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Free Flowers

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While some gardeners shop at chic plant nurseries and pay full price for flowers that will dazzle all season, I do not. That’s just too easy for me, I think. I much rather prefer to gather second-hand plants from sometimes-questionable sources and then boast about how much money I saved. Nevermind that my plant success rate looks like a Little Leaguer’s batting average. I like a bargain.

And I love “free.”

So I’ve compiled a list of my favorite “free flower” sources. Some are more pathetic than others, but (sadly) none are beneath me!

1. Curbside mums During the fall in midwestern America, many of us Keep Up with the Joneses by creating the biggest, most gracious fall display on our front porches. We assemble straw bales and corn shocks and tilt potted mums into fussy “fall bounty” arrangements that look as if they accidentally blew onto the porch with effortless autumn chic. The idea, though no one admits it, is to look more magazine-perfect than the neighbors. When all this catty competition is over, the tired displays are dismantled and the faded mums are sent to the curb for garbage pick-up. This is the most wonderful time of the year. I pick up these potted mums and plant them throughout my garden. Their success rate often depends on how far-gone the plants are when I get them in the ground, but my garden has lots of beautiful mums thanks to this funny Midwestern tradition.

2. Plant divisions I once saw a garden that was crazy-beautiful: abundant blooms and huge drifts of lush perennials. The proud gardener said that each drift of plants started with one single plant that he divided again and again. While dividing perennials sounds tedious, it’s the easiest (cheap) way to get an abundant garden. At first a plant division just yields one dinky plant to plant somewhere else. But pretty soon your plants can be multiplied like rabbits. Some of my favorite plants for dividing are lambs ear, stella d’oro daylillies, hostas, irises, perennial geranium, and sedum angelina (for groundcover).

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3. Easter lilies (church flowers) About a week or two after Easter, the altar guild of many churches throw out the unclaimed lilies that decorated the altar for Easter Sunday. So ask a nice church lady for a few of the lilies before they make it to the dumpster. “Easter” lilies are usually “Nellie White” Bermuda Lilies, and they have that heady fragrance that I always associate with Easter Sunday. To replant Easter lilies outdoors, place bulbs in a 3″ hole and cover with 6″ of dirt. They will rebloom later in the season for their normal bloom time (around here, it’s in July).

4. Municipal flower bulbs My friend taught me this one. She said that every year in our town, after the Park District tulips have bloomed and gone, the Park District gardeners dig up the bulbs and give them away to anyone who wants them. It’s easier for them to replant bulbs every year than to work around spring bulbs when planting later in the season, so this is a real time-saver for them (and a real money-saver for me). Just call your city’s Park District and see if they do the same thing.

5. Volunteer plants Along a neglected fence in my backyard, I have a briar of raspberry bushes. (It has long been a domestic fantasy of mine to grow enough berries to justify jam making.) I started with one raspberry bush, and every time that bush started a volunteer*, I replanted it in a tidy row and protected it with a tomato cage. Now: a true patch of raspberry bushes.

6. Friends and family In my garden are lily of the valley from my mom and blue irises from my neighbor, lilies from a friend (and I have my eye on my mom’s elephant ear hosta). And everyone that I know has Rudbeckia and purple coneflowers from my garden. While asking out-right for free flowers may be tacky, you can always start by offering friends and family perennials from your garden (hint hint). This should open that two-way door of plant swapping. And if it doesn’t, you can always cut your losses and end the friendship.

* A “volunteer” is a plant that is sown naturally. Sometimes you may notice a tomato plant growing and think, “I didn’t plant any tomatoes there.” It’s a volunteer, a gift.