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Saving Money With Small Plants

Landscaping with perennials can be expensive in the short run, but really pays off in the long run. Fortunately, there are ways to save in the short run, too. I have used both plants culled from neighbors’ yards and plants from nursery stock catalogs to save money on landscaping. Though this delays fruition, it has allowed me to get a large area started at once. If you have ever wondered about those too-good-to-be-true garden catalogs, read on to learn about the pros and cons, what to expect, and how to make the best of it.

There are advantages and disadvantages to starting with small plants and whether you choose this route for any given plant depends on your goals and your budget. Keep in mind that you don't have to get all your plants the same way. You may want to get some plants for free or cheaply from catalogs, while others may be worth the money to get a more mature plant or one of a particular variety. For instance, you may decide that while you are happy to wait a few years for your shrubs to fill in, you want your specimen tree to have a presence (or fruit) right away. So consider these points on a plant by plant basis.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Starting With Small Plants

Advantages of Starting Small

  • Cost: Smaller is usually cheaper. If you can propagate the plants you want from cuttings or culled plants of neighbors and friends, these small plants will be almost free. Lower cost means more plants, more area can be landscaped, and, if desired, more variety.
  • Natural shape: If you would rather have your trees be a more natural shape for protection from wildlife or other reasons, you should definitely start with small trees.
  • Variety: I have been surprised by the variety of unusual plants I have found from nursery stock websites. I recently received an order from Northwoods Nursery which included desert indigo (nitrogen fixer), Siberian pea shrub (nitrogen fixer and fodder), and small-leaf linden (edible leaves). Though I had searched, I had not seen these anywhere else.

Disadvantages of Starting Small

  • Longer wait: Propagating a cutting means starting from a very small plant, and using nursery stock usually entails severe transplant shock, delaying maturity.
  • Large gaps initially: In order to leave enough room for your plants to mature, you will start with very large gaps in your garden. Left untended, these will become a place for weeds to come up. I use this space to grow annual vegetables and flowers.
  • Fewer improved varieties to choose from: While garden centers and other garden catalogs offer many improved varieties, often nursery stock catalogs offer only older varieties and it may be years before you can try the fruit or see the flowers.
  • Possibility of substitution: Nursery stock providers often reserve the right to make substitutions. Though they will make corrections at your request, it may require sending back the plant you don’t want and you may have a long wait.
  • Timing: Catalog orders may arrive at an inconvenient time, jeopardizing the plants. Also, it can be difficult to wait for your order when the garden centers are bursting with plants.

These are, admittedly, some serious drawbacks; starting small is certainly not for everyone. However, for some starting with small plants can be worthwhile.

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Worth the Wait

I have had many successes of starting small, and few regrets. One of my most successful small plant purchases was one hundred fans of Stella D'oro daylilies from Smokey’s Garden. They offer fantastic prices in the early spring and then ship at the right time for your planting zone. This time of year the prices are much higher, but I would still recommend them for the quality of the plants I received. I don't believe I lost a single one, and they bloomed right away. I planted them in clusters of three, and now, two years later they are large bunches, as shown.

I have also been very successful with chives from a friend, geraniums from a neighbor, oregano, sage and mint from another neighbor. Three-inch pots can be another way to get small plants. The lavender pictured came from a three-inch pot earlier that year. I have acquired several perennial herbs this way.

Pictured below are some plants I acquired for $10 or less from various catalogs. With one notable exception, they tend to be slow to take off. The exception is a Hanson's bush cherry that I bought in a bundle of eight. Four survived (at least partially my fault, so I didn't ask for replacements), and one did brilliantly, growing six feet in one season! Of course, the description said it grows to four feet, so I was quite surprised. Fortunately, I like the height difference.

The biggest regret I have had is planting too close together. The rhubarb that I dug out of another yard at six inches wide has become six feet wide and can be an awful bully in the garden. It is really hard to leave enough room, so make sure you leave plenty. Measure in all directions!

What to Expect

If you decide to propagate your own plants, you should expect them to start out very small. The gooseberry I propagated from a cutting is still only three inches high. Also, rooting takes weeks. Still, if you do enough to justify the cost of the hormone (~$12) you can save a lot of money this way.

If you are fortunate to have generous friends and neighbors, you may be able to get many plants for free. Strawberries are a great thing to get this way, as are brambleberries, since both spread easily. Perennial herbs also tend to be easy to transplant. Many bulbs, grasses, and flowers need to be divided every few years and are good candidates. If you are able to bring some dirt with the plant (without bringing undesirable weeds) this will help minimize transplant shock. However, you should expect some transplant shock and keep the plant well watered for at least a week. In hot weather, temporary shelter from the sun may be necessary. You will probably lose some leaves, but the plant will usually recover.

If you decide to order from a nursery stock catalog, you should expect to receive little sticks with a couple of roots on them. They will likely look quite dead, though this is rarely the case. Soak them in water according to the nursery's instructions and plant and they will begin to grow.

This honeyberry was devoured by bugs last year so I planted a fortress (polyculture) of peppermint and garlic around it.  It has suffered no damage from bugs this year.

This honeyberry was devoured by bugs last year so I planted a fortress (polyculture) of peppermint and garlic around it. It has suffered no damage from bugs this year.

I thought this elderberry was a goner after it was ravaged by bugs last year, but miraculously it came up again this year.  Despite the warm wet spring and consequent proliferation of bugs, this vulnerable plant is unscathed.

I thought this elderberry was a goner after it was ravaged by bugs last year, but miraculously it came up again this year. Despite the warm wet spring and consequent proliferation of bugs, this vulnerable plant is unscathed.

Giving Your Plants a Good Start

Essentially, plant your new plants where they will thrive. Give them adequate sun or protection, water, drainage, soil enrichment, and mulch. Soak them for a couple hours or overnight according to the instructions from the nursery if they came bare root. After soaking, plant immediately. This can be tricky, as you really don’t know when the plants will arrive, but do your best.

When planting in the shade, I have found my plants need extra protection from bugs. In these places, I plant little fortresses of peppermint and garlic around my plants. Planted this way, the bugs have left the honeyberries, elderberries, and juneberries alone and the plants are now thriving.

To give long-term nourishment to your new plantings, surround them with nitrogen fixers and mineral accumulators. I have planted comfrey and inoculated clover around my trees. Some say to plant a nitrogen-fixing shrub, such as goumi berry, right in the hole with your fruit/nut tree. I am experimenting with autumn olive in the same hole as a plumcot and also in the same hole as a pawpaw. Near other trees I have planted indigo and Peashrub for nitrogen fixing.

Finally, give your perennials plenty of room. This doesn’t come naturally, so pay close attention when you are planting. They will look funny at first, but it is ok. You can plant lots of annual vegetables and flowers in between. Consider getting some beans and the appropriate inoculant and getting your garden bed off to a good start by filling it with beneficial organisms. You can also get a ground cover started. Clover is a good choice because of its long roots and its nitrogen-fixing property.

Big Savings With Small Plants

You can save a lot of money by starting with small plants if you are willing to wait a couple of extra years. Remember to leave plenty of room. Consider the advantages and drawbacks in the case of each plant as you make your decisions. Plant only what you will have the time, energy, and dedication to tending throughout the year.

Watching your perennial garden grow and fill in from little plants is truly an exciting and rewarding experience. If you have some patience and are willing to put in some extra work starting will small plants can definitely save you some money.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.