We began dumpster-diver gardening sometime in the early 90's, when we came across a vendor at the Brooklyn Terminal Market tossing flats of slightly wilted bedding plants into the trash. Neither Wildgirl nor I were strangers to dumpster diving (a proud trash-picking tradition that is now fashionably know as "Freeganism"), and W.G. immediately hatched a plan for me to distract the shop owner by buying a bag of peat moss while she filled the trunk of her '74 Valiant with rescued greenery. "It wasn't so much about wanting the plants," she recalls- "It was about the waste. It was about the disposable society."
Fast-forward 10 years. We no longer live in New York. We have a small organic farm, and grow a lot of our own stuff. On a blistering July afternoon in Coralville, Iowa, I noticed one of the seasonal garden centers set up in a grocery store parking lot was breaking down for the season and again, they were dumpster-izing flat after flat of sad, leggy, brown and bolting tomato plants, squash, peppers, herbs, and flowers. A lot of the higher-priced organic and heirloom stuff was left behind. I took as much as the old Subaru GL would hold. What I have discovered in the last few years that throughout the Midwest (indeed, much of the country), is that huge numbers of plants get dumped, given away or sold for next to nothing sometime in the last part of June to first week of July. If timed properly, a pickup truck can be filled with blueberry bushes, roses, prairie plants, perennials, and lots and lots of vegetable plants for less than twenty bucks- often for nothing more than the price of gas. If you are a non-driver and really hard-core, you can do it with a cargo bike, shopping cart, hand truck, wheelbarrow or travois. The keys to success are timing, speed, and a modicum of stealth. Despite the fact that the stuff is being jettisoned, employees, particularly middle managers, can tend to flex-out on people who want their trash. In most cases, though, if you time your arrival properly, the peons who got exiled to the sweltering parking lot to haul the stuff to the dumpster are more than happy to have you lighten their load.
A lot of people like to get their gardens in early and planting in July just seems contrary to the American puritan work-ethic. What kind of deadbeat plants a garden in July? This is one of those great situations where being lazy pays off. Your neighbor the foodie-nazi paid 25 bucks for a few Green Zebra tomato plants - you are hauling in a dozen of them for free. If you absolutely must put something in early, you can start the season by tossing some brassica or greens seeds around, just to feel like you are doing something, and you will get some fresh greens to eat after the long winter. By July, your crop of mustard greens, radishes, lettuce or spinach has bolted, you have collected the seed for next year and turned the rest under, and you are ready for the flood of refugee plants.
In my experience, these stressed-out dumpster plants are often already flowering or even bearing fruit. They have been stuck in those pots for a long time, they have become root-bound and they think they are going to die, so they try to make seeds. Once their roots are unbound, they are ready to party! Placed in some decent soil with a little compost tea and lots of water, they come on remarkably fast, and generally produce vegetables only a few weeks behind schedule.
You don't need a huge space to grow your own food, and in the twilight of our empire, there are plenty of empty lots and abandoned properties that can benefit from some guerilla "foodscaping". If you are managing to hang on to your suburban dream-home, I'm bet you are ready to give up some lawn mowing and score some fresh produce from right outside your back door. After all, they don't call Whole Foods "Whole Paycheck" for nothing.
For those working in a very small plot (and even those with more space) I suggest that you find a copy of John Jeavons' classic book " How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine." This book is the bible of "companion planting" or "bio-intensive techniques" and explains what kinds of plants can share space, allowing you to double or triple your food production per square foot.
Some issues have come up over the years of dumpster-diver gardening. Garden center plants are often hybrid varieties, non-organically raised in industrial facilities and after being stressed in poor growing conditions, they can carry pests, fungi or plant diseases. You do need to know what to look for and what to pass up. Also, seeds from hybrid varieties, if saved, may not produce the same plants next year. In some cases this can be fun- we have the weirdest assortment of winter squash growing from years of genetic roulette and cross-pollination.
Regardless of the modest risk, the benefit is huge. Summer is still young- get out there and start diving.