Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Slumming It

Help me!  I need your advice
I’m spoiled.  My job as a landscape architect has distorted my notion of how to install a garden.  For years, I’ve devised grand plans for gardens and landscapes.  Plants show up to the site by the thousands, and the contractor installs them over a period of a week or so, creating a dramatic and instant transformation. 
Now my wife and I prepare to move into a new house.  All the money went into the down payment and renovation (we essentially gutted the inside).  So now, penniless, I turn to yard and wonder: how the heck do you install a grand garden for cheap?  I mean, really cheap.
This spring, I will dig up several thousand square feet of lawn to create garden beds.  It will take thousands of plants to create the lush, richly layered garden that I want.  So I’m wondering: how the heck do you populate a garden with no money? 
I’m thinking about ordering plugs from wholesale perennial nurseries, but even those cost hundreds of dollars.  I guess I could grow the herbaceous perennials from seed, but the last time I did that, it took a couple of years before the plants looked like anything.  And how do I do shrubs?  I need a lot of screening plants.  Do I buy them super small and nurse them along?
So I’m asking for your help and kind advice.  Have you ever gardened on the cheap?  What’s worked for you?   Can I have a glorious garden without cashing in my 401k?
This is how I'm used to plants arriving: by the truckload.
Is there any hope for me?


  1. Ha! Love your story! My fabulous neighbors next door have four wonderful sons and operate on a tight budget like most of us. Last summer whenever I replaced or removed nice plant material from a client's home, it was reinstalled in my neighbor's landscape. As a result they have inherited some really great plants. The last shipment included five (3') very healthy pyramid boxwoods (gorgeous)! Jackpot!

    As I work my clients' gardens, I am always looking for plants to rescue for my neighbors. It is exciting and fun for both of us to build their landscape together on a penny! Good luck!

    May all your gardens grow,

  2. Are you in master gardeners or a member of your state's native plant society? Send an email out to your native plant buddies within a 100 mile radius of your new home. I'll bet they're already walking around their own gardens choosing the plants they'll cull, divide, or toss. You simply need to volunteer to give them a good home.

    You could also trade with people. Native plant lovers (there's one in every garden group) tend to grow way more than they can plant and usually have zillions of pots scattered under backyard trees, along driveways, in the shade of the porch, etc. I, for example, know that if I show up at my friend Loretta's home with a couple dozen of my hens' eggs, I'll leave with at least a couple dozen plants in the back of the car. You could trade design work for plants!

    Does your state have a conservation nursery? You usually need to buy in bulk (bundles of 25 - 100 plants), but the plants are usually a buck each or cheaper. Join up with friends and neighbors to split orders.

    Good luck and keep us posted on your progress.

  3. Start small, dream big, but remain patient!

  4. Does your city/county offer free mulch? Ours does and last year we got a pile the size of my (small) car. It wasn't fun getting it moved all around the house, but this year the soil looks fabulous. Since we're looking at redoing our front yard I mentioned the idea of doing it again and my husband said I'm welcome to get more - but he and his bad back won't be helping. (Since he helped way more than I thought he would last year, I don't mind. Of course I say that now, before ordering more mulch...)

    I'm also going to be watching your comments for cheap plant ideas.

  5. Seeds are the way to go cheap. I grow many perennials & annuals from seed. The Rudibeckia that I started from seed were big a full by summer and lasted well after frost. Also grab some bulbs- Delphinium and Gladiola perhaps? Something that grows really fast from seed is Cardinal climber. Beautiful! You could even plant some asparagus- 2 year rhizomes should be nice and showy by summer.

