Most Christmases for the past few years, I’ve ‘manufactured’ one gift and given it to everyone. I’ve grown and manicured bushes of mini basil; mixed healing balms from plants collected off our property; and this year I made a dozen rosemary and garlic salt shakers.
But in mid-December I also had this random idea. It was a quiet moment of inspiration that spun into something really quite special. You see, I have a lot of plants. So many plants. Plenty to spare, including some very cool ones.
Our Christmas was going to see us travel to visit both our immediate families, and it wouldn’t be much trouble to drop in on some friends along the way.
I thought about how I have all these plants I was happy to share. And while I had an idea of who might like what, what I really wanted to do was offer people some choices.
I thought about ‘little free libraries’ set up by book lovers, and I ended up at the idea of a ‘little free garden centre’. The twist was it would live in the back of my car.
Pull up, open the boot, and let people choose a couple of plants from my collection. Like if Mrs Claus was a plant lady dressed in bright yellow.
Any plant person knows transporting plants can be difficult. The floors of my car are regularly covered in dirt, bark, sometimes stones. Transporting a garden centre – even a miniature one – could mean quite a mess!
Because I am a messy plant lady, our car has a permanent plastic boot liner. I wasn’t worried about water, but I was worried about keeping the plants upright.
Over winter, I’d managed to snag a pile of plant trays after a neighbour did some native revegetation work. I noticed one tray in particular was exactly the right size to hold a 1 litre pot. Anything between that and a 9cm pot would be held quite securely, even with the twists and turns on the road.
Each tray held 8 plants, and it turned out my boot held 6 trays perfectly. My mobile garden centre could stock 48 plants.
Choosing the plants
By the time my idea had started moving into reality, I was about a week out from Christmas. I couldn’t grow anything specifically for this project, I had to work with what I already had.
In the end, I settled on three categories: edibles, natives, and succulents.
In edibles, I had taro, horseradish, rosemary, and red pineapple. I also had a few chitted agria seed potatoes that needed planting, so I filled a couple of spots with bags of those too.
The natives were all sourced from the bush on our property. I either raised them from seed or rescued them from the driveway where they germinated. I had taraire, puriri, tōtara, and kānuka.
And in succulents there were a couple of echaverias, jade, haworthia, aloe vera, and vicks plant.
Many of the plants were ready to go without much work beyond a little weeding. A few needed dividing or re-potting. But finding 48 plants didn’t make much of a dent in my overall plant collection at all.
Of course, this is a Christmas thing. The plants are gifts. Rather than just turning up with a few plants in the boot, I wanted to show up with a garden centre. I needed decor.
So I hit our local dollar store and found some nice “bushy” tinsel, and a couple of glittery bows. Then I found USB-powered Christmas tree lights. There’s a 9v outlet in the boot of our car I’d always found amusing because I didn’t think I’d ever have a use for it. But here was my use!
I printed a wee sign and pinned it to the back seat, whipped up a Christmas playlist to add some atmosphere, and boom! Kat’s Little Free Mobile Garden Centre was born!
In the end, we didn’t really need rules. People were pretty considerate of the fact there were other people to visit. And no-one really missed out on a choice. But I did write some rules before I knew that.
They were simply that each person could take up to two plants, but only one of any species.
I had between 2 and 4 plants of each, and a few stops to make. I wanted to keep a selection for as long as possible while still allowing people to help themselves. They did that pretty naturally in the end.
I also made a poster with the plant care instructions – you can see a PDF here. Ultimately most people just asked me about the plants, and like a good plant centre lady, I told them everything they needed to know and helped them chose something right for them.
I almost never pay for pots. I recycle and hoarde them. So they were free.
I’ve definitely paid for potting mix in most of the pots, but I used less than 1/4 of a bag specifically working on this project.
I spent $8.98 on a packet of 50 reusable plastic labels, and $12 on Christmas decorations.
Overall budget, about $25.
How it worked out
I did a ‘dry run’ when Richard’s mum and step-dad showed up for a visit a couple of days before Christmas. I set up the car and let them take first pick. They chose a vicks plant and some potatoes, which I replaced again before the big day.
Asking people to “come out to the car for the other bit of their gift” was a bit awkward. People are naturally wary of being lured to someone’s boot. Fair enough.
No-one knew what to expect and we had some interesting first thoughts. No-one guessed I had a garden centre in the trunk though.
Most people asked “if I was sure”. Yes, I was sure. There was plenty of everything I had on offer still at home, and it was really wonderful to see people I love so excited about something new to grow.
Everyone seemed absolutely tickled with their choices. Vicks plant was pretty popular, which isn’t surprising as it’s unusual and almost impossible to kill. I maintain that every household should have at least one aloe and I’m glad to have added it to a couple. I “sold out” of the haworthia, puriri, and ‘topsy turvy’ echevaria.
6 native trees were taken – and hopefully will make it into the ground to grow big in their new homes. I’m particularly happy about that.
A very merry Christmas
I loved doing this. While I haven’t been a ‘garden center lady’ for a few months now, there were parts of that job I genuinely loved. Doing this gave me the chance to have that feeling back again.
I loved looking after plants and making them look great. Watching and helping people discover those plants and fall in love with them filled me with a sense of joy. I loved watching plants walk out the door and imagining them as trees, or providing food, habitat, or simply making someone happy.
I miss that, and my mobile garden centre bought some of the best feelings about the job back. I’m already thinking about next year. Most of the people we’ll be seeing will be the same, so I’ll have to come up with some new surprises.
This whole thing came together in the week leading up to Christmas. For Christmas 2022, I have way more time to grow even more interesting things.
Not only that, but there are all kinds of plant people out there who could be inspired by this idea. If you’re one of them, feel free to take it and run. You’ve got a year – get growing!