Free plants! Does that get you stirred up like a bee during spring bloom? Do you salivate at the thought of possessing another precious prize specimen, at any price?
If so, you may need to be warned that you are entering dangerous territory. If you’d prefer to shop for plants on your lunch break rather than eat, you’re my kind of gardener.
But, chances are, two big problems result from that ‘budding’ addiction.
I can help you with the second scenario, but you’re on your own with the space limitation, which is prone to get much worse as you read on and your gardening glands go hyperactive.
FREE PLANTS? WHAT’S THE CATCH?
There isn’t one, other than letting yourself indulge in the activity you already love.
The approach involves what you can find, and what you can grow.
I’m going to tell you first how I get cheap plants locally.
I’ll conclude with a few resources to help make this all happen.
Who goes to the nursery department just to look, or just to buy one plant?
Now you might not be able to take in every offer of free trees, and plants will sometimes grow too big for the available space, but when it comes to free or cheap plants, most shapes and sizes are probably welcome.
Hey, if they outgrow their usefulness, they can be replaced…again… and again… It’s a sweet problem!
CONFESSIONS FROM THE NURSERY
I tried to develop my own techniques for propagating free plants at an early age. As a young lad I planted peas and many other vegetables in my napkin at the dinner table. Then I would sneak away to find places to bury (hide) them. These early attempts were unsuccessful, but with guidance from my mother, I found that it was fun to grow things (in the garden), even if I didn’t like to eat them.
Want more true confessions? I’m a plant rescuer. I go to nurseries on Mondays or Tuesdays when they clean up the mess from the weekend. You should try it.
The smaller department store nurseries are often best for this, like Wal-Mart, Target, and some drug store chains, even Lowes or HD, rather than the large full-scale nurseries. Many of them have clearance racks where distressed plants gasp their last breaths of carbon dioxide.
I rescue them and nurture them back to health. The minimal cost, plus the redemptive value, makes it one of my favorite pastimes.
These cheap garden plants are usually marked down a minimum of 50%, depending on the store’s policies. Policies always have exceptions, especially when perishable items are concerned. Ask for a discount, but be smart about it.
Don’t ask the cashier, as they are usually low on the totem pole and are not allowed to think. Better to ask someone working with the plants, and keep your eye open for a supervisor.
Do NOT ask the cashier to call the supervisor to assist you. You will have made an enemy if you interrupt this overworked manager and ask for a handout. You want to make a friend.
So shop and keep your eyes open. Tell a garden associate that you like to improve your gardening skills by rescuing distressed plants and ask if they have specimens being thrown out.
You might get lucky and get a shopping cart full of mixed flowers and plants that got too dry and look pathetic. Water them right away and count your loot of absolutely free plants. Yes, it really happens that way!
If you get a negative response on that, comment on their clearance rack. (This assumes you already saw something there that you actually want.)
Ask if there is any chance to get an extra discount or to “get one thrown in” if you buy several. Do NOT say the word “Free!”
Free plants may be dancing through your mind, but you have to overcome their objection to giving things freely away -- it’s a business.
They can ‘throw in’ something without a problem, just don’t verbalize “gimme free stuff!”
“ASK & YOU SHALL RECEIVE” -- WHY IT WORKS
When plants are tossed out, the store gets nothing. If you offer to buy several, they win and are willing to throw in part of what will be thrown out. (Plus, most of these guys are gardeners -- they don’t want to see a plant die!)
It also looks better on their sales reports if they get something sold, even if they have to 'cheat' to do it.
Now you may be thinking, “I don’t want to buy several of anything.” So get the big picture. You want to set up a relationship, an ongoing source for future free plants.
When you first encounter the supervisor, introduce yourself -- that‘s friendly. Don’t extend your hand for a shake unless they do first -- or you’ll look like a salesman.
Make a short, friendly comment about the nursery (looks like they had a busy weekend… how much you like their selection… something positive, but truthful…).
DON’T get into small talk -- they are busy.
Do say this: “I don’t want to hold you up, but let me ask you something. I like to improve my gardening skills on damaged or stressed plants. Do you ever have specimens that you are getting rid of that I can practice on?”