  6. I can totally relate to this post, as I have lived it too. My yard was a blank slate when I moved in 5 years ago, and the majority of our budget went to installing a fence. I spent whatever budget was left on a few choice shrubs, and was lucky enough to inherit a small tree. From there I filled in with perennials (some from seed, some from 4" pots)and grasses. I would also take a 1 gallon perennial and split it into 2 or 3 plants to spread it out a bit. I know you're a big fan of grasses, and you can definitely grow many of those from seed. The nice thing about perennials is that they are easy to move/remove when your budget allows you to get some of the larger plants you're looking for. If you're ready to plant this spring you can also take advantage of bare-root plantings. They're sooo much cheaper and will often catch up to larger container grown shrubs/trees in a season.
    I also take advantage of the free compost and free mulch from my town. You have to be able to pick it up, and it can take many trips, but it's so worth it. Good luck! Can't wait to see what you come up with!

  7. For some things that need dividing, you may want to try freecycle. People tend to be especially responsive if in your "Wanted" post you indicate you're willing to dig whatever up yourself. Granted, it's usually the "ordinary" plants that don't cost much to begin with, but it's something!

    Also several of the nurseries around here do *big* sales in the fall.

    I have personally opted for the smaller shrub & to let them mature.

  8. I hear ya, I really do! I don't know what to say about the shrubs, except perhaps you could grow some annual ornamental grasses in their place and gradually replace the grasses with shrubs as budget permits. For perennials, buying bare roots is a great way to go - faster than seeds but way cheaper than potted plants.
    Have fun! Love your blog,

  9. Lovely story, and it's only too easy to relate to it....:-)

    When I design a new garden, I usually tip the owner to give plants away and let people come and dig them up themselves. It's a neat way to do good and saves some valuable time for the contractor too:-) So look up your local web-ads for free plants!

    By the way, love your blog, been here quite a few times!
    Greetings from Stockholm, Sweden.

  10. Our local garden group has a spring plant swap. I bring a few dozen Sungold tomato seedlings, and native plants are heaped upon me.

    Freecycle and Craigslist are also useful - particularly if you're willing to dig your own plants. Many people have to give up plants during house renovations or downsizing to assisted living or nursing homes.

  11. The "Will Work for Plants" sign on your blog post really made me LOL! When I became a "garden writer", years ago, I realized that one of the advantages might be free plants. Certainly if I wrote wonderful articles about people's gardens and garden businesses, they would offer me plants. Hah! I started out writing for a local newspaper and it took me awhile to get confident enough to start asking people for cuttings, seeds and startup plants when I was walking around admiring their gardens. And of course, many people do it without being asked. If you have anything that you can pot up, root or start and offer for trade, that certainly helps. And with your expertise, another option is giving talks at local nurseries in exchange for gift certificates or free plants.
    Another place to go to find very generous plant people is the plant swap forums of gardenweb.com and other online plant swap groups. I have gotten wonderful boxes full of plants and cuttings through the mail and the plants still grace my yard. Yes, you generally need something to trade but people will readily accept your skills and knowledge in exchange for plants that they have extras of, anyway.
    And lastly, get in touch with builders, developers, and other landscapers who might be removing (and killing) usuable plants. You will probably have to do the work to get them removed in one piece, but you might just find some wonderful treasures that you will be saving from the landfill.

  12. You have THOUSANDS of sq. ft. to plant uo in your yard? Must you do it all at once? I've done my yard in sections and redone some of them, as plants die or get too big. Small plants & trees & shrubs grow pretty quickly & it's fun & educational to watch them mature. As plants grow, you can divide them and spread them around the yard.

    One of the best places to go for inexpensive & unusual perennials, shrubs & trees is the Master Gardeners of Northern VA plant sale held at Green Spring Gardens in May. There are lots of other vendors there, too.

    A neighbor who is a landscaper has added many trees & shrubs by bringing home plants that were removed from yards he landscaped, or that clients rejected.

  13. If it is a vegetable garden, plan with careful consideration of the varieties and amounts you will actually eat. It is very disheartening to see the efforts of your hard work rot, got to waste or even to the compost pile.

