How to Capitalize on the Plants You Already Have
Growing your garden can get expensive, so here are some ways to take advantage of your existing greenery – for free.
By Marianne Lipanovich, Houzz
It’s amazing how quickly buying a few plants can add up to a fairly big monetary outlay. Fortunately, there are time- and gardener-honored ways of getting plants for little or no cost. You can get offsprings of your (or your friends’) plants for free, whether it’s by gathering seeds, getting divisions or starting new plants from stems or leaves. Which method you choose depends on the plant, although some can be propagated by several methods.
Annuals, biennials, perennials and, of course, vegetables are the easiest plants to start with, but if you find a seedling started from a shrub or tree, treat it as you would a stem cutting and see if you can get it to grow.
You also can often find people offering their excess plants on neighborhood lists and Craigslist, many of which might not be readily available in seed packets or nurseries. This is especially true for edible gardeners. They often start far more seedlings than they can easily use.
Some plants are too easy to propagate. They produce baby clones, called plantlets or offsets, that can be easily rooted to give you more plants.
Best choices: Hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum spp.), spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum) and creeping saxifrage, also called strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stolonifera).
What to watch for: If you can, water the plant well before removing a plantlet to ease stress.
How to do it: For plants with plantlets that are attached by a stem or stolon, such as spider plants and creeping saxifrage, cut off the stem. For succulents like hens-and-chicks, simply tease the plantlet away from the mother.
Place the plant in a potting mix designed for that type of plant, such as a houseplant mix, a succulent mix or an African violet mix, and gently firm the soil around it. Water well and place the plantlet in a spot that gets bright, indirect light. Keep the soil moist but not soggy for most plants; succulents can get a little drier.
You can either keep plantlets in their new home or transfer them to different pots when the roots have formed. Test by very gently tugging on the plant; if it doesn’t pull out easily, its roots are big enough to transplant.
This method might be considered the classic approach to propagating plants. It’s low-key and very straightforward, and you need no specialized equipment beyond something to put the seeds in, envelopes for storage and a cool, dry, dark place to keep them.
Best choices: Saving vegetable seeds is almost a given for home gardeners, and almost every vegetable has seeds you can readily save. Good choices to start with are beans, lettuce, peas, peppers and tomatoes.
Many, if not most, annuals, perennials and biennials also produce easily saved seeds. Among the easiest are calendula, columbine, impatiens, love-in-a-mist, marigold, morning glory, petunia, sweet pea, sunflower and zinnia.
What to watch for: Choose open-pollinated and heirloom varieties. Hybrids are often sterile, and those that aren’t sterile usually will not stay true to the variety.
How to do it: Wait until the plants are fully ripe and seeds have formed. For vegetables, especially those that are eaten “young,” such as summer squash, this means leaving some fruit until it is completely ripe and possibly no longer edible, For flowers, wait until the seeds have completely formed.
Collect the seeds into a small bag or plastic container. Clean off the seeds, which may include washing off any matter or straining out dirt using a colander. If the seeds are still wet, spread them out in a single layer on coffee filters, paper towels, newspaper or a cookie sheet. Let them dry in a cool, dark place.
Collect seeds in jars or envelopes and store them in a cool, dry place out of direct sun.
Big Girls Small Kitchen, original photo on Houzz
Once the seeds have dried completely, place them in an envelope or a jar, seal the package and label it. Trust me, and every other person who has collected seeds, unless you’ve collected only one type of seed, you won’t remember what is in each envelope in a few months.
Store the envelope in a cool, dry place out of direct sun. A large glass jar is a good choice for keeping your collected seed envelopes in one spot, but any place will work.
This is just what it sounds like — dividing plants in half or even quarters or more. You’ll have exact replicas of the original plant. Many plants do best when divided every few years.
Division is a good choice for plants that tend to spread outward and leave a hole where the original plant was, plants that become overly enthusiastic and outgrow their boundaries, and those that are beginning to flower less often or showing other signs of aging or stress.
What to watch for: Err on the early side when it comes time to divide rather than waiting until the plant is no longer thriving.
Plants that shouldn’t be divided include dicentra, hellebore, lavender, false indigo and lupine.
Black-eyed Susans and coneflowers are among the plants that divide well.
Field Outdoor Spaces, original photo on Houzz
Best choices: Perennials, such as bee balm, black-eyed Susan, butterfly milkweed, coreopsis, coneflower, daylily, hosta, lily-of-the-nile, ornamental grasses, phlox, some sedums and veronica. Bulbs, especially bearded iris, can also be divided.
How to do it: It’s best to divide plants in early spring or at the end of the growing season. For best results, prepare the soil where you plan to transplant the divisions ahead of time. Thoroughly water the area around the plant or plants you plan to divide as well.
Choose a cool, dry time in the morning or evening to avoid too much stress on the plant. Dig down and around the outer edge of the plant. The best method is to start digging straight down and circling the plant, deepening each cut as you continually circle. Once you’ve reached the deepest roots, start angling your shovel or space inward toward the center of the plant.
Lift the plant out and place it aside. For plants like daylily, lily-of-the-nile and ornamental grasses, place a spade in the center of the plant and cut through the roots. Another method is to work two pitchforks into the center of the plant with the outsides facing each other, then tease the plant apart.
