Perennial Gardening on a Budget

June 29, 2011 at 3:07 pm 5 comments

I used to spend lots of money at nurseries every gardening season. Let’s face it–a good nursery brings any gardener joy. To a gardener, strolling through a selection of perennials, gleefully picking out new additions, is akin to a shopoholic hitting Chicago’s Magnificent Mile or perhaps even Rodeo Drive. But the problem is: shopping on the Magnificent Mile or Rodeo Drive isn’t cheap. Sure, you’ll find swanky designer fashions, but you’ll pay the price, too. And you’re likely to come home with a lot less swag than if you’d hit up the local outlet mall, instead.

Regardless, I love a good nursery, and I have to make annual pilgrimages to my favorites every spring just because. But I spend a whole lot less at the nurseries now than I used to, because I’ve discovered how to get designer plants at outlet mall prices. Here are my best tips.

Craigslist Is Your Friend

I love Craigslist. Sure, there’s a seedier side to the free-for-all classifieds site, but most of the spamming, scamming and other unseemly stuff that you need to be savvy about isn’t happening in the “farm+garden” section. Simply hitting up Craigslist and searching using terms like “perennials” (or a specific plant, such as “hostas” or “daylilies”) will almost always yield some great results throughout the growing season, and particularly in the spring and, to a lesser degree, the fall when gardeners are busy dividing overgrown plants.  Since most gardeners sell their divisions for under $5 (unless they’re very large or rare divisions) and most nurseries sell their stock for at least double, and often triple, that (at least here where I live), the savings is pretty obvious.

And here’s another great tip for Android and iPhone users–download the Craigslist app! All you need do once you have the app installed is add your location (usually an area surrounding a major city) and your individual search terms and the Craigslist app will deliver notifications to your phone as they’re posted. You can even email advertisers through the app. It’s my favorite tool and, best of all, it’s free!

Freecycle Is Your Friend, Too

If cheap plants don’t do it for you, how about free ones? Freecycle is a great place to search for plants (and a lot more) that people no longer want and hope to give away to someone who can use them…at no charge. Perennials don’t show up on Freecycle as often as they do on Craigslist, but every now and then you’ll find someone clearing out a yard full of lilies or hostas or other perennials who just wants to find her plants new, loving homes. If you haven’t subscribed to your local Freecycle, it’s definitely worth looking into. You never know when someone’s going to be giving away something you need (from little things to major appliances–no, I’m not kidding) and you also never know when you’ll need to get rid of something that someone else might want. Most of the perennials on Freecycle will be pretty ordinary varieties, but occasionally you find some real winners. (And did I mention they’re free?)

Here’s a quick etiquette tip for Freecyclers: If you make an appointment to pick something up, be courteous and show up when you say you’re going to. Most people use Freecycle simply because they want whatever they’re giving away gone quickly and conveniently–that’s why their giving it away as opposed to trying to sell it. Members who promise to pick up an item and then don’t show are frowned upon for obvious reasons. Likewise, if you’re giving something away, don’t delete any emails from people wanting your item. If the first party doesn’t show (a pox upon them!), you can move to the next.

Farm Markets Offer Great Finds

Funny how some people overlook the obvious choice. Farm markets aren’t only about fresh produce (although the fresh produce in itself is a great reason to go to them), there are usually lots of folks selling perennials, too. And, once again, you’ll find their prices are well below nursery prices.

I’ve found one big bonus to shopping at farm markets–I can find plants that nurseries just don’t stock. Most perennial nurseries stock only the most sought-after plants and varieties, sometimes regardless of whether they do well in the local area. And who can blame them? What’s popular is what sells. But growers at farm markets are selling the stuff that grows in their own backyards, so you’ll often find cool native perennials and wildflowers, interesting woodland plants and more. And rarely will you ever encounter something that’s iffy for growing in your climate.

Co-Ops Are Cool

If you’ve never participated in a co-op you’re in for a gardening wake-up call. What’s a co-op? They’re created when gardeners band together to purchase plants in bulk from wholesale growers at reduced prices, and they’re generally run by an organizer or group of organizers. There are two great things about co-ops:

  1. You’ll get a lot of mileage for your dollar. Wholesale growers sell the small plants that supply the nurseries you usually buy from. Nurseries may put a year of growth on some of those plants (called liners) before reselling them. But often they just pot them up into a bigger pot to give the plant room to stretch its legs and put them out for sale the same year. If you’re willing to start those liner-sized plants in your garden, and perhaps wait until next season before you see blooms on some of them, you can save serious cash.
  2. You’re more likely to find newer cultivars and hard to find plants in co-op sales than in any of the previous cheap gardening solutions I’ve mentioned. If you’re a collector of a certain kind of perennial–from brugmansias to echinaceas to hostas to lilies–co-ops are a good place to look for those extra special new designer varieties. You’ll find the tried-and-true varieties, too, which is a great bonus.

