How to Get Free Trees and Plants
Homeowners in the US spend about $500 a year at garden centers to help beautify their lawns and backyards. While it's cheaper than a lot of large renovations, that price can be daunting when you're first starting out.
Plants and trees are expensive. A cart of annuals, ten perennials, one tree, garden soil, compost, and mulch is all it takes to max out budgets, and most yards need at least that amount of dirt and greenery to start making a dent in the landscape.
If you don't have the funds or simply want alternatives, this article will go over how to get free trees and plants. Not only will it save you money, these ideas will also help you find native species that will thrive in your yard.
Local Tree Programs
One of the best ways to get free trees is to check for any local or state-sponsored tree programs in your area. You'd be surprised to know that there are lots of ways to get free trees from municipal programs across the country.
Some of them are open to any residents with few restrictions, whereas other programs have specific requirements. For example, right now third graders in New Jersey are entitled to a free seedling.
If you live in Seattle, "Trees for Neighborhoods" has been giving out free trees to residents for almost fifteen years. This program will also help you choose the best planting site, and monitor the tree's health for the first few years. Check out their website for ways to apply, and to see what's available.
The city of Portland, Oregon is giving out free trees to residents via their "Urban Forestry" program. Every residence is entitled to two free trees to be planted on their property.
Some other cities with free tree programs are Austin, Arlington, Los Angeles, and Orlando, or if you live in New York State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Idaho, or Maryland. Just because you didn't see your city or state on this list doesn't mean there isn't a free tree program, though.
Check your local parks and forest website to see if there are any free tree events, or simply search for free trees in your city or state to see what comes up. These kinds of events are especially popular around Arbor Day.
Arbor Day Membership
Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Friday of April each year, and it's a great reminder to plant a tree or support organizations that are focused on our country's trees.
An Arbor Day Foundation membership will not only support the privately-run organization, it also entitles you to free trees! Membership is as low as a one-time donation of $10, but you can also give more, or choose a monthly donation cycle depending on your financial ability.
The membership includes ten free trees as a gift to plant in your own yard or to plant in local forests or woodlands in connection with one of their planting partners. You'll also get a subscription to their monthly newsletter, a tree planting and care guide, as well as discounts to the online tree and shrub nursery.
While this technically means you're paying $1 a tree, that's very close to free! It also supports an excellent organization, and you know the trees will be healthy, native species meant specifically for your growing zone.
National Wildlife Federation
The National Wildlife Federation is an excellent resource for many reasons, but it also gives out free trees! This isn't for homeowners looking for trees, but saplings are available via application to anyone who wants to plant as part of a restoration or teaching event.
This is a great way to get students involved in planting and taking care of native trees, and also helps provide particular communities with free trees through giveaway events.
Simply click on the "Request Trees" section on their website to apply, but note that applications are closed for the 2023 season and will re-open later on in the year for 2024.
If local programs and Arbor Day events don't get you what you're looking for, there's always the free market on the world wide web. Many homeowners are getting rid of trees, plants, or even seeds and cuttings for free.
If someone is cutting down their tree, you may be able to get a cutting or collect some seeds before it's taken away. Sometimes folks are just generous and want to share their plants if they have too many.
Check out Craiglist, Kijiji, and Facebook marketplace, as well as Freecycle, which is specifically a website for getting free stuff. OfferUp is a new site where locals exchange different items, and you never know who might have a tree or plant with your name on it.
Another great way to get free trees and plants is to join local garden groups and wait for annual plant swaps. Most groups are led by experts and have a focus on local and native species, meaning you can get a tree or plant that you know will thrive in your climate.
You may be able to show up empty handed if you're just starting out, but look around your garden and see if there is something you can share and swap, as well. This will increase your chances of getting a successful swap, and up your cred with the group.
If you can't find a plant swap in your area, try starting an event yourself. There's more than enough gardeners in any city or region who will happily attend these events, and a page can easily be made on any social media site.
Divide Your Perennials
Many common backyard perennials can be divided after only a couple of years, which means you get a whole new plant, or possibly more. Some of the best perennials for division are hostas, lilies, bearded iris, bee balm, coneflower, yarrow, and black-eyed Susans.
Not all plants want to be divided in the same way, and the best results will depend on their root systems, as these are what you need to pry apart to make new plants. Some are easy as cutting stems off and re-planting, whereas others have to be dug up and divided from the root ball.
This is a great way to have some stock to share at plant swaps. While some of the more common plants are usually available in abundance (like hostas and lilies), try to share some species that aren't as easily obtained if you have them.
Propagate Trees From Cuttings
While this process requires some patience and a little gardening prowess, there are many trees that you can grow for free from a simple cutting. Many hardwood and softwood trees can be grown from cuttings, as well as most fruit and nut trees.
