wall. The same professional also built a low wall around the garden area the previous owner had started in front of the bay window. By the way, unless you are actually a landscaping professional, I highly recommend that you spend your money in the hardscaping by hiring a professional. Otherwise, your project will look wonky and random in a couple of years.
This hardscaping left me with a couple of big empty spots to fill and not a lot of money to do it with, since I just had a professional come in and build the walls. So knowing a little bit about plants, I raided my mom’s beautiful garden filled with hostas and lilies and several different kinds of sedum. I didn’t do pretty job of taking her plants, either. I dug some up, tore some apart and then just stuck them in plastic bags with some dirt and carried them home. I probably didn’t even plant them for several days. Then, when my sister moved out of state three years ago, I dug up some of the purple columbines she had growing all over her yard.
Then there was the clump of chives my friend’s mom gave me a few years ago and the clump of mint my mother-in-law gave me last summer. Hint: Alway pot your mint. It will take over your yard. I’ve got some hollyhock seeds a friend gave me a couple of years ago. And so on and so on. Slowly, my gardens started to fill in.
Now, I am not saying I don’t go buy an occasional Perennial. I sometimes can’t resist. It’s not always possible to get the right height or color if you do it the mostly free way. But it would be unusual if I spent more than $10 a year on my flower garden. I always buy low maintenance flowers that I can get a lot of use from and that I can usually divide right away when I plant them. Or I try to buy when flowers are on sale. For example, it’s only the second week of may and stores already have their potted spring bulbs on sale. I could have gotten roughly ten hyacinth or tulip bulbs for $1.50 at Walmart the other day…come to think of it, I don’t know why I didn’t. They wouldn’t have come up again this year, but then next year, when I forgot all about them, they would have been a delightful surprise.
The beautiful thing about perennials is that many are self-propogated or easily propagated. This is the trick to developing a free or low-cost garden. You buy one purple coneflower and within a couple of years you have dozens–if you want them. That means you can fill in your own garden or someone else’s garden with a little patience. Here are some tips to getting free plants:
1) You can take cuttings of many plants such as thyme, lavender, rosemary, sedum, mint, and sages. Or even bushes like willows, forsythia, lilacs and dogwoods. A cutting is literally cutting off several inches of the plant. Most of these plants will root readily without hormones and can be placed directly in water to root. Many can also be thrown directly into dirt and will survive (sedums, for example, grow like mad!) This is one of nature’s methods of survival, so for the most part, you can take cuttings at any time, though you may have more success at certain times of the year over others. And rooting hormone doesn’t hurt. In fact, it might help. It just means you will spend more money.
You’d be surprised how many plants you can grow from cuttings. If you ever really like a plant or a shrub in someone’s garden, ask if you can snip off a small section and then stick it in some water to see what happens. You may have just gotten a cool free plant. The little sedum below was started just last year from about two inches of cut plant materials. It will have nice yellow flower in the summer.
2) In many plants with bulbs and fleshy roots, you can often take one plant and divide it so that next year you have several. If you ever dig up a clump of bulbs, you will notice small pieces ready to break off from the larger bulbs, or tiny bulbs that have developed since last season. Asian lilies and grape hyacinth are easy to propagate in this way. Below is just one section of grape hyacinth that I have in my gardens. I think I originally purchased a dozen bulbs about five years ago. I have hundreds of these now. They are an early spring flower and last much longer than daffodils.
Below these lilies self-propagated from last year. If you can see the small clumps that have begun at the bottom, I could take those and start a whole new section of lilies. I will probably do that this weekend.
I’ll include Bearded Irises in this section because even though it is a rhizome and not a bulb, it kind of looks like and acts like a bulb. Each leaf spike tends to come from a bulbous roots. These are currently the bane of my existence. I have dozens and dozens of these. They spread very fast and I am out of space for them. I either have to start a new garden or start giving them away…or maybe both.