You may get a favorable response, or get pushed aside. Timing is everything. It might work later, if not today. (Remember, not on a weekend!)
Don’t be annoying. If the employee says they can’t do that, mention the clearance rack: “Is it possible, if I buy a couple of marked down plants, that you could throw in an extra?“ If they say no, your next move depends on their attitude.
Now it’s like a poker game or chess. If they seem to be “all business” and tell you NO, after which they see you go buy from the rack anyways, they won -- you have no future.
Better to go into the store or out to the parking lot for a while and wait a bit if you intend to buy something that visit.
If they were helpful and friendly, though unable to contribute to your free plant request right now, you might buy something to make a favorable impression. Come back next week and the week after and make yourself a familiar sight even if you don’t buy anything. (Look like a frequent shopper, even wear always the same shirt or hat!)
On these visits, simply ask if they have any “unadvertised specials on plants that look bad.” If they offer anything you don’t like (the plant or the price) just say it wouldn’t fit in.
After a few friendly inquiries on subsequent visits, they will recognize you. You want to be converted in their mind from “customer” to “friendly gardener”.
Be gracious and develop a reputation for being fun to associate with, and you may find that they start setting aside some clearance plants in a shopping cart and letting you have first pick!…
They might not be able to discount the price because of computer parameters, but again, that’s when the 2 or 3 or 4 for the price of one becomes a useful concept.
Keep a tally -- how many free plants and how many cheap plants!
Next, I want to introduce you to a couple more ideas for getting free plants, that cost you only your time. Not that any of us have an over-abundance of that, but what could be more desirable for a gardener than to have an excuse to fiddle around outside?
First, I’ll tell you how I love to buy one, get one or more free, from any garden store or nursery.
Then I’ll give you a good word on starting with the basics of gardening to propagate a plant paradise. You can grow your own plants, as many as you want.
Who wants to have just one of something? Who wants to pay for all you want?
Here’s how you get the best for less!
FREE PLANTS: THE TWO-FOR-ONE SPECIAL
Who doesn’t like a bargain? Anytime you can get two for the price of one, it’s hard to resist.
(Editor's note: I previously made recommendations at this point for an on-line nursery retailer, called Direct Gardening. I have revoked my good word in their favor, due to inferior merchandise and terrible customer service. It's a shame. We once were able to get some fantastic choices through their "One Cent Sale".
If you encounter their advertising (left over in another link on this site that I failed to remove, or appearing in a Google Ad which I don't control, or from another source, BE AWARE!
They have burned the bridge to repeat customers (read the details at any gardening forum), so they must rely on unsuspecting new victims to keep themselves in operation.)
I like to search out hidden opportunities locally, rather than wait for an advertised special. Whenever I buy potted plants, especially the starter six-packs or 4” pots, I comb the racks for selections that are doubled or tripled together in a single pot.
This applies to annual flowers and vegetables as well as perennials and landscape plants.
The growers often put multiple seeds in a pot or ‘pony pak’ to ensure that at least one germinates. I want those.
I separate them, young seedlings as well as bigger specimens, thus getting one or more free plants for every one I buy.
Conventional wisdom says not to do this because you risk disturbing the root structure and might kill the plant. I say, “Live Dangerously!”
I rarely lose any plants this way, but have never lost both of these “Siamese twins”. I might not do it with a $50 exotic specimen. (Yeah, I probably would.)
I have great success separating azaleas, yet every book says we should never disturb their tender roots. I like to think of a successful plant separation as the gardener’s equivalent of dismantling a bomb.
Can life get any more exciting than this?
If you want to attempt this risky challenge, here is my technique.
1. STILL IN THE POT
Soak the plant roots thoroughly. It is best to place the pot into a bucket of water and keep the pot submerged until it stops sending up bubbles.
This is more effective than top watering, since many plants at nurseries have been neglected or are getting root bound.
Partially dry potting soil, if it has peat moss in it, resists getting wet again. You need to force the water through the entire root mass. Dry roots will break too easily.
