DIY No-Cost Flower Beds

by Reader Contributors

DIY Landscaping for Less photo

Don’t have the funds to fill your yard with flowers and shrubs? Our frugal readers offer tips and advice for DIY landscaping for little to no cost.

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Dear Dollar Stretcher,
I wanted to add a large flower bed to my front lawn. I can get mulch for free from the township if I load and transport, but do any of your readers know how to get a good deal on shrubs and perennials for a new bed?

My budget for this project is unfortunately zero. All I have is my imagination and resourcefulness to make this one happen. My mother is having a new bed added by a professional landscaper and its costing her $1,000. I would sure like to impress her with my ability to do it for virtually zip! Thanks!

Young Plants Can Save Up To 75%

To save money when installing a perennial garden, I did it myself. I used young plants that are much less costly than mature perennials. Young plants can be up to 75% less than mature plants. When buying young plants, softly tap them from their pots to make sure they have developed a sturdy root system. Look for at least three or four good, big, well attached main roots.

If you can see a well-developed root system beginning, place it back in the container and purchase the plant.

Perennials grow to twice their size in as little as one year. They can grow even bigger by the third year. When planting a perennial garden using young plants, make sure that you leave plenty of space between plants. Always consider the mature plant size. For example, if you have purchased a relatively small plant, say 12 inches tall by 6 inches wide; keep in mind that it will be 3 feet tall by 3 feet wide in two years. Do not plant anything else within a 3-foot radius of the first plant.

Overcrowding perennial plants leads to root competition. This will lead to poor plant health. Poor plant health leads to disease and vulnerability to insects. The sad end is the drastically shortened life of what could have been a 10-20 year life span for a properly planted perennial.

By the way, perennial gardens are the most cost effective because the plants return year after year. Also, keep in mind that you do not have to purchase all of your plants at one time. You can purchase one plant, allow it to mature, then propagate new plants from your original. These are 100% free!

If you want three plants, buy one, then wait a year, take cuttings or seed, and grow two more on your own. You may even take some cuttings from friends and neighbors. When your garden is mature thank them by sharing some cuttings from your beautiful garden!

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Beautiful Perennial Garden From Seeds

I have a beautiful perennial bed full of beautiful healthy flowers. I spent less than $15. I started about 100 (yes, 100) plants from seed. I have zero gardening experience (or interest, for that matter). But when we moved into our house, I wanted some landscaping I could be proud of, and I wanted to do it frugally. Here’s what I did:

I bought five different varieties of perennial seeds (black eyed Susan’s, Shasta daisies, painted daisies, lavender, purple cornflowers.) Each seed packet was about $1.

Next, I bought peat pellets that are specifically for starting seeds. Each pellet is a hard, circular disc about 1 1/2 inches around. I think I got 100 for $10 or $12. Find some plastic or biodegradable trays about 2 inches deep. You can buy these from the garden center with plastic lids, or you can improvise with what you already have. If your plastic trays don’t have lids, you’ll also need some plastic wrap and rubber bands.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Lay the peat pellets in the plastic tray. They can be touching each other, but not overlapping.
  2. Pour warm (or hot) water in the tray to expand the pellets. They will soak up the water pretty quickly and expand to about 2 inches tall.
  3. Put two seeds in the center of each pellet. Some perennial seeds are extremely small, so I sprinkled them on a white sheet of paper first (so I could see them) and used tweezers to put them onto the pellets.
  4. Cover the trays with the lids (if you have them), or use the plastic wrap and rubber bands to create a little greenhouse.
  5. Set the trays in a warm, sunny place (very important). Water every day.
  6. In 10-20 days, when the seeds emerge, thin the plants so there is only one seed per pellet. Remove the plastic or lid permanently.
  7. Keep the plants in a warm, sunny place without the lids and do not let them dry out (very important). You may not need to water every single day, but it will be frequent.
  8. In six-eight weeks, take the plants outside for a few hours every day. This is called “hardening off”.
  9. Transfer to your garden and enjoy!

Some perennials aren’t supposed to flower the first year, but all of mine have. If yours don’t bloom but they look healthy, they should flower next year.

The best way to start a bed for $0 is to ask your family, friends, and neighbors if you can have some of their extras. Perennials like daylily, hostas etc. spread quickly and sometimes can overrun a garden, so you may even be doing them a favor. And you’ll get a much bigger variety this way as well.

An Organization to Help with Plants

I find wonderful and very cheap flowers and shrubs from an organization called Arbor Day Foundation. I once ordered 50 private hedges (this was a number of years back) to make a border on my property and they were only $.70 a piece. The total was around $37, and for an additional $10, I got ten flowering trees. All have survived. The bushes are already 5 feet or so. The flowering trees were real small (all ten fit in my mailbox), but they grew. Now they are huge and beautiful, all for ten bucks!

See for Arbor Day information and possible free trees.

Landscaping Training Centers Can Help

Community colleges with a horticulture program or vocational schools that teach landscaping can be wonderful sources of cheap plants. Our local college has a sale at the end of each semester and all the plants are $1.00.

Also, don’t forget neighbors with beautiful gardens! Most people are flattered to be asked for cuttings of their gorgeous plants, and you can end up with friends as well as flowers.

Begin With a Little Research

It is very easy to plant a flower garden without any money. All you need is patience and time. Start online by getting information on planning the type of bed you want (low maintenance, sunny, shady, for dry conditions, etc.). Make a list of the types of plants you want. Next sites on plant propagation. They will tell you how to get new plants from cuttings and divisions.

Now you just need a source. Walk around your neighborhood and community gardens looking for the plants you’ve identified. Ask if you can take a cutting or get a division in the fall or spring. Pachysandra spreads well from cuttings. Hostas need to be divided every two years in the spring. Forsythia grows by just sticking a cutting in the ground and watering it.

To find mature shrubs and trees, check craigslist and Freecycle.

Also, look out for people preparing to do construction work on their property. If trees or shrubs need to be removed; some folks will let you have them if you do the removal.

This time of year, some of the home centers and chain nurseries have “distressed” plants for pennies on the dollar. Be careful, some are truly dead while others are just neglected and need a bit of TLC. They’re often anxious to get rid of them and will give you a pile for even less than the price on the pot. (See 11 Ways To Save at Home Depot.)

Finally, don’t forget to collect seeds in the early fall. Marigolds grow easily from seeds and are easy to harvest. Many homeowners would probably be glad to let you have a few of the dried up heads full of seeds.

Reviewed August 2023

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