…out here, in the cheap showiness of nature.
– Rev. Lovejoy
It’s planting time! Or almost! The forsythia (always a litmus test for spring) certainly thinks it’s time to get moving.
And my winter sowing jugs are encouragingly full of seedlings.
Winter sowing is a great way to start new plants with very little effort or cost. But seedlings take a year or two to really show their stuff, and sometimes you want plants that are ready to go right now. But have you seen the prices at the garden center??
To be clear, I buy many, many plants, shrubs, and trees at nurseries. I understand that nurseries and garden centers have serious overhead necessary to produce healthy plants. The prices are generally quite fair, all things considered. If you are trying to plant a large area, though, shopping at garden centers can be cost-prohibitive. Fortunately, there are many free or cheap plant and shrub options.
1. Plant Swaps, Exchanges and Trades
Look for plant swaps in your local newspaper or in social media (the Twin Cities Perennial Exchange can be found on Facebook, for instance).
Plant swaps can be an informal “go fish” scenarios, where group members list what they have to share and what they are looking for, or they can be events, like the one shown above. In either case, find out the exchange’s rules. Some plant trades require even or agreed trades and some events require that you bring at least one plant to swap. Others, though (including the one in my neighborhood) allow anyone to show up and take as many plants as they like, with no need to contribute.
Of course, you can also arrange your own, personal plant swap with a friend. My friend Wendy and I swap just about every year. I always get the much better end of that bargain (viva plant swap at Wendy’s!).
Plant swaps are fun and friendly, but check to make sure you know what you are getting and how to care for it for best results. People participating in swaps will be happy to tell you about what they have.
2. Community Plant Sales
Spring brings all sorts of community gardening events. Look for garden sales sponsored by schools and churches — locally, over 15,000 people attended the Friends School sale last year. It’s such a big deal that they have it at the state fairgrounds! But there are many other smaller (and less crowded) events to be found.
If there’s an active Master Gardener program in your area (find out here), they throw a great sale, usually featuring plants the MGs started or brought from their own gardens. Tip: if you go late in the sale, you might find that what’s left is significantly marked down.
In every case, make sure you know what you are getting, and if it is the right plant for the right place. You’ll save money if you avoid impulse buys. That gorgeous shrub rose may be the plant of your dreams, but if your garden is mostly dry shade, the rose would not be much of a rose (by any name!).
3. Craigslist “Free” and “Farm and Garden” Sections
Good old Craig has you covered on the landscape front. If you go into the “Free” section on your local site and search for “plants” or a specific (common) plant you are seeking, you are likely to find people with extra material to share.
Often, it’s a way for the poster to get a little labor out of the deal — a couple of years ago, I dug out a large lily of the valley patch that the owner wanted to replant. For me, great, established plants; for her, free labor clearing the area.
Some people overreach, though, and offer huge shrubs if you come dig them out. Keep in mind what’s likely to survive a move (or even fit in your car), even if you can dig it out.
Of course, folks sell plants on Craigslist as well, usually in the “Farm and Garden” section, but “Household” is another likely area to check. Some people sell plant divisions at their garage sales, so it’s worth a peek in those listings as well. Naturally, for any of these sales, you should follow normal CL safety guidelines.
Ok, weird lamps and used DVDs are one thing, but plants?? Yep. I buy seeds and plants on eBay every year. eBay is particularly good for buying groundcover plants in bulk.
These types of listings are usually for bareroot plants, so be sure that you will be available and ready to hydrate and plant the little guys when they arrive.
eBay is also good for plants that are not popular enough to be carried by nurseries. I bought a crossvine a few years ago — it’s not hardy in my zone, but I grow it in a container and bring it in for the winter. It’s a noninvasive alternative to trumpet vine for attracting hummingbirds.
5. Mail Order Nurseries
If “$40 FREE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and similar offers are familiar to you, you are already on the mail order nursery mailing list. While the bombastic offers can be tiresome, there are some good deals to be had from these sellers. Shop when they are offering their major promos and/or free shipping, and you can rack up a stack of plants for not a lot of money. Here are a few to check out:
Keep in mind that plants from the low-price nurseries are bare-root or small starts. They are better-established than winter-sowing seedlings, but they will not look like the catalog pictures when you receive them. Many customer complaints for mail order companies come from overstated expectations. Look for what you will get in the listing to avoid disappointment.
I’ve always had luck with the listed vendors. If a plant arrived in bad shape, I’ve received prompt replacements or refunds upon contacting the nursery. Not everyone agrees, however, and you may want to read up on the business before ordering. If so, the best source is Dave’s Garden’s Garden Watchdog. There, you can find reviews for mail order, catalog, and online sellers, and make a decision.
For all of these sources, in addition to knowing what the plants are and what care they need, be careful not to bring home a bully. Invasive plant lists for the U.S. are available here and here, and you can find lists for individual states here. Nurseries are generally careful not to sell problem plants, but individuals may not know or care. Wisteria is beautiful, but the Asian varieties don’t have the right pests to slow their roll in the states, and can take over an area with suckers.
There are less aggressive wisteria varieties, but if someone at a plant swap is just calling it “wisteria” then you might take home a future problem (more on wisteria types here).
Whatever plant you are seeking, happy hunting!