  14. Hi Thomas,
    To get more plants, I have written several grants for our yard. Most were cost sharing but they grant money covered 75% of the cost. It's really cost effective if you use the money for plants alone and do the labor yourself. Look for grants through your City, watershed or conservation district or State.

  15. Welcome to the real world! I would venture to guess that most of the country's gardeners are "slumming it". Using less pejorative terms to refer to small scale gardening would help you thinking. There are many good suggestions here, but the best ones involve thinking smaller.

  16. Dear Anonymous,

    By "slumming it" I meant to be tongue and cheek, not offensive. My apologies if that came across the wrong way. Small scale gardening is something near and dear to my heart. In fact, my favorite gardens are small, owner-designed gardens. While I have designed gardens for people with resources, I have personally gardened for myself, churches, and civic groups with little or no budget. Let me assure you, I live and garden in the real world.

    As for "thinking smaller" . . . NEVER! Small thinking leads to timid gardens.


  17. Thomas; you are so funny! However, I have found myself in a similar situation, I feel your pain! So I must tell you a story about my childhood!
    Growing up in 1950's suburban Los Angeles there were no mature gardens in our neighborhood and if there was a garden center "nursery" they were few, far between and not somewhere my family visited often or invested in. My mother having survived the great depression along with her 4 siblings was an economist's economist, if you're hearing me? But when we walked around our sunny So.Cal neighborhood with my dear Aunty Evelyne, every geranium that was bold enough to offer up a showy bloom was an easy victim to a quick pinch and a small cutting was popped into her purse and found it's way shortly to our home and a pot all it's own until it was 'garden ready'. Succulents fell victim to the same treatment, none were safe that dared to flourish! It was how we learned what grew well in the California sun, my mother being a Mid Western transplant and Aunty from New England.
    So my answer to you Thomas is; Do you have neighbors? Do you have friends? Cuttings my boy! Cuttings are the future! Glean! Glean! and Glean again! Fill in with annual seeded patches until they can catch up. The novelty of this method is that like my mother and aunt you will point to that prized much loved future mounded heap when it needs dividing and say "that came from a cutting from my dear friend So & So's back yard, they've moved on and this is now going to supply a new patch for their current garden.." and many more stories.
    A garden's history should be filled with stories, grown from friends and memories!
    Enjoy the process!

  18. Nancy,

    I love that story! That's hilarious. I thought you were about to say I should steal plants from neighbors. I'll admit to stealing some seedheads from neighbor's fencelines in the winter for my seed collecion, but I haven't fully explored the world of cuttings. I've had only mediocre success with cuttings, but to be honest, I haven't really done the full process.

    You should blog about that story, Nancy. It's charming. I'm inspired!


  19. Thomas--have a party, like the one Barbara Kingsolver did in her book (Animal, Vegetable). Ask for everyone to bring two things: whatever they want to drink (BYOB) and to dig up/split--whatever--something from their yard.

    You supply small appetizers. Or sweets.

    You can spread your new plantings throughout your yard, or devote one area to donated plants from friends--each one will remind you of the person who gave it to you. My entire front bed is made from plants given to me from friends. It's a small area...but whenever I visited someone and I loved a plant--they usually offered to split it, or if they had a bunch, just got the shovel out.

    And buy some seeds...you can start your own seedlings. Heck this year if you need color--just grow a bunch of annuals (zinnias, cosmos) and create a cutting garden.

    I know whatever you do it'll be gorgeous.

    Have fun and take your time. Enjoy that new baby.

  20. I have champagne tastes and a beer budget, too. Work in sections. Start with the most visible first; the entry way, etc. Spend what money you do have on the bones. Be patient, and buy small. I just ordered 8 Himalayan white bitches for under ten bucks a piece because they are babies. They will settle in all the better for being small. I check out what I plants I already have, and divide or take cuttings. Fill in with annuals from seed while the permanent stuff grows. Over the years, you've probably given people starts from your plants. Ask them for starts back. Buy hundreds of wholesale bulbs (I like Colorblends) in the fall and have swaths of spring color.


