Acquiring Plants

My route to work often takes me along a walking trail with wildflowers growing nearby. For the past two or three years, I have observed a lone clump of shooting-stars (Dodecathon) growing in a rather shady spot, surrounded by fawn lilies (Erythronium). I first recognized it by its clump of basal leaves, which looked different from other plants in the area. Last year it managed a few blooms, and this spring there were many — a small cloud of purple near the trail. Too near, it turned out, because a few days ago it was gone, leaving only a shallow hole scraped in the soil by a plant thief. i don’t know how fussy shooting-stars are about their growing conditions, but transplanting wildflowers from their preferred habitats is not always successful. The poor thing may very well be dead by now.

This is not a good way to acquire a plant for one’s garden, but there are many legitimate ways. They illustrate beautifully the maxim “Good, fast, cheap. Pick two.”

You can make your own plants, growing them from seeds or cuttings. Sources of these are varied, ranging from purchase to collecting them from other gardens (with permission) or from natural areas. This option is somewhat suspect, but may be justified when the plant in question is abundant and the amount of seed collected is small. Cuttings are a good way to increase numbers of a plant you want more of, or as insurance. For example, I drastically pruned a curry plant earlier this spring, hoping that it would send out new growth from the old wood. So far it hasn’t really done that, but I do have three cuttings that appear to have rooted, and which will make three new plants. Grey-leaved, drought-tolerant plants such as lavenders, helichrysums and senecios often become woody and awkward in old age. Cuttings are a good way to replace them.

Gardeners often give surplus plants to others, especially to those new to gardening. If you have a lot of empty space and want to fill it quickly and cheaply, a generous neighbour may be a blessing. But consider that there is a reason for that surplus, and a few years down the road the blessing may become a curse.

Seeds and plants may, of course, be purchased from a variety of retail outlets. Mail order (or more likely internet order) is an excellent source for items such as rare or special bulbs or seeds, since those are fairly easy to ship. I am of mixed minds about obtaining non-dormant plants from sources that involve shipping by postal mail or even courier services. For one thing, the shipping charges are hefty, adding considerably to the cost of an order. For another, the supplier quite understandably takes measures to reduce the weight and volume of the items being shipped. This means removing most of the soil the plants grew in and wrapping them in plastic. Some endure this treatment, and grow quite well once planted; others don’t, and languish or die forthwith. If you are intending to plant a specimen obtained in this way into a spot with any challenges at all (vigorous surrounding plants, a hot or dry spot), it’s a good idea to pot it up after unpacking it, and coddle it until it appears strong enough to withstand the rigors of its permanent spot. Another thing to keep in mind is that once delivered, the plants must be unpacked and planted immediately, in temporary or permanent spots. It’s not a good idea to dump the box in a corner until the weekend.

My preferred way to buy plants is in person from a nursery. You can select them yourself and transport them to your garden in their pots. Happily for gardeners in my area, there are numbers of general and specialty nurseries close by, where one can obtain a good variety of plants, including new varieties. Another option is the plant sales of botanical gardens or horticultural societies; rarities may be available from these sources at reasonable prices, along with advice from expert growers. They are generally once-a-year events, and quite popular, so planning and early arrivals are recommended.

The only real hazard of plant-shopping in person is the impulse buy which results in a frantic gardener racing around with spade in one hand, new plant in the other, searching for a spot in which to accommodate the newcomer. My advice — don’t shoehorn the poor thing into a too-small space. Sacrifice a few tough plants of which you have lots and prepare a good site. For example: toadflax, campion, lamb’s ears, peach-leaf bellflower, yellow corydalis, etc., etc. You know the ones.