If the soil seems extremely dry and/or the plant is obviously wilting or in pain, keep the pot in the water bucket for an hour or more before doing anything else.
Next, let the potted plant drain completely, and wait a little while longer. Use this time to prepare, (or to meditate on your ingenuity for getting more free plants).
Where will you lay the plant once it is out of the pot?
Will the branches be in danger of breaking as you work on the roots?
I use an old burlap sack, or even some bunched up trash bags to form a cushion for resting the plant, especially if it is a larger size that needs support to avoid breaking branches.
Look for a tool to use for pulling the roots apart. My favorite is something I got from an auto parts store, but never used for car repair. It looks like an ice pick, but one inch of the tip is bent at a right angle. It might be called a scribe or a clean-out gizmo. This is perfect for poking and pulling.
You could use an ice pick, a skinny screwdriver or anything that is rather thin but strong. (Harbor Freight Tools usually has these in a couple of sizes, sometimes only found in combo sets, quite inexpensive.)
Gather your pots and potting soil as you don’t want to leave the roots exposed any longer than necessary once you begin.
Plan to work in a shady spot to avoid having the sun dry out the roots.
If you think you might get interrupted, keep that pail of water available. Better to drop the roots in this even if the soil washes off, than to let them dry out.
2. COMING OUT OF THE POT
Test to see if the plant will slide easily out of the pot by holding it upside down. Slap the sides of the pot first a few times to show it who’s the boss. If there are large roots coming out the drain holes, it is best to leave them alone at this point, if possible.
Consider cutting through the bottom of a plastic pot with a utility knife or even your pruning shears. Better to sacrifice a cheap pot than a free plant!
If the plant resists removal, poke a knife down along the edges like you would to release a cake from a pan. Then flip it over as you prepare to catch the plant in a way that will not damage the top foliage.
Plants with tender succulent stems, like impatiens, will require you to grab the main stems carefully, right at the soil level.
3. CHECK OUT THE ROOTS
Small plants can probably be held in one hand while you work on the root mass. Look at the bottom first and evaluate how extensive is the root system.
Younger plants may have just a few roots winding around. Carefully pull the roots of such a plant free from the soil and let them dangle.
Older plants may have layers of roots winding around on the bottom. This is more tedious, but start pulling them apart, trying to observe where the ends have traveled.
Don’t freak out if you break some. (It’s not like cutting the wrong colored wire if you’re on the bomb squad!)
Once you have the bottom roots disengaged, look at the roots around the sides. Are they tightly packed? If not, start loosening them from the soil to dangle.
If they are dense, just do the best you can to pull them free. The main objective is to unwind any that are wrapping all around the soil ball.
You may need to alternate poking and loosening the sides and bottom as you follow the roots around.
Next, look at how the two or three plants are situated next to each other. Start poking your tool into the root mass to loosen up the soil and see if it feels like it is dense with roots.
Grab each of the plant stems at the soil level and do a gentle test pull, to see if they start to release from each other. Some do, and some don’t.
If they seem loose, gradually pull them apart.
4. SEPARATION ANXIETY
Watch the branches AND watch the roots for entanglements.
Maneuver them if possible to avoid breakage.
If necessary, keep working your tool into the root pile and pull them free.
Again, some roots will break, but this is not open heart surgery. Just be as delicate as possible.
If the root ball seems dense with roots, and they don’t want to budge as I pull, I don’t mess with it. Get a sharp knife. In my gardening kit, I keep an old steak knife and another with a long blade, both with a serrated edge. Use your best Ginzu knife if you must, this won’t hurt it.
Look at the best angle for cutting that will leave the most amount of roots on each plant. Try to stay as far from the stem as possible. Start at the top and slice down. That’s all it takes.
You now have two or more plants with smaller root systems. In most cases they will do fine.
Pot them in their new pots with a potting soil that has good drainage. Keep the soil moist to compensate for the missing roots, but don’t let it stay soggy.
Vitamin B-1 is a common solution used to assist with transplant shock, but it's questionable how helpful it actually is.
