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.