You’ll find individuals who organize co-op sales on several different sites. One of the coolest ones I’ve encountered recently is Mamajack’s Co-ops on Also check out Bulb and Plant Co-op Buying on YahooGroups (although I’ve heard mixed reviews on this one and haven’t actually tried it myself.).

There are certain rules involved with co-op buying so make sure you read each group’s directions and information before you dive in. And, as a rule, you’ll want to work only with established co-op groups. Keep an eye on the group before buying to see what members are saying about the process. If you’re seeing complaints, walk away. Often times, you’ll be counting on an individual organizer to collect your money and ship your plants (although some growers will ship directly). You want to feel confident that the organizer has a good track record.

Garden Club Plant Sales

Keep an eye out in the spring, once growing and dividing season is in full swing (mid- to late-May around here in zone 5), for club plant sales and Master Gardener plant sales. Check community calendars. Search online for your local Master Gardener program and see if they have any information on upcoming sales. And join garden clubs! Not only is it a great way to socialize and network with other gardeners, but it’s a great way to find out where the plant sales are. (Bonus: Often garden club members will exchange plants, too.)

Grow Your Own

It seems so obvious, but a lot of people never think of getting a garden full of wonderful perennials for the price of a packet of seed. If you don’t expect an instant garden, this is the path for you. Many perennials are easy to start from seed (either indoors, in cold frames, or directly sown into your garden.) Just be aware that while there are certainly fast growers there are also a number of perennials that will take a year or two (or more) to mature. Quite a few perennials don’t flower from seed the first year, although there are a fair number that do. (This is a whole other topic, but you’ll find plenty of information on seed packets and in seed catalogs.)

Diane’s Seeds is a great place for perennial seeds as well as an excellent resource for information on growing them. Tom Clothier’s Garden Walk and Talk provides a wealth of information on seed germination. (Until you’ve had some practice starting from seed, you’ll want to stay away from the seeds that are finicky about germination conditions.) There are plenty of other seed sources and resources, but those are a couple of my favorites.

Frugality is Fun

I love nurseries, really I do. My year wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a couple of my favorites, and I still find it hard to drive by a garden center without stopping. But times are tough, money’s tight, and we gardeners have to find ways to cultivate (pun intended) our passion without breaking the bank. I hope I’ve offered up some helpful suggestions for building a Rodeo Drive garden on an outlet mall budget. Good luck and happy gardening!


Entry filed under: Gardening Tips.

Spring Has Sprung! – New Growth in the Garden Best Hostas to Grow: Part 1 – The Classics

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sherri  |  June 29, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    I can vouch for Diane’s Seeds! Great stuff and she herself is great to talk to – answered lots of my seed questions via email almost immediately after I asked! Good lady. I started Jacobs Ladders from seed and – OMG – gorgeous three and half foot lovelies! From seed in January! I can’t vouch for the Yahoo bulb co-op, though. Maybe it’s just me, but had a couple bad experiences. Will have to try Craigs List!

    • 2. petiolejunction  |  June 29, 2011 at 9:39 pm

      Sherri, thanks for the heads up on the bulb co-op. I’m a member of it, and it was recommended to me by other gardeners, but I have to admit that I haven’t actually participated in one of their co-ops yet. I’ll add a little amendment to the article. Co-ops are tricky things–the good ones are great, but the bad ones can certainly cause headaches and even drain your wallet, which is counter to what this article’s all about.

  • 3. Sherri  |  June 30, 2011 at 8:22 pm


  • 4. Steve  |  April 6, 2013 at 6:35 am

    That’s a really good piece of writing. Worthy of a magazine, IMO. I would caution you about buying Hosta from Craigslist or Freecycle, however. If you buy from sources like that keep the plant in a pot away from others for at least a year. In August if you see brown streaks in the leaves, then you know the plant has foliar nematodes. If so throw it in the trash, pot soil and all.

    Growing from seed is the best way to get Hostas that are disease free and nematode free. Try Hosta Works for some very cool seeds. Another way to get cool plants is to find a seed grower who lives near you and arrange to take some of their “culls”. These are great plants that just don’t meet the specific goal of the seed grower. They are unnamed, but just as good as those you pay high prices for. Try the Hosta Seed Growers forum to find a grower near you.


  • 5. petiolejunction  |  April 29, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    Thanks for your reply, Steve. Yes, I really should update this article where hostas are concerned. Not only are foliar nematodes an issue, but Hosta Virus X, as well. I tend to avoid Craigslist, Freecycle and big box stores where hostas are concerned unless I happen to know that the person advertising a hosta sale is a reputable grower.

    The problem with growing hosta from seed is that, if you’re looking for a specific cultivar, hostas don’t come true from seed. (So, for instance, the popular cultivar ‘June’ won’t produce more of the same from seed.) Most hosta seedlings are plain green. There’s nothing wrong with green, and you can get some lovely plants that way, but if you’re after something variegated you’re likely to be disappointed. Also, many hostas take a long time to mature from seed. The ones nurseries sell are often at least two growing seasons old, and sometimes older, and even then they’re usually a far cry from what their mature size will be.


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