As every gardener, young or old, knows all too well, buying plants can end up being very expensive. While there’ll always be plenty of things that you will need to pay good money for at your local garden centre – which is, of course, good news for the people who run them – there are times when with a little effort and ingenuity, you can end up getting new plants for free.
Whatever kind of garden your kids enjoy creating – from wildlife haven, to floral showpiece – they can have a lot of fun, save a little pocket money and find out an enormous amount about plants and gardening in general.
Collect Your Own Seed
One of the simplest and most enjoyable ways to get plants for free is to collect your own seed, from plants in your own garden or somebody else’s (with permission of course) or, if your kids are avid wildlife gardeners, from the fields and hedgerows. As a general rule, you can take the seeds of most kinds of wildflowers and trees provided that you don’t do any damage – but just to be on the safe side it’s worth making sure that there aren’t any special bye-laws in force in your area or any protected species to avoid!
One obvious drawback to this approach is that, unlike shop-bought seed packets, they don’t come with those handy little notes on sowing times and care requirements – so there’s often a big element of hit and miss about growing self-collected seed. That said, if your kids are investigative types, then there’s a whole lot of fun waiting to be had finding out what works best.
Many plants sprout new ‘babies’ as they grow, either as small plantlets growing alongside the body of the parent, or on new shoots or runners. The spider plant – one of the most instantly recognisable of all houseplants – is arguably the best example of this, with new plants being formed on the end of long dangling shoots. These new individuals often develop their own roots in mid-air, which makes getting your free plant even easier – just snip the shoot, place and gently firm some compost around your newly freed young spider plant’s roots and you’re away.
The familiar Aloe is another good candidate, this time producing its ‘babies’ from the side of the mother plant’s base. All you need to do is carefully cut one off with a sharp knife and then pot it up.
Although they don’t do it as naturally, some plants – such as bramble – can be encouraged to produce new plants from their shoots, in a way that’s a bit like the spider plant. Whether you have a wildlife garden just crying out for a mass of late summer blackberries to feed the birds, or your kids just love eating the things themselves, tip layering is a very easy way to get your own plant, and it could hardly be easier.
It’s a job for mid to late summer and it starts with identifying a healthy-looking, fresh shoot and digging a small hole a few inches deep nearby, holding the tip of the shoot in the hole, and then gently covering it over with soil. The tip will grow during the remainder of the season, putting down its own set of roots as it does so. It should then be left to overwinter and once it begins to show signs of life in the following spring, the new plant can be cut free of the original parent shoot and carefully dug up for replanting elsewhere.
Some plants can be split to produce new individuals. It’s a particularly useful way to increase the stock of some kinds of clump forming plants, especially those which grow from fibrous rhizomes or bulbs. As a technique it couldn’t be simpler – just drive two forks, back-to-back, into the middle of the clump and then gently, but firmly lever them apart, forcing the root-mass to give and so ending up with two separate halves. Land plants such as Crocosmia (also known as ‘Montbretia’) can be split in this way, but it is probably most commonly used to separate water plants. The new clump produced can either be replanted elsewhere, but if your pond is already well enough vegetated, there’s often the chance to do a swap with another gardener to get something you don’t already have.
Cuttings offer another way to get new plants for free. As a general rule, most woody plants can be grown from stem cuttings, which involves little more than simply cutting a suitable piece of the plant, usually in the late autumn or early spring, and planting it in some good quality compost. A number of houseplants can also be propagated from cuttings, though this normally means using a leaf, or part of a leaf, and tends to be more fiddly. If the idea appeals, there is more detailed advice on both of these cutting techniques and how your kids can use them elsewhere on this site.
Getting new plants for free is easy and perhaps best of all, it’s something that with a bit of care and supervision, even the youngest of young gardeners can enjoy doing – and let’s be honest, who doesn’t like the idea of something for nothing?