3) With plants like lily of the valley or hostas, you just have to dig up one or two plants with roots intact and before you know it you will have many plants. This group of lily of the valley below started as maybe one or two little plants. I now have a few dozen.
With hostas and lily of the valley, it’s easy to separate, because the plant separates itself for you.
You can see how even though the hosta above looks like one big plant, it is actually many plants with roots that are interconnected. The hosta I just transplanted in the last photo show this most clearly. I was able to dig up the plant in parts and put it all back together. I could also have divided the plant into two or three plants.
In plants that tend to look more like a solid structure, taking a shovel to them can be scary. But, for the most part, you won’t hurt them. You can divide a lot of plants, such daisies, siberian irises, day lilies, sedum… you literally just take the plant and tear it apart.
The sedum above is in desperate need of some dirt. However, the picture shows the top of the root structure and demonstrates how if you took this one plant and divided into the three sections it is naturally giving us, you would have three plants. Also the daisy in the next picture is one big plant, but I could take a shovel to the middle of it and divide it into two individual plants.
Technical, horticulture-y websites say use a sharp knife and to do this at specific times of the year, but, honestly, you don’t have to be that gentle or precise. Plants have many defense mechanisms to make sure that they continue to grow. It is far more important that you treat them well after you plant them then how you go about getting them to the point you can plant them. You can’t let the plants dry out and die after you stick them in the ground. In the siberian iris below, I was tearing some clumps apart to replant and this one came away without any roots. However, I decided to stick it in the dirt in any case and see if roots would form. I kind of think they might.
Along these lines, many bushes and trees tend to send up suckers from the roots. You can remove these and start separate plants. Clearly these will take a lot more patience before you get them big enough to use, but it may be worthwhile, especially if you garden is still a work in progress.
4) Many perennials self propagate through seeds. You can try and control this by dead heading and removing the seedheads. If they drop in the garden, they will spread quickly. This little coneflower below has started in the crevasse between my walk-way and the retaining wall. Seeds tend to gather there and every year I have baby plants that sprout up.
If you want to collect seeds (which, of course, you do), make sure the flower head has bloomed and is fully dried. In plants such as columbines, day lilies, and siberian irises, the seeds will literally just fall out of little cup like pods. With flower with spikes, you can usually wait until the flower is done and browned and then shake the sees off the spike. With larger flower with centers, the seeds are usually left in the middle and sometimes all that is left on that flower stalk after the flower has died. You can collect them to share or you can collect them to prevent crazy propagation or plan where to plant them. Otherwise, you can’t control where seeds land. The next thing youknow you havepurple coneflower and salvia popping up all over the place. I like to dig these up and keep them in a separate pot until I either know what I would like to do with them, or I know where I can give them away.
So find a friend that really enjoys plants or has spent a lot of money on professional landscaping so you can scavenge plants. If you are friends with me, I love sharing my plants! Come armed with some dirt and trowels and let’s get to work. If you are not friends with me, you really should be. I am very nice. But, you can also talk with a neighbor and exchange two or your purple tulips for two of her yellow ones. Or tell your friends and family that if they ever feel like buying you flowers, to buy you someone potted so you can replants it (so…not a tropical houseplants, please).
There is a TON of information on the web about plant propagation, but I would encourage you to just try it. If you like a plant, take a few inches of it and come how and stick it in a vase in the sun. Once it develops a few roots, try putting it in some dirt and watering regularly.
I love this time of year in my garden because it changes every year and I get a first peek at what this year is going to look like. Below is a small columbine and sedum that popped up.
I get to see what has spread and decide if things need to be moved. Okay, well, that part I don’t exactly love. Gardening can be a lot of work. But I put in the work into my garden because in, like, 20 years, I will havethe perfect garden! A garden is a constant work in progress and is constantly changing. I live in zone 5, so not all the plants above would work for your zone, but all zones have plants you can propagate. In fact, your perennials are probably our annuals (which you can also propagate in zone 5, I just don’t bother with annuals). I would welcome your input and comments. And seeds.