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Plant Propagation

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I started Fiddlehead Nursery knowing very little about how to run a nursery.  I’d been experimenting with edible perennials in my small urban lot in Guelph, and found it difficult to locate a lot of the plants that might work well in this climate.  Naturally, dreams of starting a nursery began to materialize.  Before I knew what I was doing, I bought a farm and was knocking on the door of the nearest plant nursery, the Beaver Valley Flower Farm.  The proprietor, Anastasia Sparling, a diminutive, spry, 60s-something woman with a glint in her eye, spied an earnest greenhorn and took me under her wing.  My plan was to buy plug trays from Richters, and berry bushes and fruit trees from wholesale nurseries; plant some of everything, sell the rest, and propagate from the plants in the ground.  My plan has worked, more or less, with lots of help from Anastasia and hours of reading online and in books.

This is how my nursery runs now: I buy fruit trees  from a very good organic grower, Silver Creek Nursery, near me.  I buy some berry bushes from a few large wholesaler nurseries.  And I’m propagating all of my herbaceous perennials, either by division, cuttings, or seed, and some of my berry bushes from hardwood and softwood cuttings.  I quickly realized that I didn’t have the resources to set up a grafting operation, so I decided to concentrate on the smaller plants that were less-widely available.

I’m always collecting seeds of whichever plant is willing to produce them.  Plants produce thousands of seeds, generally.  Nature is nothing if not prolific.  The key to germinating perennial seeds is to stratify them.  Most perennial seeds need to go through a period of cold, moist conditions before they’ll germinate.  This is to ensure that they’ll germinate in the spring, with a long growing season ahead of them.  Stratification mimics the winter.  I’ve always stratified my seeds by placing them into some moist sand in zip-lock bags and putting them into the fridge for about 3 months.  I write the name of the plant and the date with a Sharpie on the bag.  I do this around mid-January.  By mid-April, the seeds are ready to be warmed up.  I sow them into plug trays and keep them under lights, indoors.  I’ve started using a heating pad to warm them up, which helps with germination (although they can’t be allowed to dry out).

This method works for the vast majority of perennial herbs; some require other special treatments, such as the removal or penetration of a hard seed coat, but for the most part, perennials respond very well to three months of moist and cold conditions.  However, I’ve had some seeds that wouldn’t germinate, even after the cold period.  So this year I’ve stratified some seeds by a different method: sowing them into a mixture of sand and peat in pots and leaving them outside for the winter.  This gives them a wider range of temperature fluctuations.  This fall I split each batch of seeds into two, and put half in the fridge and half outside, in order to hedge my bets.  Having two different batches of seeds nearly guarantees that at least one will work out (at least that’s the theory).

I also divide perennials, which takes some work but yields impressive results.  Dig out a three-year-old daylily and you can easily divide it into ten to fifteen plants.  Sorrel: at least four plants.  You can divide a mature rhubarb plant into 15 plants easily.  Only certain plants do well with division, but those that do are very easy to propagate.

I’ve experimented over the years with hardwood cuttings.  Some plants, such as black currants, are notoriously easy to propagate via hardwood cuttings.  This is the method wherein you essentially cut a dormant branch off a shrub or tree, stick 2/3 of it in the ground, and wait until spring when it sprouts roots.  Couldn’t be easier, right?  Well, not if you have heavy clay soil.  The soil on my farm is really very heavy, and holds moisture exceedingly well.  This causes the cuttings to rot before they can sprout roots.  So this year I built raised beds and filled them with sand.  I stuck a bunch of cuttings in them, and they should root in the spring.  Time will tell.

The last method I practice regularly is the rooting of greenwood cuttings.  These are the soft, growing tips of branches, which need to be stripped of all but about 1″ square of leaf and kept humid for two to four weeks while the roots develop.  This method is more challenging than hardwood cutting propagation, but it’s a good way to increase stock quickly.  I built a humidity tent in my greenhouse, which works reasonably well for this purpose.  It’s a wooden frame covered in 6mil poly, with a roll-up sheet in front.  On top there’s a layer of white row cover for shade.  I use a spray bottle to spray the cuttings with a fine mist of water two or three times a day (given the temperature in the tent), and keep them moist but not soaking.

Propagating plants is the only way to make an edible landscape on a budget.  But it’s also a very rewarding enterprise.  Once you have one plant, you can get hundreds in a short period of time with a little knowledge, a bit of patience, and a touch of faith in the miracle of life.