I know it sounds too good to be true, but it is possible to establish a free garden. From soil to plants, there are many resources gardeners can access to create a lush environment without spending big bucks.
When I bought my first home, I didn’t have much money remaining to plant a landscape. Luckily, I grew up on a farm and my grandmother was a gardener with a well-established garden. Between the farm, her garden, and friends’ and neighbors’ gardens, I was able to dig up and transplant trees, shrubs, and many flowers to create a garden at my home.
Though I did not know the term at the time, I was creating my garden by propagating plants. Plant propagation is the process of creating new plants from existing plants. Many gardeners have learned a variety of methods for propagating plants, even if they don’t identify it by that name.
There are half a dozen methods for propagating — growing new plants from seeds or growing leaf and stem cuttings or divisions from existing plants. Three tried and true ways to propagate plants are by division, from cuttings, and replanting of offsets. Division involves splitting a parent plant into sections with a shovel or trowel. Each section can be replanted as a separate plant.
Cuttings are branches or stems cut from a plant sometime in the spring through fall that are then planted in pots with a potting soil mix to root. Some cuttings can simply be placed in a jar of water to root.
Finally, some plants grow miniature versions of themselves called offsets, either in the ground or on the tips or edges of leaves. These can be removed and replanted in the garden bed or into a pot to grow on their own. A mix of peat moss, vermiculite or perlite, and compost or organic fertilizers can provide a suitable starting mix that has sufficient water-holding capacity, nutrient content, and aeration for root growth and development for seeds, divisions, cuttings, or offsets.
How to find free garden materials and supplies
• Ask family and friends to collect seeds or request transplants from their gardens. Perhaps they have small volunteer trees, the irises need to be divided, or the Mexican petunia has grown beyond its bounds. Offer to help with digging, dividing, and thinning the plants.
• Join a free garden club. In addition to making friends who garden, you also will get knowledgeable advisors for gardening. Plus, garden club members often bring plants to meetings and events to share. Sometimes, gardeners redesign their gardens and have gravel, compost, or other hardscape materials that need to be hauled away.
• Watch for seed exchanges and plant shares. These events provide opportunities to get plant material from trees and shrubs to succulents, bulbs, and flowers. Volunteer and you may get a chance at first choice of the donated plants. Often other supplies are donated to these events, including soil, pots, irrigation supplies, and other useful materials.
• Check Craigslist, want ads, and neighborhood share sites regularly. Often people have free garden materials they want removed — and the materials cost you nothing but the labor. You may find bricks, stepping stones, gravel, topsoil, wood, fence posts, and wire.
• Respond to environmental specials, such as free trees for Arbor Day and other similar offers of garden plants. While the advantages of propagating plants are wonderful, keep in mind even free plants may have a downside. Often plants being shared are aggressive spreaders, such as Mexican pink primrose or Mexican petunia.
Weeds and pests may be introduced into your free garden from new plant material or soils. Transplanting and moving plants may not always be successful. I always hope for a 50 percent survival rate.
Remember, do not take material from any plants or gardens without permission of the owner of private property. Also, it is illegal to dig or take material on public property such as city, county, state or federal parks, land, or roadside.
Many plants may reproduce exuberantly in the garden
It is easy to locate small trees such as desert willows, mesquite and acacia trees, palo verde trees, vitex or chaste trees, some oak trees, and others. If you desire a mulberry tree, finding a transplant may be the only way to add this tree to your ffree garden, though it likely will be a white or red fruiting variety. However, some southwestern cities have banned mulberry trees due to their pollen which contributes to seasonal allergies. If you want an elm tree, the seeds come up abundantly — perhaps too abundantly, so they are easy to find in someone’s garden. It is best to avoid Tree of Heaven and most locust trees, as they form thickets and can become a nuisance.
Many small trees and shrubs can be successfully transplanted. Texas Ranger sages and Apache plumes seed and create offsets in many gardens. Yellow bird of paradise throws its seeds widely and many small plants come up the garden. Some shrubby herbs, such as rosemary and sage, will form roots on any branches that touch or are pinned to moist soil in a garden bed. The plants that develop at that point of contact can be separated from the parent plant and transplanted to a new free garden space. Many shrubs and trees start easily from cuttings placed in water or soil.
Most perennials can be divided, or seedlings and shoots can be dug and transplanted to a new space. Some of the easiest to divide and transplant include Mexican petunia, Maximilian sunflower, Mexican pink primrose, fall aster, Mexican bush sage, catmint, garden phlox, and some penstemons. Iris rhizomes should be divided every few years. Daylilies also crowd themselves out of a garden bed and benefit from being thinned.
My favorite white rain lily bulbs multiply abundantly and can be divided and planted everywhere you want a surprising splash of white. A few Lady Jane species of tulips will soon become a large clump and can be dug and transplanted. With the prices of everything from seed packets to six packs increasing, your dream of a lush oasis may be melting away in the mist. However, by joining the gardening community, you will find the resources and knowledge to create your dream free garden.
Read more from our resident gardener here.
Story and photography by Jackye Meinecke
Originally published in Neighbors magazine