Not all trees can be propagated successfully from cuttings, but there are several varieties that are more successfully grown from just a small stem. Willows, elms, dogwoods, birches, crape myrtles, forsythias, and many fruit trees like cherry, apple, elderberry, and pear are all good choices for rooting from cuttings.
Take a look around your neighborhood or your own yard and see what trees are there. Research the variety to see if the tree is recommended for propagating through cuttings or if other methods are recommended.
Propagate Trees From Seeds
Propagation from seeds is often more successful than cuttings, but this also depends on the species. Seeds take some time and work to prepare them for germination, and usually require both scarification and cold stratification.
If you're up for the challenge, seeds are free, and you can easily collect enough of whatever species you'd like to plant. Just remember that trees grown from seeds may not be exact replicas of the parent plant.
This is the case for many fruit trees, and many people are disappointed that the seed they planted isn't exactly like the tree it came from. Seeds are made from sexual reproduction, so they include two sets of genes.
If you're looking to clone a tree, grafting or growing from cuttings is the way to go. These methods use asexual techniques that will grow an exact replica of the parent tree.
Some seeds have a better chance of becoming "true to seed" if the tree is self-pollinating, or has been bred to achieve desired results from their seeds. This isn't as important for non-fruiting trees, and many flowering or foliage trees are good candidates for seed-propagation methods.
Seed Swaps and Seed Libraries
Just as there are local plant swaps, there are also local seed swaps. This requires you to have some seeds to share, as well, but newcomers may be allowed to participate empty-handed.
If you know what trees and plants you want or are looking for ideas, these can be great ways to connect with local gardeners who can impart their knowledge.
Seed exchange websites are also excellent resources for finding and sharing seeds. Check out seedsavers.org, where you can sign up for free and have a good chance at finding rare species.
The group's focus is promoting biodiversity and supporting local ecosystems. Check out Houzz seed exchange, as well.
Seed libraries can be personal collections from individual gardens, or they may be collected and stored by a group. If you have beloved plants and trees, start your own seed collection process and consider starting a personal seed library that you can use year after year, and share with others.
Some municipalities offer seed libraries through the actual library, and allow people to use it for free. Other public seed libraries may be used for a fee, so check your regional offerings first.
Check Your Yard
You may very well have many free trees and plants just waiting to be planted in your very own backyard! Wind and pollinators are notorious for bringing seeds to odd places.
Birds and squirrels often plant things unknowingly after consuming fruit, nuts, or seeds, and then planting them via excrement, or through the initial digging process (squirrels are forgetful!).
The wind will also blow seeds into your yard, and if the conditions are right, a young tree may start growing. Learn to transplant them to a permanent location instead of letting them grow willy-nilly.
Also, get to know "weed trees," which are often non-native species that spread and take up residence more easily than native species. These trees then outcompete native cultivars and may also pose problems for your backyard's microclimate.
Some native trees like black locusts are also considered invasive, so get to know all of the problematic species. Others include Norway maples, tree of heaven, white mulberry, autumn olive, buckthorn, black alder, and white poplars.
Promotional Trees and Plants
Big box hardware stores and nurseries will sometimes give away promotional trees or plants in conjunction with a holiday, or on Arbor Day and Earth Day. Subscribe to the newsletter or flyer to keep up on any free giveaways, and at the same time, you'll also get notified of any big sales.
Every garden center and nursery will have a clearance rack full of plants and trees by early summer, either making way for new stock, or culling plants that aren't in perfect shape.
If some of the plants have seen better days, but you know they're viable, you may be able to take them away for free. A manager may just want them gone, so it doesn't hurt to ask, especially if you're buying other items.
Or, make them an offer they can't refuse. Ten bucks for a tray full of clearance plants can be all they need to offload some unwanted stock that still has life in it.
This may be slightly more daunting than finding free trees and plants other ways, but if you see a construction company that's just setting up shop, ask what their plans are for the trees or perennials that they may be paving over.
You might not be able to get a big tree, but they may allow you to scrounge around for seeds and take cuttings. Any perennial flowers or shrubs may also be fair game; it doesn't hurt to ask!
Always get permission, however, as taking plants and trees off any site, even if it looks deserted, may be considered theft or even trespassing.
While a trip to the garden center or local nursery is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, it can also be hard on your wallet.
Plants and trees are lovely ways to add value to your home while providing a respite for you and your family to enjoy the outdoors, but if you don't have the budget for gardening this year, there are many ways to get free trees and plants.
You might have to do a little more "digging around", but most gardeners don't mind getting their hands dirty for free plants and trees.