Gardening on the Cheap

Sooner or later shelling out another small fortune for a four-inch perennial plant causes the gardener to mutter, “There must be a cheaper way to grow my garden”.  That’s the time for the gardener to consider growing perennial plants from scratch by propagating from seed, from cuttings, or from the division of existing plants.  No matter what method you chose to propagate, you will save a bundle of money, money enough to buy that rotating compost bin you have had your eye on.

A couple of caveats: if you are starting perennials from seed choose only seed from the species since cultivars from seed seldom come true.  If you want to propagate cultivars you will have better luck by using cuttings.  In addition, many perennials grown from seed will not bloom in the first year, so patience is the reward, but we gardeners are a patient bunch, well aware that time is money in the growing business. Three perennial plants that will bloom in the first year are Digitalis purpurea or Foxglove,

Delphinium grandiflorum, Siberian Larkspur,

and Scabiosa caucasica, Pincushion flower.

If you choose to take seed from your own plants, collect the seed in the fall and store it in an envelope through the winter, remembering to write the name of the plant on the envelope.  When spring rolls around rub the seed gently to separate it from the chaff and spread the seeds on top of a seed tray that has been prepared with moist seed starter mix.   Sprinkle the seeds on top, cover with a light layer of soil and mist slightly.  Then move the seed tray to a warm bright spot – no direct sunlight – and be patient (there’s that word again).  While waiting for the seeds to germinate, keep the soil misted but not damp to the touch, and once the second set of leaves has emerged, transplant the seedlings to small pots or, if you have no small pots, cardboard egg cartons work just as well.  Once your perennials are well established in pots they are ready for their forever home.

For a larger selection of perennial seeds than found in your garden, here are some suggestions:

                       Johnny’s Seeds


                       Renee’s Seeds        


                       Botanical Interests


To propagate cultivars, the most successful method is to take cuttings of the plant and root them directly into pots, although some gardeners prefer to start softwood cuttings in water.  However, a word of warning, you cannot root cuttings of plants that are patent protected such as Proven Winners®; patent laws apply to plants as well as to the cotton gin.

Three easy cultivars to propagate are Salvia numerosa ‘May Night’, a vibrant blue sage,

Geranium ‘Rozanne’, one of the longest blooming perennial geraniums,

and Penstemon ‘Husker Red’, whose bright white flowers pop against their deep red foliage. 

Now if you want to take cuttings from a plant you don’t own, and your gardening friends can’t help you out, and stealing cuttings from a botanical garden is strictly verboten, you may have to resort to forking over some cold cash to buy the mother plant, but once you own it, it’s yours to propagate.

The simplest way to propagate a plant from a cutting is in water. Take a 4”- 5” cutting from the mother plant, remove the lower leaves, and stick it in water.  When the roots have developed, transplant it into a small pot filled with moist potting soil, cover it with a plastic bag and place it in indirect light (again, no direct sunlight).   Once new growth appears in its improvised greenhouse it is ready for its final move to your garden.

To skip the water step, take your cutting just above a pair of leaves, and clip off all the lower leaves – you want the plant to put its energy into producing roots, not chlorophyll.  With a pencil poke a hole in the middle of a pot filled with moist soil, take the cutting and dip the cut end into a rooting hormone such as Rootone®.   Place it in the hole, firm the soil around the cutting, and cover it with a plastic bag.  Once the new growth has emerged your new plant is ready for its spot in your garden.

The final method of propagation is by dividing an existing perennial. The three types of plants that welcome division are those with clumping roots, such as day lilies,

those that grow from rhizomes – irises are prime examples –

and those with tuberous roots such as dahlias. 

Before dividing the plant, choose a cloudy day and prepare the new site.  The best time to divide spring and summer flowering plants is in the fall, and for those perennials that flower in the fall divide them in early spring.  Once the plant has been divided, prune the stems and foliage to 6 inches above the ground to reduce moisture loss. If the chosen plant has clumping roots,

be sure to include one bud or eye, and if you are dividing an iris, select a healthy rhizome. 

For those perennials with tuberous roots, dahlias for example, retain one part of the original stem and a growth bud.  

Transplant the offspring to its new home, pack the soil tightly around the division and water it in well.

So if the prices of perennials at the nursery have given you an acute case of sticker shock, three antidotes guaranteed to cure the affliction are propagation of perennials by seed, by cuttings, and by division.  Any one of these techniques will grow your garden at minimal cost, and with the money you save you can splurge on that rare cypripedium you have coveted

or the rotating compost bin.

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