(Almost) Free Plants


This angel wing begonia was rooted from a stem cutting last summer, and then overwintered in the garage. It will bloom all summer, and continue sending up new stems to fill this pot by fall.

No one begins with a lush garden.  The photos magazines publish, and that happy gardeners share, generally reflect years of careful planning, collecting, cultivation, and frankly, hundreds or thousands of dollars.  Someone just starting out, whether in their first garden, or their seventh, must begin at the beginning and allow their garden to grow and evolve.  Real gardening is a continuous process of trial, error, appreciation, and countless small efforts.

It helps to know how to populate a garden inexpensively.  We all splurge from time to time, but there are ways to generate plants for free, or almost free.  When you yearn for broad expanses of lush flowers and foliage, you must know how to bring it in on a budget, no matter how large or small your budget might be.

As a compulsive gardener, I’ve had to figure out the hard way how to have flowers every day of the year, and not spend a fortune doing it.  Here are some ideas that work:

Multiply the plants you have with cuttings.  Many beautiful and useful plants easily root from stem cuttings.  For many, it is as simple as taking a piece of the stem, with a few leaves attached at the top, and plunking it into a jar of water set in a bright place.  You will have greater

Begonia cuttings root easily in a little water in a window.

Begonia cuttings root easily in a little water in a window.

success if you reduce the number of leaves on the stem to just a few pair towards the top, and work with a stem between 4” and 10” long.  A longer stem might struggle to stay alive, but I’ve rooted larger branches successfully.  As with anything in gardening, patience is required.  Change the water from time to time to keep it clean until you see new roots.  When the roots appear, plant the cutting into a pot of soil.  It is possible to put a cutting rooted this way directly into the ground, but I’ve had greater success letting the roots grow some more in the protected environment of a pot before putting it out into the wild Earth.

A few of the hundreds of plants you can root in water from a stem cutting  include:  Begonias, Plectranthus, petunias, mints, basils, oreganos, Impatiens, Coleus, Hydrangea, Forsythia, ivy, Tradescantia (“wandering Jew” or “purple heart plant”), creeping Jenny, tomato, and pepper.

These purple Basil plants could be cut back and each stem rooted to create new plants.

These purple Basil plants could be cut back and each stem rooted to create new plants.

Make this work for you by buying a fairly large plant in early spring.  I sometimes do this with double Impatiens, which are more expensive and harder to find than single impatiens.  When you get the plant home, use a clean knife to slice off stem cuttings 4”-6” long, immediately remove the lower leaves from each cutting, and place them in clean jars of water.  Set these where they will get indirect sunlight.  When the roots are an inch or so long, plant each cutting in sterile potting soil in the container where it will grow for the season.  Other plants you might purchase large and immediately cut back include Basil, Coleus, tomatoes and peppers.

Scented geranium

This rose scented geranium lived in the garage all winter, waiting for the nights to stay warm enough to come back outside. Stem cuttings can now be taken to make as many new geranium plants as needed.

Alternatively, keep one large favorite plant at the end of the season in a bright garage or cool spare room.  Keep it alive all winter, and then root cuttings from it 4 to 6 weeks before your frost date.  Plant up the rooted cuttings, and enjoy several free spring plants.  After taking cuttings, immediately feed the parent plant with Neptune’s Harvest, ( http://www.neptunesharvest.com/fs-136.html ) or another water soluble fertilizer, and set it in bright light to allow it to grow from all of the points you cut.  You should get two new stems growing from each leaf node you left on the remaining stems, which will allow the plant to grow larger and bushier than it was previously.

Many more plants will root from a stem cutting first dipped in rooting hormone, and then potted up in sand or a light potting mix.  You always need to remove the lower leaves, and have one of the joints where leaves were attached beneath the soil.  Some cuttings need heat, and many will benefit from a little green house made from a plastic bag or upturned jar to help conserve moisture.  Again, trial and error.

Woody stems which might not root easily in water will root this way, including Azaleas, Rhododendrons, figs, Camellia, and the leaves of a Rex Begonia.  Geraniums and many Begonias also tend to root more easily in soil than in water.

