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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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The Elephant in the Garden Room

Gardening is not an equal opportunity hobby. Perennials, roses, rhododendrons and flowering shrubs can be costly to some, yet inconsequentially inexpensive to others. In some countries, even organic-rich black earth is considered a luxury.

When I first began gardening, beautiful plants were available only by mail order. Each season, I would budget for plants a portion of the college money that I had earned during the previous summer. Because these funds had to underwrite an entire year of school, the amount I spent on gardening was modest. As a result, the number of perennials that I was able to add  to my garden each season was paltry.

Occasionally, a neighbor would give me a cutting of a perennial, but since city gardeners in those days knew of only twelve perennials, flowerbeds were uninspiring without supplementary mail order plants. Later in life, when gardening became a second career, I was able to comfortably buy plants to my heart’s content because I now shopped wholesale, But until then, all garden purchases had been measured and re considered, ensuring  that my resources were wisely spent.

The other option that was always available was growing plants from seed. However, urban living in a crowded, central-heated home, in a cold climate, did not offer the appropriate physical environment for the successful germination of seeds.

Ordering expensive plants by mail was the only way that I, and most other people, could expand our flowerbeds. That option remained constant until the arrival of two commercial phenomena that changed the way ordinary people gardened.

The combination of the credit card and the big box store brought ornamental gardening to those with limited resources. All that was required was to select a desirable object, place it in a shopping cart, and pay an ostensibly modest, but deceptively high, monthly charge to the credit card company.

Big box stores also brought seemingly affordable and eye catching horticultural products to the mass market. By displaying temptingly, blooming plants to a consumer who had arrived to buy light bulbs, these behemoth retailers instantly, turned unsuspecting do-it-yourselfers into gardeners, and a new target market of gardener-consumer was born.

This historical commercial development deflects the fact that without the generosity of others who offer free plant cuttings, and without the opportunity or time to grow perennials from seed, ornamental gardening remains - in real dollars - an expensive hobby for a sizeable portion of the population.

Publishers and writers never acknowledge this enormous elephant in the room – the fact that some gardeners can’t afford to buy the plants we write about. We discuss “how-to”, and “what is new”; often we recommend spending more than necessary because a costlier plant will yield out-of-proportionally spectacular results -  for only a few dollars more  In our sincerity and zeal to share all of our best gardening tips with as many people as possible, sometimes we forget that our advice is not appropriate for all gardeners.

That is because ornamental gardening crosses socioeconomic lines; it gives pleasure to everyone, regardless of one’s station in life. Consequently, there will always be some, desiring to recreate that pleasure in their own back yard, who will find themselves hard pressed to allocate finite resources to infinite garden dreams.

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Reader Comments (2)

haha. My favorite is 'plant in drifts'.
a.k.a. buy one, and if it doesn't die the first year, spend the next five painstakingly taking cuttings and trying to get it to increase to drift size.

I DO like how mail order gardening has opened up the possibility of buying woody plants as tiny, shippable one or two year old starts rather than the multi-gallon behemoths you see in stores. It really opens up the selection of trees for someone on a budget.

October 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterplantingoaks

Wow, I can totally relate to this. Growing up, my family was very had no money to spare for plants that didn't produce food in some way. I'd scrimp and save for any plants (even seeds were precious to me). I remember a few times buying one of those bare-root daylilies at a store (probably K-Mart...couldn't afford going to garden centers). It barely lived past the summer and I was was only $6 or $7, but it might as well have been a small fortune. I devoured gardening books at our locala library and was an avid viwer of The Victory Garden...but could only dream of such seemed an almost impossible aspiration...such wealth! I remember getting plants from relatives and being absolutely thrilled by the simplest of plants (Asters, Tiger Lilies, Hostas). I consider myself very lucky today to be able to buy plants I want...sometimes on a whim, but I think I appreciate it all the more for NOT being able to originally. As a result, I love being able to share with has only to mention they like something and I'll take a cutting, dig up a division, or offer seed...I remember how amazing of a gift I thought those were when I was younger. Again, thank you for this's good to remember where we came from...and that there are always others who can't take for granted the things we do.

October 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott Weber

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