I have taken to ditch picking in order to expand my garden beds. Our gardening budget being approximately zero, I have had to become more inventive in my plant acquisition strategies. Where I once might have simply gone to a nursery and bought myself a shrub, I now salvage plants and accept a lot of castoffs from friends and freecycle.
Call it frugal, cheap, Yankee thrift, recycling, or theft, ditch picking can help your garden too, if you do it right. What is ditch picking? It’s keeping one’s eyes open for good plants languishing in roadside wastes, and transplanting them into your garden where they will obviously be happier. I have found sedums, day lilies, meadow rue, tons of ferns, and many hostas via ditch picking. Some have been from our very own roadside ditch, which is a nice way to start ditch picking if you’re nervous about absconding with plants. Even once you get comfortable with ditch picking, as with trash picking for furniture, you may feel rather furtive for a while. I still feel an urge to act casual when cars drive by as I’m ditch picking. As if anyone would believe I’m just hanging out behind a guardrail in a power line right of way with a shovel. Still, I try to look nonchalant. You may experience the same.
Despite this, f you would like to try augmenting your garden via this technique, here are my guidelines:
1) Make sure your target ditch is actually a roadside waste and not someone’s yard. It can be hard to tell the difference, at least in my neighborhood. But people here take private property very seriously. And they often have many guns.
2) Don’t take ALL of a particular plant. Plants stabilize the roadside and prevent erosion. If you depopulate an entire roadside slope of all its day lilies, you are being a jerk and despoiling the commons.
3) Make sure the lovely plant you found is not, in fact, an exotic invasive ruining the ecosystem. Many popular ornamentals are bad news and are very aggressive. They can destroy entire woodlands, meadows and other natural communities. Burning bush, purple loosestrife, Oriental bittersweet and Japanese barberry are all very common invasive species that people merrily plant in their yards. These are bad actors, and the state of Massachusetts has actually banned their sale at nurseries. I, of course, live in New Hampshire where everyone does whatever they want, so we have to be more vigilant about avoiding these plants.
4) Make sure the lovely plant you found is not itself, nor intertwined with, a noxious, poisonous weed. Virginia creeper, a very beautiful climbing vine, for instance, tends to grow tendril in tendril with Poison Ivy. You will be a sad ditch picker if you end up with a fulminating, pustular rash for the sake of free plants.
Regarding 4 and 5, if you are less than a horticultural expert, I highly recommend the site ProjectNoah.org where you can upload pictures of any living thing and have the general internet community help you identify it. So you can check if your target plant is poisonous or an alien invader. Project Noah is also great for animals, so if you are concerned about the insect you found in your bathtub, snap a picture of it and post it to Project Noah.
Happy gardening, and I’ll see you in the ditches!