I recommend using an additive like a Root Stimulator or “Super-Thrive”, because these typically have hormones and/or enzymes that really boost the plants ‘get-on-with-it’ mechanisms.
You can get these through Amazon or other on-line vendors if not found at your local nursery retailer. Here's what the products look like:
All are available in smaller or larger sizes, to service any degree of addiction!
If the plants are wilting the first day, you can pull off some of the larger leaves to reduce the demand for moving water up the internal system.
In fact, if the plants are larger enough to have substantial foliage, I trim off some of the older, larger leaves right away.
Use your own judgment on this -- it depends on the type of plant -- but typically leave half the leaves (the newer ones) on the plant.
Some plants may respond well to misting them occasionally. Tender plants that have mostly soft tissue may not be able to support themselves, especially if they were leaning on their partner. Use a sturdy stick or wire as needed, for temporary help.
Keep them out of direct sun for at least a week, longer in hot temperatures. Be attentive until you see signs of growth -- it's not a free plant till you're home free!
Keep-it-simple gardener types may not like the sound of all that. If the extent of your green thumb efforts is "Buy-plant-water-enjoy" -- we can still be friends!
(But I find it hard to be tolerant of 'lazy' gardeners when so much lonely vegetation is being wasted! ...just kidding)
You don’t know what you’re missing -- the intense satisfaction when one of your ‘patients’ shows new growth popping out!
Do you dare let loose your ‘inner propagator’? I use these cheap plants as starters to grow several others that are all completely free. Plants rejected by others willingly come home with me, part of a vicious cycle. I grow more plants than I have room to keep, so I have to find new homes for them.
It’s easy. It’s fun. It’s kind of crazy. Anyone can do it.
Plant propagation is a fascinating aspect of gardening. Some of you know that experience by growing from seed your own vegetables and flowers. Anticipating, then discovering the emergence of new sprouts is always rewarding.
Those who don’t bother with that, always purchasing started plants from your garden center, suffer from one or more common ailments: impatience, too little time, failure syndrome, or too much money.
If you have never tried to propagate, would you hesitate if you knew a foolproof way to succeed, opening the door to free plant-topia?
Discover the miracle! Doesn’t the idea of free plants stimulate your All-American independent spirit that thrives on the thought of getting something for nothing?
It becomes even more tempting when you add the possibility of growing plants you can give as gifts or sell to friends, family, visiting dignitaries or even barter for health care!
Have you heard of Mike McGroarty, also known as 'Mike the Dumb Ole Dirt Farmer'?
Go and check out his articles for the complete details on all aspects of plant propagation. Here are a few of them:
These are just the beginning of his expertise on this subject. Mike gives step-by-step guides as well as the important reasons for doing each part. He does such a good job at it that he has established a business venture teaching people how to set up and operate a backyard nursery. He instructs people with all ranges of experience how to grow free plants and how to get rid of them for a substantial profit.
I mention this because when you go to his website just to read the gardening articles, you get blasted with prompts to sign up for the newsletter or the backyard growing program. Just look past the annoyance. (His newsletter is short and concise and helpful, when the topic fits your needs. I find his tips accurate and trustworthy.)
Look on the left side margin for a list of all the articles on the left hand margin. Just keep scrolling down and see the wide variety of topics. Unfortunately there is no order by alphabet or topic, but watch your time, because you’ll want to keep reading and reading!
Mike’s site is FreePlants.com You’ll soon come to realize that this is not a trick. Growing your own plants makes sense. You can get starter cuttings from friends, neighbors, or buy a single specimen to start.
So many people search the internet, hoping to get a steal of a deal, but end up with a disappointment that discourages their gardening spirit. When you order cheap plants from unknown sources, pay the shipping costs, and end up with something that doesn’t have a chance to survive, it’s not worth the trouble. Be frugal, but be smart.
I’ll continue to add reputable sources to this article, but wanted to get it loaded right away, since spring has sprung. Grow more green! Give this concept a try, and you may find you get so caught up in the possibilities you’ll have free plants and flowers popping out of the garden beds all over your yard!