Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
February, 2004
Regional Report

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Rescued from the dumpster, this ficus tree graces the entrance of my office building.

Dumpster Treasures

I confess that I am an unreformed dumpster diver. More than one of my favorite indoor plants have been rescued from the garbage. You know the old saying, one man's trash is another man's treasure? Well it's true. I have successfully rescued leafless fig trees (Ficus benjamina), brown bedding plants, and bald Boston ferns from that great dumpster in the sky. I feel it's my duty to come to their rescue, especially if the previous owners don't mind.

It's not just store dumpsters that I frequent. Apartment buildings usually have an area set aside for rubbish where unwanted -- and unlovely -- plants end up after their owners have moved on to other digs. I actually learned this technique from my grandmother, who hung out at the back of grocery stores to scavenge wilted produce for her hundreds of birds. She was never too proud to pick up floppy carrots, wilted lettuces, and spongy apples. Her birds seemed to thrive on her gleanings.

These days, grocery stores no longer allow people to rummage through their trash, but if you are lucky enough to have a big nursery or a home center near you, you will be amazed at what they throw out.

Always check with someone before you actually remove a plant from the premises. I don't want you to wind up in jail on my advice. Here are some tips for bringing unwanted plants home:

Bringing Plants Back From the Almost Dead
1. They must be isolated for at least two weeks. There was a good reason why they were thrown away, and if it was insect pests, you don't want to infest your other plants.

2. Water immediately. I have found that the lucky survivors are nearly always thirsty. I usually soak my potted plants in a basin of water. I find that if the soil has dried to the point of pulling away from the sides of the pot, soaking is the only way to wet the entire root ball. If the leaves are really desiccated, you may need to house the plants in a makeshift greenhouse for a week or more to rehydrate the foliage.

3. Give the orphan plants a bath. You can even use soapy water if you like, it won't hurt and may even dislodge any insect pests. I use a hand sprayer filled with soapy water to spritz both sides of the leaves, then rinse with water from a hose. Make sure to wash the pot, too; a stiff brush works well for both plastic and terra cotta pots.

4. Remove any dead or injured limbs and foliage. Grooming will make you feel better about your new acquisition and certainly won't hurt the plant. The less damaged foliage the roots have to support, the faster the plant will revive. Most discarded bedding plants will survive a severe haircut, and with a little loving care they'll spring back to life.

5. Apply no fertilizer until you begin to see new growth. You wouldn't want to eat a huge meal if you were feeling sick, and neither does a plant.

6. Repot if necessary. Sometimes the soil has loosened from the sides of the pot if the toss into the dumpster was rough.

I have been known to toss a few plants myself. When I worked for Sunset magazine, we would toss every single poinsettia at the end of the holiday season. I confess, that was one plant I was glad to see go.

Most importantly, don't expect miracles right away. These plants will need some tender loving care to look their best, and remember: You always get what you pay for.

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