An even simpler way to create a new plant, especially from a vine or shrub, is called “layering”.  You need a branch which will reach the ground or a pot placed beside the shrub.  Nick the bark a little where the branch will touch the soil.  Sprinkle the nick with a little rooting hormone if you have some, and then bury this portion of the stem under an inch or so of soil.  Pin this in place with a metal U shaped pin or a small stone to hold the branch in the soil, water, and allow the branch to root.  This process may take only a few weeks in early summer, or it may take a few months later in the season.  When a quantity of roots has grown, cut the stem between the mother plant and the new plant.  If you’ve rooted into a pot, let the roots continue to grow before potting up or planting out in a new location.  If you have rooted into the ground, you can dig up the new plant and move it into a pot or another location, or you can leave it in place to grow.


These traditional Williamsburg Iris are a gift from a Master Gardener who offered them when it was time to divide them in her garden.

Division requires a bit more effort, but takes less time.  Most perennials, and all plants growing from bulbs and rhizomes, need to be divided from time to time when the plant gets too big or too crowded in its space.  You simply dig up the plant, divide it into pieces, and replant each piece.  Timing is the key here.  Most plants should be divided when they are dormant, or just as they begin to grow in the spring.

Plants which grow in a clump, like Hostas, Heuchera, lambs ears, peonies, daylilies and Iris can be dug up entirely, or just slice off pieces with a spade or knife in early spring when the leaves begin to grow.  Each piece should have roots attached, and when the plant grows from rhizomes, like an iris, a piece of the rhizome with roots is needed. These pieces can each be small, like the size of an egg, but must have roots and an few leaves to be easily grown into a new plant.  Either pot these up or move them to a new location in the ground.  Iris should be divided after they bloom, because disturbing the rhizomes in spring often causes the plant to skip a season of blooming.

Some plants, like Dahlias, must be lifted each fall in Zone 7 and stored inside until after the last frost.  When replanting, the rhizomes can be divided.

Cannas and Oxalis each enjoy their own pot.  Both of these bulbs multiply rapidly, and can be separated each winter to create new plants in the coming spring.

Calla Lilies and Oxalis each enjoy their own pot. Both of these bulbs multiply rapidly, and can be separated each winter to create new plants in the coming spring.

Bulbs, like Daffodils,  Muscarii, Calla Lilies, and Oxalis divide quickly.   Tiny bulbs often form around the base of an existing bulb.  Bulbs which bloomed in pots can be divided when you move them from their winter pot into the garden.  Bulbs growing in the ground can be dug up and divided every few years.  Clumps which form foliage, but don’t bloom, need to be dug up and divided.  Plant each bulb at a depth of three times the height of the bulb, making a slightly deeper hole to accommodate existing roots.  Space bulbs depending on the size of the bulb, and how much area you wish to cover.

Some common groceries can also be replanted to generate “free” food.  Here are a few simple things to try:

White Potatoes:  When peeling potatoes, cut off the “eyes” in chunks with some potato still attached.  The “eye” is where a new stem wants to grow.  On older potatoes, you might even see tiny leaves beginning to form.

Plant each potato chunk in at least 8 inches of soil in a trench in the ground, large pot, barrel, or even a bag.  The container must have drainage holes, and should be 12” or taller.  Bury the potato chunk about 2” below the surface.  As the potato plant begins to grow, add more soil so that only the top few pairs of leaves are left exposed.  The potatoes will begin to grow underground along the stem.  After several months, your potato plant will bloom.  Once it blooms and begins to die back, harvest the potatoes.

Sweet Potatoes:  Induce a sweet potato to sprout stems by suspending it in a jar of water or partially burying it in a pot of soil.  This may take several weeks, and should be done before the last frost date in spring.  When the new sprouts are 4” or longer, gently break them away from the potato and replant into a large pot or into the garden.  They need part or full sun after they establish their roots, but water them in, and then shade them for the first week or so until new growth appears.  Once they have their own roots, they will vine and eventually form new sweet potatoes underground.  Long vines can be partially buried at a leaf node to induce rooting and potentially more potato production.  Harvest potatoes when the vines begin to die back in the autumn.

Green Onions:  When preparing green onions, new onions, or scallions, leave about an inch and a half of the onion on the roots.  Put these root ends in a jar of clean water in a bright window, and soon new onion leaves will begin to grow from the stem.  Harvest these lightly to use in cooking.

