Build a Low-Budget Garden with Small Plants

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Anyone who has had to landscape a new house knows it can be very expensive. "Replantulating" an older garden is likewise costly, whether it is plant disease, damage or other changes driving the makeover. Good quality specimens, especially distinctive species or cultivars, may be pricey, albeit for valid reasons. (If you’ve ever grown woody plants from scratch you’ve probably asked yourself why garden centers don’t charge even more for some of their stock!)

When you're choosing some of everything, you might not be able to "go big."

When you're choosing some of everything, you might not be able to "go big."

After a long absence, a son of mine returned from military service to live nearby. He purchased a house that needed a lot of work inside and out. I was designated as one of the outside rehabilitators. With the help of his very good friends who own or have access to large tractors, backhoes, dump trucks, trailers, graders and seeders, Ted was able to transform the tangled jungle of a yard into a more or less level tabula rasa for me and other trusted green thumbs to renovate. But it will be a work in progress for a time.

I first directed my efforts toward the front of the house, which looked exceedingly bare after the ugly overgrowth had been removed. Early that spring I quickly made the rounds of respected nearby nurseries. Items that I wanted to purchase—Kwanzan cherry, dwarf Alberta and bird's nest spruce, Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana,’ mugo pine, Endless Summer hydrangeas, hardy azaleas, PJM and Purple Gem rhododendrons—were just too expensive for my son's project. They were fairly priced for what they were: beautiful, mature stock, large enough to stand out against the house. In this instance, however, some compromises had to be made, as is so often the case when a young person is making that first big investment.

So I decided to go to a couple of the big-box stores in our area. I know what you’re thinking. I do spend plenty of money at local nurseries and I’m happy to do so. But it’s hard to buy small specimen plants from them. At the big-box I found 14 plants, mostly in 1-gallon containers, for less than $175, or about the price of 3 plants at my favorite independent nurseries, which I am sure my son will patronize someday. I purchased the shrubs and trees shortly after they arrived at the store, which is a good strategy for this type of buying because sometimes the on-site care can be lacking. In general, early-bird buyers also get to choose the biggest, best shaped plants out of delivered lots that always have a degree of variation in them. Sometimes early shoppers get lucky, too—I have occasionally found that rare container that has two or even three viable plants in it. What a bonus that can be!

Now the skeptics among you may not be impressed with these diminutive purchases that I made, figuring that they will take forever to show any progress. But I can tell you that having set the assorted stock out early in spring and coaxed them along with water-soluble, time-released and organic growth enhancers, I observed first-season growth amounting to plants 30 percent bigger than what I started with. Similar growth occurred the next spring, putting these plants in the class of those in two- or three-gallon containers that cost four or five times more. I only wish my IRA increased in value at this rate.

Sometimes I’ll buy some of these “trial-size” plants for myself in the fall, when they may be very heavily discounted because it is just not worth the labor costs for the wholesaler or retailer to repot them. I may not have an immediate use for these bargains, but I have a section of my yard where I fatten up my little treasures before I find a spot for them or give them away. That section is a bit scary for my neighbors who know what some of the plants along the property line may turn into in a few years, so I tell them from time to time that this is just a temporary holding area. (I must also remind my wife that if I am unexpectedly called up to the big garden in the sky, she’ll have to quickly arrange for new homes for some of the plants out back.)

From the holding area last year I harvested a bird's nest spruce about 20 inches in diameter and a 40-inch-tall Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’ that was a $3.50 closeout item three years ago. It is probably a $125 specimen now.

(Note: This particular juniper lends itself very well to value enhancement since it is hardy and strikingly beautiful and it can be easily trained to grow up a stake. Once it takes off you need to tie off the vertical new growth every couple of weeks, but you can leave the lateral branches to weep in that pleasingly natural way on their own.)

Some Horticulture readers may live in places where there are few or no good places to buy any nursery stock. Amazon has opened up some more possibilities for you, but don’t forget those old-standby mail-order plant sellers with their tabloid-style catalogues. You know the ones: “10 assorted fragrant lilacs usually priced at $5.99 but because of overstock now yours for only $3.59.” (And for only 5 cents more they may throw in their choice of three large-leaf hostas.) 

Admittedly, the plants are on the very small side upon delivery, but often these catalogs have very interesting varieties and any downside for the investment is miniscule. Following this route I have raised a number of beautiful additions to my gardens, including weeping white pine, dwarf white pine, Hinoki cypress and witch hazel. They needed attention in the holding area for the first couple of years, and I babied them with my proprietary seaweed, ground spare-rib bone and wood ash concoctions. But the efforts proved worth it and brought a sense of satisfaction for being able to turn plants that looked insignificant into something I could really be proud of.