How to get great garden plants for free

Lockdown has given us everything, it’s a new appreciation for traditional spreading skills

From the prolonged closure of garden centers to the cancellation of many popular garden equipment and the lingering threat of a summer drought, this has been a very strange year for Irish gardeners.

Adding to our woes is the fact that the global supply chains that once gave us easy access to a vast array of plants have seen their weaknesses ruthlessly exposed by the pandemic, with summer litter in particular being very scarce.

Indeed, if we gardeners have learned an important lesson from these last months, it is to have a new appreciation of the types of traditional propagation techniques on which the preceding generations relied to furnish their plots well. With that precious alarm clock in mind, here’s a little seasonal guide to growing your own plants from scratch.

Dahlias growing in an Irish garden. Photography: Richard Johnston

First cuts

Growing plants from cuttings, this magical process by which the shoots of a suitable mother plant are used as propagating material to produce many young plants, is a wonderfully satisfying way to grow your own plants for free and is a lot. easier than you might think.

Although the process varies slightly depending on the time of year they are taken, the onset of summer – when the fresh growth is still soft and full of plant hormones that help stimulate rapid root establishment – is traditionally the time to take what is called softwood. ‘cuttings.

Many shrub / woody species are suitable candidates for this age-old technique, including hydrangea, weigela, roses, fuchsia, lavender, sage, sambucus, viburnum, philadelphus, buddleja, ceanothus, bay leaf, magnolia, olearia, osmanthus, tree peony, rosemary, hoheria and kolkwitzia. It also works well for many species of perennials, including lobelia, dahlia, penstemon, argyranthemum, and pelargonium.

For best results, choose strong, healthy, non-flowering shoots (10-15 cm long, 15-20 cm for roses) and collect them early in the morning, using a knife or a clean, sharp pruning shears to cut just below a knot (the tip where the leaves of the plant meet the stem) before placing them directly into a labeled freezer bag in which you have added a little water. Then, as soon as possible, gently remove the bottom half of the foliage from each shoot and pinch their soft tips before dipping them waist-deep in either fertile, crumbly soil in a well-prepared, weed-free bed outside. , or in pots filled with good quality seed and cuttings compost, ideally lightened with horticultural gravel or moist perlite.

Aquilegia flowering in an Irish garden.  Photography: Richard Johnston

Aquilegia flowering in an Irish garden. Photography: Richard Johnston

Water and air

Water well, label clearly (name, date, description), then cover with a clear plastic bag (if in pots) or with an upturned clear plastic bottle cover (if in soil outside). This locks in moisture and increases moisture, helping cuttings find new roots quickly. If you are using the pot method, giving them some form of background heat (for example, an electric propagator or a heating bench / mat) will also help speed up the rooting process.

As the cuttings begin to develop their own independent root system over the next few months, begin to gently ventilate them to harden them, eventually removing the bags / bells completely. Throughout this process, it is also important to water them regularly enough to keep the compost slightly moist but not soggy.

A liquid food from occasionally diluted seaweed – a natural biostimulant – is also very beneficial. By the fall, most will have developed their own independent and powerful root systems, giving you – hey hop – a ton of new plants.

Sow now

While we tend to think of early / mid-spring as the traditional time to sow seeds, there are many types of plants that are best grown from seeds sown at this time of year. Examples include rustic ornamental biennials such as gentle William, Foxgloves, Wallflowers, Canterbury bells, forget-me-nots, and Honesty, all of which will usefully bridge that awkward gap between late spring and early summer. .

Some types of hardy ornamental perennials can also be grown in large numbers from seeds sown in early summer. Examples include aquilegia, achillea, rudbeckia, catananche, valerian, lupine, and penstemon.

And if the shortage of summer bedding plants has left a big hole in your planting plan, then you’ll be happy to know that it’s not too late (but hurry) to sow seeds of certain types. fast growing ornamental annuals such as cosmos, nasturtium, sunflowers, florist’s dill (the variety known as Mariska), pot marigold, opium poppy, morning glory and marigolds to give you a very welcome blaze of early fall colors.


At this time of year, there are different ways to grow plants from seeds. I like to sow in 2 liter pots filled with good quality seed compost before covering it with a light pinch of vermiculite, then soaking the pots waist-deep in water overnight. . I then cover the top of each jar with an inverted freezer bag sealed with plastic tape – this makes a sort of mini biodome – and place it in a warm, bright place but out of direct sunlight. As soon as I see obvious signs of germination, I begin to aerate the seedlings by partially removing the bag.

But now that the risk of frost has passed, you can also sow outdoors in a well-prepared, weed-free seedbed raked to a thin layer of soil. Just be sure to protect emerging seedlings from slugs and keep the soil / compost moist (but not soggy). At this time of year, direct seeding outdoors is also the best method for some vegetables, including radish, parsnip (like most taproot plants, it hates being transplanted), salad leaves. oriental and annual spinach.

Once they have developed their first set of true leaves, transplant the container-raised seedlings into modules / small pots, or if sown outdoors, gently thin them out, lift and transplant the seedlings quickly. thinning so as not to waste them (always water well immediately after doing this to help them recover quickly).

Once they’re large enough to handle, fast-growing annuals can be quickly moved to their final growing positions. But biennials and perennials can be left in pots / modules or in their temporary seedbed until early fall, when the young plants can be moved to their permanent growing positions in the garden or subdivision. . Come next year, you will have a garden so generously stocked that you will donate your plants.

* Recommended seed suppliers for all of the above include all good garden centers, , , , addicted to, and