  21. I think 'thegivinggarden.com said it best… Start small, dream big, but remain patient!

    The operative word there is PATIENT. It's so unfortunate that we live in a gotta-have-it-now world. The youth has not been taught the value of patience and how it enriches life in general (yeah, I'm an old fart). My art school studio partner once said that gardening is a patient art. I totally agree.

    And your comment about thinking small… NEVER!… I respectfully disagree that thinking small leads to timid gardens. If/when one only has a small space, they must deal with what they have. That is reality… another thing my generation seems not to have taught it's children. And who says small is also timid? Small can be fabulous in a huge way. It just takes creativity.

    And finally, at least a couple people suggested not trying to install all at once. Amen to that. Prioritize areas by need (not want). The suggestion about Master Gardener friends is a good one, too. Out here in Vancouver, WA, our MG Foundation has an annual plant sale where you can get great stuff VERY inexpensively.

    Patience. That's the ticket. :-)

  22. Turn the Good Grief acres of open muddy/sandy ground into at least one patch. Walking to the front door? Looking out of the livingroom window? And plant that patch to enjoy! One patch you can look at and say this - is my garden. A year or two passes quickly (watch your baby grow)and with your knowledge the garden will reward you.

    This is where I started http://elephantseyegarden.blogspot.com/2010/02/i-want-to-start-gardening-she-wails.html

  23. I was thrilled to get a blank slate, though it requires patience! Upon moving in, my back yard had a decrepit apple tree, a detestable rose, and a lilac (love that one). Vegetable gardening was my biggest desire, so I initially devoted money and energy to getting that started. After all, it can only go in the sunny swath of the yard anyway.
    I move from section to section and prioritize. When the apple tree broke in half (thank you, snomageddon), I had to make the investment in a large tree for privacy, but otherwise, I do it a piece at a time.
    When it was time to work on a new section of the garden, privacy/screening was again the priority. I planted a small tree and several shrubs last fall, and this spring I will begin filling in between them with smaller perennials, but at least the structure is there now.
    Now keep in mind I am learning by doing. However, even though you already know what you are doing and have a vision, I still don't see why you can't put in a few large plants as you can, and slowly build up around them.

  24. I think you have entered the world of gardening (where patience is required), as opposed to the world of landscaping (where instant gratification and big budgets rule). While free plants of whatever stripes are easy enough to come by, you will not be satisfied by give-aways of divisions of some anonymous hosta or another orange daylily.

    My recommendation: start with first principles and do the layout of paths, lawn (if you must), patio, etc. Not that you have to install them, but plan them. Then plant your trees. Start small and cheap, but get the species you want. Add shrubs (small, but cheap) as you can. Do your paths with mulch or gravel--you can upscale later. Fill in the remaining garden bed space with annuals--and if you have enough sun, the annuals could be vegetables. Have fun with the space till your budget permits buying the flats of quarts (or gallons) of the plants you love.

    But you really could start some perennials from seed. A friend started flats of mexican feather grass from seed last spring, and now it is ready to pop into the garden and it will look stunning this year.

    Patience, patience!

  25. Put a ten dollar bill in your pocket. The next time you drive by the lowest priced big box garden center in your area, treat yourself to as many perennials in the smallest sizes that the money will buy. It will probably go farther in August and September. Patience is everything.

    Honestly, Thomas, if I lived in the USA, I would mail you a big box of cuttings of the hardiest perennials I grow. Sadly, US customs regulations forbid that.

    I think that it is quite impressive that your blog has generated not only so many comments but also so many lengthy ones. Clearly, this post has touched your readers.

    All that you require now is a safe drop off point so that generous readers can share their plants with you, without invading your privacy.

  26. 1. You might try enclosing one small area and putting lawns and loose plantings on the rest of the property.

    For example, put an attractive wood or bamboo fence or parged wall around a smallish area near the house that has a nice window but would otherwise overlook something unsightly. Use it as the boundary for an intensive garden that is lush and richly layered just like you want. Use depth perception tricks.

