Buy Fewer, Larger and Longer-Lived Plants Instead Of Many, Smaller Perennial Plants
I realize this sounds overly obvious but: the fewer plants you buy, the more you save.
More specifically, you can buy larger shrubs (or grasses) that take up more room, rather than buy multiple perennials or annuals to fill the same space. Even though shrubs on average cost more, they usually cover enough additional area to make up the difference in price.
Shrubs or grasses are also more likely to provide year-round interest. Compare this to perennials where you may want to plant a different species for each season. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a really fun thing to do, but it takes more time, energy and $dinero$.
Buy Smaller, Younger Plants and Wait for Them to Grow
If you have the time to let them grow, buy plants in small sizes. I bought a 1 gallon container of an Osmanthus delavayi shrub (evergreen with deliciously fragrant winter flowers) that in time will triple in size.
Fill Gaps in Your Garden with Seeds or Mulch
While I wait for my small shrubs to mature, I scatter seeds of annuals around it in the space it will eventually grow into.
Otherwise a mulch or wood chip layer will do, and give it a "finished" look. These practices keep the soil moist and relatively weed free.
When it comes to perennials, try seeds! I’m waiting until March, and then I’m sprinkling them everywhere.
I have a sink or swim attitude towards plants in my garden, so I’m depending on relatively mild temperatures and steady rain to do the job for me (the "scatter and skedaddle" approach, though climate change may alter this tactic!) But if you want to maximize your seedling success, commit to prepping the soil by amending with compost (and sand for my lovely till) then keeping the bed moist for the first couple of weeks until seedlings are looking more substantial. Depending on the species, thinning is a must. As hard as it is to kill off little emerging seedlings, if you don’t, they all suffer.
Propagate Plants You Already Own to Avoid Purchasing More
It’s really not as fancy as it sounds — you basically cut up or pull apart a plant into chunks that will then become their own plant. Not all species make it easy, but some do. Take Liriope muscari ‘Big Blue’ — one of our favorites to use as a groundcover around here because it tolerates both sun and shade, it’s drought-tolerant, and it’s evergreen. Plus it sports some cute purple flowers right about now. I bought two plants for the beds next to my front door. I put one on each side of my steps (“flanking” the entry), and my plan is to systematically divide them each year to spread across the bed.
How will I do this? Again, around March (though you could do it now, in fall) the soils are nice and moist, and if you look at the base of the plant it will literally look like a dozen different plants rather than one. I will dig down and tease them apart, cut some flesh if I need to, and re-plant them.
Irises are another plant that is easy to divide. You dig up the plant and voila! You see finger-like rhizomes that you can cut apart and re-plant. I swear you can almost see a dotted line where you should cut- it’s very intuitive.
These plants do spread on their own eventually (or very quickly in the case of Crocosmia) but you can help them along and guide where they go. Most importantly, you get the look of at least five plants in a couple of years, even though you only bought one. And remember, it’s ok if they don’t all survive, because anything more than one is a bonus!
Relocate Existing Plants So They’ll Fill More Space
No matter how much I try to plan or predict my garden bed layout, I often find plants doing better or worse than expected. I planted some lavender last year that has gone gangbusters — they are huge, and have totally overgrown their spots even though I followed the recommended spacing.
What to do?
Spread them out! This goes back to the “less is more” tactic — if three plants want to take up more room, I’m all for it!
On the other hand, I have a lovely, native serviceberry shrub (Amelanchier alnifolia) that is stunted in its current spot. I will wait until it has gone dormant and then move it. Hopefully it thrives in the new spot and occupies a larger space.
Use Triangular Spacing to Create Easily Adjustable Plant Masses
One related tip from a planting design standpoint is the practice of triangular spacing. This is when you stagger plants rather than plant them in a row. One benefit of triangular spacing is that if you do need to expand or consolidate your plant massing, this spacing makes it easier to do so. For my lavender trio, I will move the center plant further out to make a bigger (more isosceles -like) triangle, to give all three plants more room.
Plan Ahead and Stick to Your Plan
This goes for many things in life, but especially when it comes to purchases. If you have a list, and stick to the list, you will stick to your budget, and you will avoid the need to repeat your investment (a.k.a. replace failed plants).
Do a little research on the plants you want and where you want them — verify they will succeed there. If you don’t have time to research and plan, consider hiring someone. Some companies are design-build and will both plan and install a garden design for you. Other companies create planting plans and work with multiple contractors who they can recommend for the installation. (This is our approach here at Watershed).
Sticking to your list is not easy! Nurseries are full of botanical temptations — the smells and colors appeal to some deeper place. And then there are sales: “Honey, these are 50% off!” And then, “Oh, I didn’t know about that plant — I must have one!” or, “Oh, I forgot about the spot in the corner next to the thingy — we need plants there!” Not that I haven’t benefitted from unplanned purchases, but always at a cost beyond my original plan.
When Necessary, Adapt Your Plan Wisely
Another side to planning ahead is anticipating the chance that the plant you want may not be available. The question is — to substitute or walk away?
It’s easy to be tempted into a substitution based on the most attractive display in the nursery that day. But don’t forget about the rule to use “the right plant in the right place”. Instead of relying on the plant tags (and even on the employees), I use my phone to look up plant culture notes more specific to Western Washington and the Pacific Northwest. Even if a potential substitute plant is within the same genus, cultivars can have very different needs. I learned this the hard way.
While I didn’t regret my spontaneous substitution of a variegated Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Overdam' for the traditional Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (and I’m typically not into variegated plants — this was nice and subtle, and thrives in the same conditions), I did regret my substitution for a different type of black Iris — one that turned out to require “regular moisture” rather than my original, drought-tolerant choice. Having to replace those plants was not a budget-friendly move!
Ready to plant your garden?
Bottom line — plants are not cheap. And they almost always cost more than you expect. But they are affordable relative to other things you can do to improve the environment around you, and I think they are a worthy investment. Plants provide beauty, habitat, and more. To me, a beautifully-planted garden signals to the surrounding community that you are invested in your neighborhood and are doing something to make the world a little nicer.
If designing your garden still seems overwhelming, or you want a base plan to start from, we'd love to lend a hand. We'll meet you at your house, check out your existing garden, and put together a free quote for residential landscape design. Drop us a line to set up a meeting.
This is part three of a three-part series by restoration designer and landscape architect Marina French. Check out the other installments in this series.