A successful businessman once told me, “Time is money… and money is time. If you don’t have time to do something… spend money. If you do have time, spend that to make money.”
That advice works if you’re building a business – but it also works if you’re growing your own food.
Trees, shrubs and even veggie transplants are expensive. If part of your prepping includes conserving financial resources – or if you’re broke, like many of us – fear not; you don’t have to spend a fortune to plant a garden, a row of berries or even a food forest. Learning a few simple propagation tips will save you big. Are you ready? We’ll start with the most basic of basics: seeds.
Growing From Seed
In the spring, many gardeners go down to the local nursery or home improvement store and load up their carts with transplants. You can buy transplants for everything, including corn and melons. This, my friends, is rather ridiculous. First of all, a lot of plants don’t really transplant all that well – and the ones that do will often grow just as well from seeding in place, if not better. Buying transplants is often a waste of money.
Let’s look at tomatoes, since they’re hugely popular and also transplant well:
6 pack of tomato transplants: $3.50 = $0.58 per plant.
$0.58 per plant? That’s not bad, right? It is when you do the math on seeds:
Pack of 50 tomato seeds: $2.25 = $0.045 per seed.
Even if you had a 50% failure rate, you’d still be managing to start tomato plants for $0.09 each. That’s cheap. Plus, seeds sown in place, as written above, do better. They’re growing in the ground where they’re planted, meaning the roots can expand rapidly down into the soil, rather than being bunched up in a tiny cell. They’re also not having to deal with radically different growing conditions at a young age. Transplants are grown in perfect conditions, in perfect soil, then sit in variable light conditions until sold, wrapping their roots around and around in a tiny space. When you direct-seed, they acclimate to the sun and soil right away and start jumping immediately, without a rough transition from pot to earth.
Now – you may say “Sounds nice, but I have a short growing season. I need transplants or I won’t get any tomatoes.” In that case, grow your own and pocket the difference. A cheap flat made from 18” pieces of 1 x 6” lumber can hold quite a few baby tomato plants. Prick them out as they get bigger and put them in larger pots if you need to… or put them right in the garden and watch for frosts.
If you miss your timing, you can still buy transplants, of course… I won’t judge you. Growing your own food needs to be done however you need to do it. But the savings are considerable when you plant a large space.
As for other plants like corn, melons, cucumbers, beans, etc. – just seed in place. Seeds are cheap and the plants do much better that way. I buy lettuce and spinach packets and scatter the seeds, then eat more than $100.00 worth of organic salads for $2.00. That’s a steal.
With perennials, you can also save big by starting from seed. Many herbs take a while to get going from seed, but you can plant quite a few for a paltry sum. Some plants, like blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, etc. can be grown from seed but it’s a lot tougher to get them started… so wait on those until you read further.
Trees from seed get a really bad rap. “It takes forever!” No, it doesn’t, but it does take time. Yet, like vegetables, they really thrive if they’re sown in place. I’ve got two peach trees in my back yard that are about 5’ tall and have 1” thick trunks. They’re just over a year old! I planted them in pots, then transplanted them when they were about a foot tall into a nice holes I dug 2’ deep and filled with manure, compost and surrounding soil. A little watering… and they were off to the races. It will be a couple years until they start to bear, but they already look a lot healthier than the 6’ trees I planted out two years ago. Tap roots are key to many tree’s growth: by letting them get going from their infancy where they’re going to spend their lives, you give them a big jump.
Some trees take a long time to reach maturity from seed, of course. Citrus may take 8-10 years before they bear, as will pecans and some other fruit and nuts. That means plant them NOW! How much money are you out? Basically none.
An argument against this is, of course, that you don’t know what you’re going to get. You might not get something good, experts will say. Yet most of the time, you will. Plus you’re maintaining genetic diversity. You could potentially end up with something better than the parent… or not. So plant extra – and if you really aren’t happy with the fruit on one or two, cut them down and use the wood in your smoker.
