Events like Chelsea Flower Show and Gardener's World Live, where we buy a lot of plants relatively cheaply, are not something that Martin and I go to very often, in fact this year was the first time for both. We've been buying the odd plant here and there full price from garden centres, but that is an expensive way of increasing our plant stock.
The last few months I've been exploring different ways to get plants cheaply (by the way, snitching cuttings while out on a walk or stealing wild plants are not on this list!)
Raising from seed
We bought a massive amount of seeds over the winter, and I sowed them all into a variety of different sowing mediums and sizes of pots, from small peat plugs to large pots. I wouldn't say they were successful at all. I haven't really got good facilities for rearing seeds - it's either outside, the polytunnel or the conservatory. the first is too cold and wet, the second is too damp and the third has poor light levels. My old greenhouse, I now know, was perfect for germinating seeds - dry, good ventilation when the door was open, great light, easy to shade and could be warmed quite precisely with a small paraffin heater.
It's now June and some of the seeds I sowed in March are now only very, very small plants that really need some good weather to help them along. The rest just didn't germinate, succumbed to damping off or the heat in the conservatory finished them off. Not convinced I'll go this route again.
Most perennials can be divided when they get large enough and it is a good idea to do it, whether they are in the ground or not. Large perennials can end up with woody centres that look bad when the plant falls open (a bit like the pages of a well thumbed book), or they take up so much in the way of space and nutrients everything else around them starts to suffer.
I was recently given a wonderful large fern clump, which I had to split into five pots. Massive. Normally you split larger plants by putting two garden forks back to back and pushing them apart. That didn't work, they just didn't budge, and it took me an age to get the forks back out of the clump! In the end I had to take a carving knife to the clump and cut down through where I perceived there were natural clumps within clumps. They're all potted up in a combination of multi-purpose compost and John Innes No 3.
Day lilies are another good bet for dividing in our garden, they just seem to take no matter what we do to them or where we put them. We regularly hack lumps off parent plants and spread them around the garden for a bit of colour.
These lilies were removed from the leaf stems of their parent plant (see first picture), which was one of the Asiatic lilies we brought back from Chelsea. It will take a couple of years before they look like their parent, but it's masses of plants for free, and those in the picture above are only from one plant. I have another plant to do.
There must be dozens of books on propagation, but I'm afraid I'm a bit lazy and just go for the simplest option. Whenever I prune something, I top and tail it around a leaf junction, making sure there is a good amount of stem below the junction, put it in some hormone rooting powder and then put it in a pot of John Innes No 1. I don't tend to cover it with anything. I might bring it inside the polytunnel or conservatory for a bit, but most of the time it is out there fending for itself.
Apart from the lazy reason, there is another reason. Our garden is large, North facing, open to the elements in places, cold and windy. Plants have to survive. Anything I've coddled and nurtured carefully has ended up killed by the weather. I've lost so many good plants to the climate in our garden, however, I stand a good chance of getting a decent small plant if the parent is growing well despite the conditions it faces. I'm a cow to our cuttings!
Check out this lot - black, white and redcurrants. I made these out of the prunings from my existing bushes. Into a 50/50 compost soil mix with hormone rooting powder and then left to get on with it for a few weeks, only bit of water now and then. Out of 14 'sticks' 7 took.
Self-seeding and propagating
Plants that self-seed and propagate are an important source of additional plants for us. We have multiple buddleias, in the ground and in pots, that self-seeded from a much larger tree I cut down when constructing the vegetable beds.
Our aquilegia stock takes care of itself, here it has self-seeded around the base of the fig tree.
Valerian is another cottage garden plant that doesn't need to be bought or actively propagated around here. I drag it out by the handfuls as it grows in odd places. Ditto strawberry plants. They grow every where now, thanks to their ability to root their baby plantlets. They're almost classed as weeds on the patio. Leeks are almost as bad around the path area near the polytunnel. I once dumped down some old leeks that had run to seed in this area and have had random leeks ever since, often between cracks in the concrete!
Then there are poppies. If I sow seed, nothing happens. I have never actually had a single plant from any sowings. However, these big filly waist-height lilac poppies do like to appear in my vegetable garden from time to time. Cannot propagate them from seed to save my life though.
Car boot sales/fetes
A surprisingly good source of cheap plants. Below are four plants - a two rudbeckia, a hellebore and a lupin. All good sized plants picked up at a car boot sale for 50p each.
Shows and exhibitions
Over the last two gardening shows, we've found that the plants tend to be - on average - around 50% cheaper than garden centres. You also find plug plants of many types, which is useful if you have to time to raise them and very economical on price and space. There may be an entrance fee, but you often save a lot of money if you go with a shopping list and you have a nice day out into the bargain.
I'll be honest, very little I have paid for through the post have turned out to be great. They're ok for the money I suppose, a little worse for wear after their journey, but generally mass produced by huge suppliers and it shows. They take quite a while to get going, and always suffer when hardening off. Very little in our garden that has survived to tell a tale has been ordered online. This is my hanging basket made up of plants ordered online. It's been on the go for weeks and still looks pathetic. Time will tell I guess, once the weather warms up, but I'm not optimistic having been through this before.
Reduced section in plant centre
My current favourite haunt. For some reason, great swaths of plants get forgotten during watering. When they look awful, they are moved to the Last Chance Saloon and deeply discounted. Many composts have problems rewetting once they dry out, so a cursory top down watering from the staff will not perk them up. They need to be soaked in water from the bottom up, and many garden centres can't be bothered.
Everything in this tray was 50p reduced from £1.99 or £2.99 and looked dreadful. I put them straight into a big tray of water with plant feed, which was continually filled up until they were standing upright.
We've found trees and shrubs half price, including these two rhododendrons for £12 each, originally nearly £30 each. The reason they were there? They had finished flowering.
A surprising source of cheap plants, especially in the reduced section. I mostly pick up packs of Living Leaves, which I split into small lettuce plants to grow on as cut-and-come-again. Herbs are a good find too, particularly basil and parsley. Occasionally I find the odd bargain plant that has been marked down because it needs a good drink...
..and finally, are you sure it's dead?
A surprising number of our plants have been obtained from people who thought they were dead. Sometimes a little patience and repotting can work wonders. Below is a giant hibiscus, which 'died' last December. Hacked it back and left it to go through the normal garden cycle of winter and spring. Look what showed up about a month ago!