Garlic:  A bulb of garlic is made up of many small cloves, each of which can grow into a new plant.  Separate the cloves from the bulb, and plant about an inch deep and 3” apart in a pot of potting soil or into a raised bed garden.  These are best planted in autumn to harvest the following summer after the plants bloom and begin to die back.  Dig the cloves, and allow them to dry in the sun for several days, brush off any soil, and they are ready to use.  The growing green stems can be harvested at any time to use like chives.

Celery:  Cut the root end off of a bunch of celery, leaving 2”-3” inches of the stalks attached, and set in a shallow dish of water in a bright windowsill.  After a few days new growth will appear which can be harvested for cooking.  Alternatively, remove the outer stalks, and leave the inner stalks attached to the root end and set the whole thing in water in a window.  The inner stalks will continue to grow.  With celery, all new growth comes from the heart.

Ginger:  Save a piece of fresh ginger that has one or more growing points and plant this in a shallow but wide dish of potting soil.  This container must have drainage, but can be as simple as a deep plastic pot saucer with some holes cut in the sides or bottom.   The ginger will root, send up beautiful leaves, and eventually grow.  This can be a never ending supply of fresh ginger if you harvest lightly.

Seeds are generally very inexpensive, especially if purchased at the end of a season on clearance.  Seeds can also be saved from your own plants and replanted.  This is a huge topic, but information is easily available online for seed saving techniques.  I always save my Moonflower and Hyacinth bean seeds to use the next season because harvesting them is very easy once the pods dry.

A single packet of seeds may yield 100 or more plants, depending on who packages it and what the seed is for.  Starting plants from seed requires containers (can be recycled from the trash), sterile potting soil, water, and good light.  The light is the most expensive thing to provide if you start enough seedlings that you need to hang grow lights.  A few seeds started near a window cost almost nothing, and many seeds can be planted directly where they will grow after the first frost.  All seed packages have printed instructions.  Once the second set of leaves form, all seedlings benefit from a very dilute fertilizer in their water once every week or so.

Plants received as gifts from friends are the best plants.  If you cultivate friends who love gardening, there are almost always plants to share.  Cuttings, divisions, and extra seeds or seedlings can be swapped freely.

Caladiums are most economical when ordered from FL suppliers in late winter in lots of 25 or more, and then started in shallow pans of soil inside.  Several friends can purchase a quantity to share, dramatically reducing the cost of each plant to just pennies.

Caladiums are most economical when ordered from FL suppliers in late winter in lots of 25 or more, and then started in shallow pans of soil inside. Several friends can purchase a quantity to share, dramatically reducing the cost of each plant to just pennies.

Another way to share, however, is to share a mail order of plants, seeds, shrubs, trees, vines, or bulbs.  With a little planning, you can often order together from the same vendor and then divide up the costs and the product.  For example, it is cheaper to buy 100 Daffodil bulbs or Caladium tubers than it is to buy 10, or even 25.  If you and a friend can cooperate in choosing varieties, you can get a bargain for the bulk purchase, and sometimes even earn free shipping.  Once on the mailing list for several reputable nurseries, the offers and bargains just keep coming.  If you can order in bulk, and then get lower prices for a volume purchase and share or eliminate the shipping costs, everyone involved benefits.

June 21 Lanai 007

The Rex Begonia and Lady fern were both purchased from the sale rack of a local hardware store for a fraction of their original price. Re-potted, fed, and cared for, their health and vigor returns.

Finally, shop the sales.  A local hardware store always has a rack of older plants they want to move marked down to a fraction of the original cost.  If you trim the plant and take proper care of it, it will usually bounce back with in a few weeks.  Towards the end of the season bulbs, tubers, and bedding plants are generally reduced, and garden centers often reduce their stock to move it at the end of the season.  Subscribe to newsletters and email lists of your favorite garden centers and mail order nurseries and plan to take advantage of the sales and deals when offered.

These are just a few of the most straightforward ways to generate free or almost free plants.  There are many more strategies and techniques, many very specialized for a particular type of plant.  The opportunities to learn and experiment with plant propagation are infinite.

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

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