For plants with a single taproot, such as butterfly milkweed, cut sharply through the center of the taproot.
Frank Organ, original photo on Houzz
To divide a bearded iris, like this one, dig it out of the ground and cut through it as you would for a plant with a single taproot.
Plant the divisions as soon as possible in their new homes. Water thoroughly and keep an eye on them as they settle into place.
Rooting Stem and Leaf Cuttings
Depending on the plant, you can root stem cuttings in water or a soilless growing mix, or you can take leaf cuttings and root them in a growing mix. Whichever method you use, take cuttings from healthy, flowerless stems or foliage.
For the best results, water the plant thoroughly several hours or the day before you take either stem or leaf cuttings. If you can’t root the cuttings immediately, wrap them in damp paper towels and place them in a plastic bag. Once your new plants have grown roots, treat them as you would seedlings.
The easiest plants to root from a cutting are geraniums and jade plant. Often, you can take a stem and place it in potting mix or even directly in the ground and the plant will reproduce. Other plants, especially many popular houseplants, root almost as easily if you place them in water before planting.
Best choices: Coleus, philodendron, pothos, scented geranium and sedum.
What to watch for: Keep the water clear and start over if the stem and roots become mushy. Some plants, such as geraniums, may take longer to root.
‘Florida Gold’ coleus
The New York Botanical Garden, original photo on Houzz
How to do it: Cut off 3 to 6 inches of a clean, healthy stem at an angle just above a growth node. Strip off the leaves from the bottom third to half of the stem.
Place the stem in a jar or other container with water, keeping the remaining leaves above the water level by resting them on the rim or draping them over the container. Set the container in a spot that receives bright, indirect sunlight and is out of drafts.
Check daily, replenishing or replacing the water as needed. Once the new roots are about a half inch to an inch long, carefully transfer the cutting to a potting medium as you would seedlings.
Don’t let the plants live too long in water, as that may compromise their ability to take up nutrients from the soil.
This is the most common way of replicating an existing plant. Although it might seem daunting at first, it’s a straightforward process.
Best choices: The list is almost endless, but good plants to start with include butterfly bush, gardenia, lavender, penstemon, rosemary, bigleaf hydrangea, viburnum and weigela.
Related: How to Use Lavender Indoors Too
What to watch for: Prepare your propagating medium ahead of time. You can buy commercial mixes or make your own — gardening sites on the internet have a number of options.
If you’re propagating a number of cuttings at one time, you might want to use a tray with a plastic cover. For a smaller number, individual small pots will work well.
How to do it. Choose healthy stems that aren’t flowering for the best results. Snip a 3- to 5-inch stem off about one-quarter to one-half of an inch below a growing node or two branches at a 30-degree angle. Cut off the leaves of the bottom third to half of the stem and remove any buds.
Pour rooting hormone into a small container and dip the end of the stem into it. Shake off any excess, especially if you’re using rooting powder.
Note: Don’t dip the stem directly into the original rooting hormone container, as it will contaminate the mixture.
If you use a plastic bottle to make a mini greenhouse, make ventilation holes.
Handyman Magazine, original photo on Houzz
Create a hole in the potting medium with a pencil end or a chopstick. Place your stem in the hole and gently firm the soil around it. Water well.
Place the pot on a tray filled with water and cover with plastic. You can use a commercial cover or cloche, a clean and clear plastic drink bottle, or a plastic bag. If using one of the latter two, create ventilation holes in the plastic. Keep the plastic away from the leaves whenever possible.
Place the tray in a spot that receives bright, indirect light. If you want, you can add a heating mat underneath. Keep the soil moist. If your cover does not have ventilation, remove it for at least 15 minutes a day.
Cuttings are ready when they resist coming up when you gently tug on them. At this point, transfer them to individual containers and treat as you would seedlings.
What if there is no stem to cut? In that case, you can use a leaf. For many thick-leaved plants, especially succulents, this is the obvious choice.
Best choices. African violet, cape primrose, Christmas cactus and related Schlumbergera species, gloxinia, peperomia, piggyback plants (leaves grow on top of existing leaves) rex begonia, sedum and mother-in-law’s tongue.
What to watch for: Choose healthy leaves and water the plant well before taking cuttings.
How to do it. Prepare individual pots ahead of time with a propagating mix. Pour rooting hormone into a container ahead of time as well.
Cut off a complete leaf that is healthy. Cut as close to the base of any stem as possible, then trim these to an inch to 1½ inches long.
Using a pencil end or chopstick, create a 45-degree-angle hole near the center of the pot. Dip the stem end of the cutting into the rooting hormone, shake off any excess and place the cutting in the hole. The leaf should be facing the outside of the pot.
Firm the soil gently around it. Water thoroughly and put the pot on a tray filled with water. Add a plastic cover as you would for stem cuttings.
Set the tray in a spot with bright, indirect light and treat it as you would stem cuttings. When new leaves form in the pot, fertilize with a water-soluble, quarter-strength fertilizer.
When leaves cover the surface of the pot, transfer these new plants to individual pots.