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Hostas are easy plants to propagate, which helps make them a great ground cover.
When he isn't digging in the dirt
HI, MY NAME is
Like most addictions, it started small: a new azalea here, a hanging basket there, but, before long, it grew out of control. Soon I was spending my students' spring break creating planting beds; killing, tilling, and reseeding our front lawn; and dabbling in the hardscaping stuff.
It was under control until they came along three years ago: my twin daughters. Suddenly, the paper green stuff I used to buy the leafy green stuff was being hoovered up by Buick-size boxes of diapers and a Noah's Ark of baby gear: two cribs, two changing tables, two high chairs.
I had to quit cold turkey or find a cheaper way to support my gardening addiction.
Naturally, I chose the latter and have learned how to beg, borrow, and, yes, even steal, to keep my yard looking nice. And while I still get a fix from local plant dealers now and again, here are some tips on doing more with less.
LOG ON FOR FREEBIES
Go online to freecycle.org to find and join the Fredericksburg area's group, which is hosted online by Yahoo! Here, area residents post all sorts of things they don't want, and if you are quick enough to respond and lucky enough to be chosen, the item is yours for everyone's favorite price: free.
Through Freecycle, I have liriope (aka monkey grass) bordering my mailbox and some Louisiana iris (a water lover) soaking in a soggy spot near a downspout. A couple of years ago, I drove to Spotsylvania County and dug out four mature barberry shrubs that would have cost at least $25 each at the nursery. This past spring, I returned to the same house and relieved the owners of a Japanese holly. Thanks to Freecycle, all it cost was one broken shovel handle.
Which leads me to this word of warning: You have to be ready to work. Some freecyclers will dig out the plant and put it by their mailbox for pickup, but if you want mature shrubs, you'll have to work for it.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
If you have one hosta plant, you have 100. When we moved in, I divided a couple of hostas (drive a shovel right in the middle of the plant and voila, two hostas), transplanted them, and the following spring I had a hosta border lining a bed under our cedar trees.
There are many other easy ways to propagate plants in your landscape. One plant that just showed up in our yard was Vinca minor, an evergreen groundcover with petite purple flowers in the spring. I think I have the birds to thank for this vine. Mother Nature does an awesome job of spreading plants: A bird eats a seed and it comes out the other end encased in fertilizer and ready to grow. In a couple of years, some stray vines I transplanted have turned into a nice patch of groundcover for a shady corner.
Take a look at your shrubs or trees and see if any offshoots or runners are establishing themselves, dig them up and move them to a new spot. I have a crape myrtle that routinely gives me baby crape myrtles that I can weed and trash or replant. A spirea we inherited has become three separate plants. When my forsythia branches droop, touch the ground, and take root, I separate them from the main shrub, pull up the roots and plant them in a new spot.
By no means am I a master gardener (that's these guys: mgacra.org)--I don't replant these volunteers in anything special or even work very hard to nurse them. My gardening style is more Darwinian. I stick a fledgling plant into the hard clay of my backyard, give it a little water, and hope for the best. If it dies, so what; I didn't spend any money on it.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS PLAN
My mom, who is probably to blame for my plant addiction, has also pitched in. When she visits, she packs the back of her Prius with garbage bags of unwanted plants from her Pennsylvania home. She has brought me patches of pachysandra, Redbud tree saplings, and several ferns to add to my wooded areas.
I used to pick on our former next-door neighbor, who made it his mission to downsize the veritable arboretum the original owners had created. This scorched-Earth policy was bad for his yard, but good for mine. I rescued some Vinca major, a hydrangea and some ornamental grass. Another neighbor offered cherry tree saplings via email. She brought one no bigger than a switch, and a couple of years later it stands 12 feet tall and provides a needed screen between our backyard and the neighbors'.
At our yard sale last year, a neighbor stopped by and bought several clothing items for her granddaughter. We chatted and I discovered she was the neighbor who regularly holds plant sales after dividing her perennials. (Note to self: Next step is to profit from plant addiction.) So now, I swap the girls' leftover clothes for her plants. Even my wife has gotten in on the act, bringing home some dwarf fountain grass from a co-worker. That small mound of dirt and roots has flourished, grown and is now three separate plants.
ROBIN HOOD METHOD
How do you think Sherwood Forest came to be? OK, this may not be historically accurate, but I like to think Robin Hood stole plants from the rich to give to the poor. And yes, I have to admit: Once or twice I have pilfered a plant. I'm not slipping out under the cover of night and digging up neighbors' daisies. I would never do that, but if I'm not harming the original plant and what I'm taking will never be missed or noticed, I will snitch a plant.
For example, I was putting some air in a tire at a convenience store one day and noticed a beautiful patch of black-eyed susans, one of which had strayed from the herd. I used a spare key to dig its roots out gently and then smoothed the mulch I had disturbed. I had a free perennial for my garden and improved the appearance of the store's bed--a win-win situation.
Even on vacation, I'm on the hunt for plants. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went our separate ways for a moment during a tour of Biltmore Estate in Asheville. She snapped pictures of the impressive architecture and stone lions standing guard out front, while I wandered into the meandering gardens.
At the bottom of some stone steps, a trellis supported a massive canopy of wisteria, with hundreds of seed pods dangling from the leafy vines. I looked around to see if any garden security was present, reached up, plucked a pod, and slipped it into my pocket.
Now I just have to decide if I want to plant it. On one hand it would be a beautiful addition to our yard, but on the other hand, it's also a plant (in)famous for growing out of control. We wouldn't want that, now would we?