    Then, on the rest of the property, make it a more wild area with those parklike trees in lawn that you like. Use a few shrubs where needed for their form, and add minimalistic accents, like bulbs and wildflowers, or even rocks in the wildest areas, to add character and intrigue.

    I know it's not humongous masses. And it would still cost enough that it's not worth doing if you're just going to undo it in 5 or 10 years. But it's a thought.

    2. A different idea, if you really do want tons of plants, is to put quick-spreading perennials in half or even a third of the masses you want, and grow annuals from seed in the other masses. Most annuals grow a lot faster from seed than perennials. After a few years, your perennials will be thick enough that you can divide them and start transplanting clumps into the other masses instead of seeding annuals. And fortunately, quick-spreading perennials are the ones you are most likely to be able to get for free. This could be a very cheap option.

    3. Try gardenweb.com and look for free plant listings. I used to swap seeds and plants there as an unmoneyed 13-year-old. Or try Craigslist.

    4. I have some Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' you can have, if you want to come dig it here in Fairfax. Probably 6 square feet of overcrowded plants should be excised. I also have about 1/4 acre of lawn heavily populated with spring beauties, if you wanted to take some plugs and try to get them going. And I have a million random tree whips, including sassafras, that come up everywhere, if you want to start small.

    5. Congrats on the house, and don't sweat it. It may ease your mind if you made a few different master plans, worked out a yearly budget, decided which plan to do, and then savored each year's progress toward an eventual goal.

    - J. Kriz

  27. Oh, I wish I had your problem.
    My strategy would be:
    1. Cuttings. Buy a small number of reasonably sized plants of things such as salvias, asters, monardas, heliopsis etc. By taking cuttings in spring, summer and again in autumn it is possible to create a fair number of plants in just one season. Late the following spring when you trim them back to encourage bushiness you have enough cuttings to triple or more your stock. This is how many commercial nurseries work.
    2. Seed. I recently posted about growing perennials from seed on my blog - I suggest you check it out. I am still experimenting but it goes far quicker than I had thought.
    3.Direct sow. Set aside part of the garden to experiment with direct sowing of a perennial seed mixture to create a meadow. The mix can include some annuals to offer colour in the first year. It apparently takes three years to get a worthwhile result by which time you can chose to leave it or replace it with your own border scheme.
    4.Biennials. These could be used to create the first show stopping display in your new garden. I also grow lupins, salvias and verbascums as biennials. Once the display is over the borders could be made ready to receive all of the new perennials that you spend your first year propagating.
    5 Shrubs. Well, less easy maybe. I would plant lots of cheap buddleja for bulk and grow on my long term plants in a nursery bed for a couple of years. Bare rooted hedging plants are very cheap and grow fast if given tender loving care.
    Unlike your clients, you have the time to enjoy the process of gardening.
    Good luck - and I look forward to reading about how it goes.

  28. The classic way to fill big spaces quickly is annuals, of course. I like to use vegetables for that purpose, since they offer practical rewards. I've also started red and green leaf lettuces from seed and then interwoven them in decorative patterns, created "knots" out of basils (also grown from seed. My favorite expedient, however, I discovered when I had decided to rip out and replace the gardens in our backyard one spring. My stricken wife told me that night that she had offered to host a professional group at a barbecue in our backyard in a month's time. I raked the beds smooth, used lime to draw all sorts of curlicues, arabesques, lightning bolts, etc. and then sowed in curly cress seed (you can buy this cheaply by the pound) wherever I saw lime. I watered every day and in three weeks (cress is very fast growing) I had an astonishing free form parterre. I've used this trick several times since; I call it "garden graffiti". You could plant rooted cuttings of shrubs and perennials to create the backbone of a permanent garden, then use the garden graffiti to create a temporary display.

