How to Salvage Native Plants for Your Property
Finding native plants for your property can be challenging and expensive. A great way to get them for free is to salvage native plants growing wild. But if you’re not careful, doing this can harm natural habitats, which is counter to the goal of cultivating abundance for people, plants and animals. Let’s dive into how you can salvage native plants responsibly.
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When you go out to salvage native plants, you’re taking them from where they’re growing wild and bringing them back to your property.
This means finding them, digging them up, transporting them back to your property and planting them.
But removing native plants from natural areas can result in the destruction of those places. You can’t cultivate abundance for people, plants and wildlife if you're destroying natural areas in the process.
Luckily, there are ways to salvage native plants without causing damage to our living world. Let’s dive into where you can salvage native plants responsibly.
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But before we do, you’ll need to have a way to keep track of all the plants you want to salvage. Get your free Native Plant Tracker so you can keep track of the native plants you want for your property.
How to Salvage Native Plants Responsibly
The most responsible way to salvage native plants is to find areas that are already facing disturbance or destruction.
One of the easiest places to find are along roads.
These areas are mowed or otherwise damaged on a regular basis, making it generally fine to salvage native plants growing in these areas.
Even though these areas are generally publicly owned, you will still want to check with the adjacent landowner to make sure they’re okay with you taking those plants.
Plants growing along the roads will likely be small seedlings. You can either plant these seedlings directly on your land or pot them up and let them grow for a year or 2. Either approach can be successful.
Don’t forget to check areas along your driveway and the edges of your own property if it’s bordered by a road. This way you won’t have to worry about getting approval from adjacent landowners.
The edges of trails through natural areas are also an option. Trails are often managed by cutting back vegetation along the edges. This keeps the trails open for public use but also result in native plants being cut down.
Check with the owner of the land the trail goes through before salvaging native plants from the edges of trails. But assuming you get permission, these can be great spots for salvaging native plants.
Another option is to look for land that is slated for development. This might be large-scale construction of houses or commercial buildings. But it might also be you or your neighbor building a new shed, barn or other structure. Or perhaps putting in a septic drain field.
Often development sites will have signs posted on the edge notifying the public of the planned work. When you see these signs next to natural areas, consider reaching out to the owner and ask if you can salvage native plants from the site before the work starts.
If it’s your own land, you can just check for native plants before you start your work.
Habitat loss is a major problem worldwide. And if you can salvage native plants from sites before they’re developed, you can at least save a bit of the life from these places. But you also need to know how to salvage native plants once you find them.
The Basics of How to Salvage Native Plants
Successfully salvaging native plants can be a challenge. These plants are growing wild and really don’t want to be dug up and moved somewhere else.
Since they grew from seed, even small plants will likely have larger root systems then you might expect.
This leads us to the first tip to salvage native plants successfully: go for small plants over big ones whenever possible.
When you dig up a small plant, you can make sure there are plenty of roots compared to the top growth. I would rather have a big bundle of roots that dwarfs the above-ground portion of the plant than the opposite.
Dig nice big holes around the plant you want to salvage. Make your holes at least twice the size as the plant is tall. This is another reason to go for smaller plants!
You will need containers to put your salvaged native plants in for transport. Instead of potting them up individually at the site, bring large containers that can hold multiple plants at once. Grow bags with handles are a great option, but large pots and 5-gallon buckets also work.
The next thing to know about salvaging native plants is when to do it. Digging up a plant in the middle of summer likely won’t work. This isn’t just due to the heat—when a plant is actively growing, it won’t handle being dug up very well.
Instead, salvage native plants when they’re dormant. This will be in mid to late fall and early to mid-winter.
Depending on how cold your area’s winters are, some plants may start to show signs of life in late winter. These can still be salvaged but it’s better to get them while they’re still fully dormant.
This takes us to the next tip. Plant the salvaged native plants as quickly as possible. It’s best to plant the plants the same day you got them.
This means planting them in the ground in their final place or potting them up to let them grow more. Either way you will want to salvage the native plants while they’re dormant and then get them planted right away.
Exposed roots dry out quickly, which will kill your salvaged native plant.
The soil may fall away from the plants you’re salvaging. If this happens, put the plant in a pot or other container temporarily and add fallen leaves or moss around the roots to help keep them from drying out.
You will also need to learn which native plants are a challenge to salvage. Often these are plants with a big taproot and plants that spread by rhizomes. In both cases, it can be a challenge to get enough roots to support the above-ground growth.
Often the roots of these plants will get broken when you dig them up, making them unlikely to survive.
Plants with fibrous roots are the easiest to successfully salvage.
On your native plant tracker, (see the widget at the top right side of this page to get yours,) highlight native plants that you’ve had success salvaging. This will help you keep track of which native plants are relatively easy to salvage.
Other Options – Taking Cuttings and Seeds
If you follow the above advice, you will be able to salvage native plants successfully and responsibly. But there is another option you should consider.
That is taking cuttings and seeds from native plants instead of digging them up. Since the original plant remains, you can reduce your impact.
This of course isn’t relevant at sites where all native plants will be cleared to make way for development.
But even in those cases, collecting seeds and cuttings can be a way to salvage native plants during seasons when the plants aren’t dormant.
If you’re collecting seeds, make sure to take no more than 5% of the seeds for that species of native plant found in that area. Seeds provide food for wildlife, and they also keep the natural cycle of regrowth going. By only taking 5% or less, you ensure you don’t harm the local environment.
If you’re taking cuttings of native plants, it’s best to stick to areas where the plants will be cut back, such as along roads and trails. Otherwise, aim to take no more than 5% of any one plant so it can easily regrow. You can take more than 5% from plants along roads and trails if your sure they will be cut back or removed later anyways.
Avoid taking cuttings and seeds from rare plants, and avoid collecting from sensitive habitat. These plants and sensitive habitats are less likely to be able to recover from your activities. Focus on plants that are abundant in the area you’re collecting from.
The downside of taking cuttings and seeds is that you will need to propagate them. Here are some resources for growing native plants from cuttings and seeds.
- How to Grow Natives From Seed – Wild Seed Project
- Growing Native Plants from Seed – Rhode Island Wild Plant Society
- How to Propagate Plants from Stem Cuttings and Save Lots of Money – Morning Chores
- How to Use Live Stakes to Get Free Plants – Growing with Nature
Whether you salvage native plants directly or collect seeds and cuttings, this is a great way to get native plants for your property.
As long as you follow the guidelines outlined in this post, so you do so responsibly.
I’ve gotten a lot of native plants by salvaging them from development sites and from along trails and roads. I want to give a shoutout to a fantastic group here in the Olympia, Washington area that runs native plant salvage events every February and March.
They also help people set up waterwise landscaping, and they promote the use of native plants for use in landscaping.
The group is called the Native Plant Salvage Foundation. If you live nearby, please consider checking this group out. And perhaps I’ll see you at the next salvage event!
And if you’ve already salvaged native plants for your property, please share your experience in the comments below!
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