Thrill of hunt feeds obsession for plant bargains at end of summer
The stunning, dark raspberry flowers of ‘Stargazer’ lilies are putting on a show just inside the vegetable garden and can be seen from just about any vantage point in the backyard. The plant stands 6 feet tall, is filled with blossoms and is covered with pink buds, preparing to open and release their sweet fragrance, which smells like heaven. I found the bulbs a few years ago on sale around this time of the year.
While most gardeners are content to ride out the end of the summer holding pat with what they’ve planted, I’m spending every other day searching nurseries for bargains after work, including lily bulbs and other plants.
My gardening friends tease me about my legendary cheapness, but they like to take advantage of the things I find. Some are kindred spirits who share in the joy, and others simply shake their heads. The adrenaline rush of discovering a great deal almost overshadows the actual planting, believe it or not.
My deep-seated frugality comes from being raised by two parents who lived through The Great Depression. Growing up in their modest home, nothing went to waste.
So the garden is filled with the plants found cheap at the end of every season. I’m always compelled to brag to visitors, “I got that for a dollar two years ago,” which usually elicits eye rolling, a laugh and faux interest in what I pay for my plants.
The thrill of the hunt is at the heart of my obsession. Exploring every corner of the nursery looking for deals takes time, and it’s certainly time well spent. I always tell gardeners they shouldn’t treat a journey to the garden center like a trip to the grocery store; it should be great fun with no thought on how long you’ll be there.
My garden is filled with bargain surprises, too. Like some pure white flowers just starting as ‘Stargazer’ finishes its show. I don’t remember planting them last year, but I’m sure glad I did. Lilies can be found on sale as bulbs or plants. I buy them both ways. It’s easy to sell a tall stalk of pretty flowers, but much tougher to get rid of a stem filled with only green foliage; that’s why they are discounted. I’ll look at the plant tag to see what the flower looks like or use my smartphone to search the name.
For a real bargain, find something that’s unmarked. They are really cheap, and it’s a way to get true surprises. Do you really need to know the name of a plant to enjoy its beauty?
The reason I’m exclusively searching at good nurseries revolves around trust. I know the plants have been watered and fed over the season, which is the most important thing a grower can to do to ensure the health of a plant.
Perennials that have been growing on a shelf at the garden center all season need to go now, making room for fresh stock coming in soon for fall planting. I’m always finding plants at half price that have stopped blooming, but I know they will put on a show next summer.
Lots of places are almost giving away annuals; I bought some big plants in 6-inch pots for a song. They will be plugged into containers and empty spots in the garden for instant color on a budget. It gives me a chance to try new introductions, to discover if they are everything the breeder claims.
The best bargains, though, are plants that look great now but can be saved over the winter. Tuberous begonias are perfect for my garden, as they thrive in shade. Just ask someone who works at the nursery which ones can be stored.
When frost arrives, the bulbs are removed and packed away to be started next spring. The cycle can continue with these types of plants for decades or longer. Dahlias work the same way, as do caladiums. The latter are grown for their beautiful foliage and are shade lovers. Even if you don’t want to deal with saving the bulbs or tubers, these plants will give you color lasting until the first heavy frost.
I think my greatest find last year were two alpine clematis plants for $5 each. They were in 1-gallon pots and appeared tired but had a great-looking root system. When given a little TLC and planted in good compost, I figured they would thrive, and they did.
I’d never heard of the variety ‘Stolwijk Gold’ and had only a vague idea what it would look like from the plant tag. In early spring, the plant sprouted with deep-purple vining stems covered in gold foliage, fading to chartreuse, which set off small blue flowers to perfection.
Eventually, it will cover the white picket fence surrounding the vegetable garden. For years to come, visitors will be “treated” to the story of what an amazing deal it was and how I fell in love with the plant.
I can already see the eyes rolling.
Doug Oster is the Home & Garden editor for Trib Total media. He can be reached at 412-320-7878 or [email protected].