  29. I'm overwhelmed! I knew I would get some great advice, but each of you has offered some really brilliant, intersting ways of populating a garden. Much more interesting than buying them from a nursery. Thank you all! ALl of these ideas would make a great book

  30. I'd give large areas to seed sown ornamental grasses, some other areas I'd leave alone and mow once a year to see what develops over time, and most of all remain flexible to change. Add perennials and trees and shrubs as affordable, and use cuttings to get woody plants started. Willows in particular are fast and easy.

  31. seeds and annuals until the big stuff grows in Not as dramatic, but a LOT cheaper!

  32. Here's an idea I just blogged about - self-seeding perennials: http://blog.behnkes.com/self-seeding-perennials-for-the-budget-conscious-gardener.html

  33. When you buy a gallon-sized bunchgrass like switchgrass, grab a sharp knife, take the plant out of the pot, and cut it up into 3 or 4 slices, like slicing a cake. The fibrous roots won't be harmed and you'll have multiple plants instead of one.

    The same goes for shrubs. Nurseries often pot up two or three small ones to make the plant look more mature. Take it out of the pot, shake loose most of the woodchips it's growing in, and gently separate out the plants from one another. They'll be small, but you'll be able to cover more ground.

  34. Hello, love your blog. We bought our house in August, and all autumn I was searching our local Craigslist for posts about plants. By November there were ads from nurseries that were giving their perennials and bushes for 10 -15 bucks, and those were going for 30-50 dollars in the beginning of the season( much smaller). They was a post for a big mature trees for a 100 dollars, they would require a truck, a forklift and a couple of men for sure to transport and plant. they were also lots of posts from regular gardeners who were cleaning and dividing their perennials for anywhere between a 50 cents a plant to 10 dollars for a nice mature hydrangea bush. In addition to this, if you call or visit nurseries not in the center of your city, somewhere in the countryside, you'll find that a lot of their plants are on sale at 90 % off at that time. there is a problem in our Chicago climate that there would be a sudden frost and all your nice but cheaply bought plants might not survive, but if you're lucky or climate is milder it might work. I know you will have to wait till October and November to start gardening, but you can spend summer on devising a master plan, so not to be caught up stupefied, not knowing what plants you actually need, like it happened to me: I had no idea what I needed, so let go of a few wonderful plants. Also you can watch your garden now, what is actually already growing there, the sun path, what kind of animals would be visiting your garden etc. I admire people who have a master plan, I can only garden a few plants at a time. Good luck with your garden! post a few picture of it in the future.

  35. Hydroseeding is your answer. You can pick your choice of seeds - grasses or flowers or both, and blanket the place. It'll be one big meadow that will be so fascinating to you that you will be distracted from obsessing about what to do with every inch of the place, for a while anyway.

  36. Hi, If you're still checking for suggestions .... be sure to check the garden waste put out for trash/recycling pickup in your neighbor -- especially this time of year when people are beginning to reassess and clear off from the late spring bloom. I scored a lot of really great old-fashioned bearded irises one year. (This is also a fun way to embarrass your teenagers, if you have any.) Also, for the first year or two, every perennial you buy should be divided in two before planting. Good luck!

  37. Shhh…since you seem like nice guy – here are my tips:
    a.Take pictures of your favorites in bloom-but resist the urge to buy. Return in the fall for the maximum off-season discounts.
    b.Some shops offer free weekend seminars and offer coupons at the end. Show up late and snag them.
    c.GroupOn and LivingSocial now offer coupons.
    d.Costco bulbs – by the bag.
    e.Always stop by the garden discount area. Damaged plants and trees need TLC, too.
    f.When shopping always ask if this is their best price. Be bold - ask for discounts.
    g.When ordering on-line always ask for a complimentary plant/seeds as a “new customer” in the comment box. This always works.

    True story: A Kmart was tossing out 50 dried-out annuals and perennials at a dumpster. I rescued them, watered them and enjoyed their appreciative color all summer.


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