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HOMEGROWN: Find free plants in your garden


It always amazes me when I hear gardeners talk about the season winding down at the end of summer, the work load diminishing, the anticipation of an empty garden during the rainy season.

For me, it's just the opposite.

The lull came in summer, except for a few days when extra watering was needed. But now that we're facing autumn, the season is busily winding up again with clearing out tired growth, beefing up the compost pile, dividing and setting out new plants for a boost from winter rains.

With plant sales at nearly every nursery, ending in September or beginning in October, saving money encourages us to put in new plants.

But we can be even more economical by shopping in our own gardens.

Hellebores, euphorbias, clumps of liriope, society garlic (Tulbaghia), evergreen daylilies, and several other species that have expanded or reseeded themselves over the past few seasons are now eligible for moving around from where they sprouted or spread.

All are prime candidates for filling spaces left empty at year's end, and are especially useful in containers.

Since last fall, I've been enjoying such plants in a pair of 20-inch wide pots on the patio. Because these containers hadn't been reworked for two years, they needed new plants and a refreshed potting mix.

The urge to fix them came before I had fully planned a new composition, but I knew I wanted green fillers behind purple violas I had purchased, and I was confident I could find plants in my own garden to create a diverse yet harmonious grouping.

Container composition

Eye-catching arrangements of multiple species in containers generally depend on three elements: a tall grower, a broad mid-level filler, and a still-lower spiller.

I began with a six-pack of purple violas whose continuous blossoming lasted for nearly 8 months until all stems were cut back to the base — by deer! — in summer. These were the spillers and the only vulnerable species.

A one-gallon evergreen candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) from a plant sale filled one side of each pot while a purplish red seedling euphorbia (E. amygdaloides Purpurea) and a division of variegated lily turf (Liriope spicata Silver Dragon) from my own garden served as fillers on the opposite side.

Luckily, a group of bear's foot hellebores (H. foetidus) had self-sown in my garden the previous year, two large enough to work as the tall elements in each container.

Alternatively, I could have used an evergreen daylily for height and a filler of Mexican daisies (Erigeron karvinskianus), which self-sow with abandon and are in bloom nearly year-round.

The spiller could have been creeping thyme (T. serpyllum aka T. praecox), which annually spreads a wide carpet and can be easily divided, or possibly a layered section of rosemary (Rosmarinus) from one of my trailing plants.

I could have planned ahead and purchased euonymus Emerald Gaiety or a licorice plant (Helichrysum), both variegated trailing species; a lavender (Lavandula) or a lavender cotton (Santolina); an autumn sage (Salvia greggii) or a winter heath (Erica) as fillers — all usually found on sale in the fall.

Divide and conquer

Some candidates may elude you as useful in containers or for moving to new locations throughout your garden. They may have become too familiar over the years and appear as static, permanent fixtures.

But perennials that spread horizontally by roots or rhizomes and shrubs that layer and root as they grow can all be divided and become new attractions in your garden — free for the moving.

On the calendar

If you haven't marked Saturday, October 13 on your calendar, make a note now to attend the 41st annual CNPS (California Native Plant Society) plant sale on that day at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building across from the fairgrounds.

Sale hours run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., but diehards arrive early for the best selection. Options run from ground covers for shade such at creeping yerba buena (Satureja douglasii) — positively bulletproof under oaks, with no water after established — to a host of native salvias, irises, ceanothuses, monkey flowers (Mimulus) and many others, some well known, some unusual.

Trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, and seeds are featured, but you'll also find native plant books, posters, and tee shirts. Expert gardeners will be on hand to answer questions.

(Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.)