Guerrilla Gardening

by Jeffrey Yeager


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I admit it. I'm addicted. For me, there's nothing that gets me higher than clawing around in the dirt, setting in some new plants, or pruning some overgrown ones. If you're into gardening, as more than 84 million American households now are, the lure of a sunny day puttering around on your potting bench is nothing short of nirvana.

But like many hobbies, fully indulging your passion can quickly become very expensive. Last year, Americans spent a record $38.4 billion on their lawns and gardens, or an average of $457 per household. America's lawn and garden industry is green in more ways than one.

Recently, though, I've discovered a new turn-on, combining my love for gardening with my passion for living frugally. For the gorilla gardener, it's not enough to just have a spectacular yard and garden; you have to flaunt not only your flora, but also your frugality. How little, if anything, you spend on your garden splendor is as much a part of the garden tour as identifying prized plants and revealing your green thumb secrets.

Free plants are the lifeblood of the gorilla gardener. Theoretically, there are three ways to get plants for free: You can make 'em, steal 'em, or someone can give 'em to you. The frugal gardener employs all three methods.

Be Fruitful and Multiply

Making more plants from plants you already have on hand can be as simple as using a spade to divide and replant clumps of many plants like ferns, irises, hostas, and day lilies. Or it can be a fairly exacting science in the case of some types of plants, involving rooting powder, grafting, and other more advanced techniques. There are many excellent books on the best propagation methods for virtually every type of plant, including the user-friendly American Horticultural Society Plant Propagation and the definitive work on the subject, Hartmann and Kester's Plant Propagation.

If you "dig" the idea of expanding your plant population by multiplying what you already have, keep that in mind when you decide what to plant in the first place. Look for varieties like many ground covers that will spread quickly on their own, or plants that can be easily divided with a spade or propagated using the seeds they produce. And, while more advanced propagation techniques really aren't that difficult once you get a little experience under your belt, there's an ingenious new device on the market, The Rooter Pot ($9.50 at Lee Valley Garden Supply - leevalley.com), that provides a simple, nearly surefire way of producing new trees and shrubs from existing ones.

Thou Shall Not Steal (Except for Plants)

If you don't have any plants worth cloning, what about stealing some? I'm not condoning actual theft, rather roadside scavenging for plants that have cropped up on their own. If you drive slowly down almost any highway or public road, you'll begin to notice that the berm is filled with anything but a bunch of weeds. On closer inspection, you'll find a wide range of desirable plants that have been transported to this public domain through every means possible from birds scattering seeds to motorists tossing out apple cores to native plants that thrive in the sunny exposure alongside the roadway.

I always have a small camp shovel and some plastic bags and pots in my trunk, just in case I spy a roadside prize among the weeds. Over the years, I've found clumps of violets, wisteria, ferns, roses, honeysuckle, holly, irises, and many, many more. And if you're a vegetable gardener, I've found everything from asparagus to zucchini plants sprouting up along the road, including watermelons growing as big as soccer balls and ready to harvest. If water gardening is your thing, roadside ditches abound with cattails, marsh marigolds, arrowhead, water lilies and other water plants that can be easily transplanted.

Always check to make sure that you're allowed to take roadside "samples." You wouldn't want to damage a state park, scenic view or have the landowner chase you down with a firearm!

Ask and You Shall Receive

The last option for getting your hands on free plants is to have someone give you some. Keep your eyes peeled at the homes of friend and relatives for plants that can easily be subdivided and transplanted. Most of the time people are happy to part with a clump or a cutting, particularly if you offer to reciprocate next time they visit your place. And joining a garden club opens the door to swapping plants with other members who usually have healthier plants and a more diverse selection than many nurseries. Last but not least, make friends with your local landscapers and ask them to keep you in mind when they're tearing out plants on a job site to make room for new. If you offer to lend a hand in the uprooting in exchange for the plant byproducts, most landscapers will eagerly take you up on the offer.

So, if you have a green thumb but not enough green in your wallet to support your habit, become a gorilla gardener and landscape your garden paradise for free.


Jeffrey Yeager has spent his career of more than 20 years in senior management positions with various national nonprofit organizations based in Washington, DC. "When you work for a nonprofit organization, you're frugal for a living, so it's easy to be frugal in your personal life." Yeager is an honors graduate of Bowling Green State University in Ohio and was a Rhodes Scholar nominee. His most recent book The Ultimate Cheapskate's Guide to True Riches is available on Amazon.

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