Growing From Cuttings
Cuttings root easily from some plants and poorly from others. Look up your plant on the ‘net first, then decide if taking cuttings is the way to go. Figs, pomegranates, lemons, blackberries, blueberries, grapes, rosemary and a wide variety of other edibles are pretty darn easy to start this way. Here’s how I root my cuttings:
Get a sharp knife and take hardwood or softwood cuttings, depending on what works best according to what you find online. Don’t take huge cuttings – just 6” or so is usually good.
- Dip the ends in rooting hormone or willow tea.
- Stick a few in a one-gallon pot of decent well-draining potting mix, or vermiculite, or sand and peat or whatever you have lying around.
- Mist the leaves and make sure the soil is damp.
- Put a plastic Ziploc bag over the top of the pot to retain moisture, then rubber band it in place.
You might want to take the bag off occasionally and mist them now and again. Make sure they don’t dry out or stay too soggy. After a month or two, they should start rooting. When they start putting on new growth, give one a little tug and see if it’s rooted. Be gentle, take the bag off, wait a little longer, then pot them up. I once rooted blueberries and lemon trees on my windowsill in the kitchen in about two months this way – and still have the plants to prove it. Easy peasy.
Some plants will root from fresh green sticks jammed in the ground with no other care. Figs, mulberries, cassava (which you can buy here) and moringa are known to do this with varying levels of success. Sometimes the time of year makes a difference: I once tried rooting mulberries during the fruiting season and had a complete failure of all fifteen. It happens. All you’re out is a little time. Try, try again.
Air layering is a pretty fail-safe method for many plants. Here’s a-part video of a pretty lady demonstrating with a rosebush:
The benefit of air-layering is that the original plant supports the baby plant as it grows, meaning you don’t have to bother with bags and pots and such. You do have to use a sharp knife well and get a hold of some sphagnum moss and plastic wrap. If you can handle that, you can air layer.
Tip-layering is a method that works really well on cane fruits. When you see a nice, sprawling branch growing, bend the tip of it down and bury it in the ground. I started a little thicket of blackberries this way. The tip will put down roots and the old branch often withers away and leaves a new baby plant behind. Simple!
Setting Up A Little Nursery
If you have a half-shady area, plus pots and dirt, you can grow up a bunch of your plants for later transplanting to the garden or your yard. When I prune, I often save some of the clippings and put them in pots on my back porch for later planting. Having a convenient location really helps with this. Some take, some don’t. It takes a few minutes, and when you consider that pomegranate trees well for $20 apiece… blackberries and firs in one-gallon pots are often $10.00 each… and other trees and shrubs all bear price tags of their own, you can save a lot of money really fast. It takes an hour to make yourself a couple hundred bucks worth of baby plants. Time well spent. Plus, if you manage to grow more than you need, you can give away the extra or even sell and barter plants here and there. I did this for years and eventually opened my own little plant nursery to sell what I grow. Win!
Sources Of Plant Material
When you start out as a gardener, you might be pretty short on plants. This is the time to go meet other gardeners. They’ll often share cuttings and seeds with you. Gardeners are some of the nicest people on earth and most of them genuinely love sharing what they have. Compliment someone’s canna lilies and you might get a root pressed into your hands. Ask about someone’s fallen walnuts and they’ll usually give you a basket. Tell someone you’re just getting started and they may give you more seeds, bulbs and cuttings than you can handle. Just remember these folks when you have something extra of your own… and pass it on.
Another way you can get hooked up with propagative material is to hit your local botanical gardens or Master Gardener program at the local extension. Sometimes cuttings and seeds can be had for the asking.
And of course, if you can’t find what you need that way, there’s always the seed rack, plus plenty of great seed companies that sell online. I’ve also had luck getting rare edibles on ebay. Keep your eyes open.
Another place I’ve mentioned before: the local organic market. They have bins of seeds, plus strange and wonderful varieties of vegetables and roots. I’ve planted potatoes and fava beans with great success, paying very little considering the resulting harvest.
When you’re limited on funds and need to grow food… quit giving all your money away to nurseries. Start looking around for likely cutting and seed sources and get propagating. It’s a great feeling to see your little babies grow into productive adults… try it and see.
Unless you’re rich. In that case, I’ve got some plants to sell you.