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Plant Propagation

Tips & Trivia

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If you save seeds to plant, make sure they are from "open pollinated" or "antique" varieties. Otherwisw you may get an unpleasant surprise.

Plants such as zinnias and tomatoes  are "hybrids", meaning it took the crossing of 2 varieties to make. If you save and plant the seed, you are likely to get Grampy, not Grandson.

There are four basic ways to propagate a plant: By seed ; by cutting ; by splitting ; and, by grafting. Most of our vegetables and flowers are propagated by seeds or cuttings. Most fruit and nut tress are propagated by grafting, where one wants a particular root stock on a tree. Grafting is relatively complicated, and we're just going to leave it alone.

Planting Seeds
Some seeds can be sown directly into the garden (dill, marigolds, beans) and some really benefit from starting indoors with proper humidity, heat, and light. A lot of vegetables benefit from this treatment (peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, any that require a longer warm season) but root vegetables don't because they don't like to be transplanted. Flower seeds such as geraniums and petunias also like to be started early.

When starting seeds inside you need something to plant then in that is relatively shallow, like a 6 or 9 cell unit, sterile growing medium (available at most nurseries and big box stores), a tray to set the cell units in for bottom watering, and a source of heat until the seeds germinate (an old heating pad or the top of a refrigerator).

Transplanted Rosemary

When roots start to appear out the bottom of the cell, it's time to transplant. If the weather allows, they can be moved directly to the garden, otherwise transplant to a slightly larger pot. Don't put a seedling in a gallon pot, they get lonely and die.


One of our favorite greenhouses is a 2 liter clear plastic soda bottle. Cut off the bottom and place over your newly planted pot. Use the cap as a vent. It's an amazing thing.

For larger areas, how about one of those aluminum foil cookie tins from the grocery store that has a clear top? Yes, that'll do.

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Plant your seeds at a depth of twice the seed's diameter. This is easy with pepper, squash, and larger seeds. If you have small, fine seeds like parsley and basil, just sprinkle the seeds as thinly as you can on top of the moist medium and press lightly with your finger. This is sufficient to get the contact necessary for seed germination.

We use domes over our seed trays until the plants come up. This isn't absolutely necessary, but it helps to keep the humidity even; you don't want the soil to dry out and crust over. The domes came as covers for our seed trays, but you can use clear plastic bags raised off the soil surface with popsicle sticks, or take a look at the tips for some other ideas.

Once your seedlings germinate, take all the covers off and water from the bottom only. This helps prevent damping off (see tips to the right).

Now comes the tough part: you have to thin your seeds. You'll probably have 5 or 6 seedlings to a cell and you have to get rid of some. If they're small, you can pull them out with tweezers. If they are larger, you may be able to gently lift, separate, and replant the thinnings. This has to be done or they all would crowd each other to death!

Starting Seeds Indoors. Note shallow containers and lights

A cutting is simply a branch of a plant that is cut off, put in a growing medium until roots form, and then planted. Cuttings were the traditional way to get plants to the "new world" and then to the frontier. Rose cuttings, pieces of berry bushes, and favorite flowers came on wagon trains, carefully wrapped and preserved. Until the new homestead was reached.

Most cuttings are taken in the spring, just as new leaves start to appear as little bumps on the mother plant. Use sharp pruners and plunge the cutting into a bucket of water (rainwater preferred). The water, in somae cases, prevents the cells from closing and limiting water uptake, and in all cases keeps the cutting hydrated until you can deal with it

"Damping Off"

"Damping off" is a fungal disease that causes the seedling stem to darken and get "pinched" looking at the soil level,then the plant falls over and dies.

A very gentle fungicide of 1 tsp. of baking soda in 1 pint of water can gently be sprayed on the seedlings to help prevent damping off.

Take cuttings as early in the morning as possible and then keep them in water until you can get them into the rooting medium. Then keep them out of direct light and wind.

Rooting medium for roses is a mixture of perlite and vermiculite, well dampened and under a dome (see "Greenhouse" in the tips box). For basil and rosemary, a glass of rainwater changed every 2-3 days will do. What you use depends on what you are propagating. If you are interested in a particular plant, you can contact us by clicking the email icon, do a web search, or both.


Cloning isn't as new as you might think. The Old Blush rose came to Virginia in the 1600's. If you have an Old Blush, it is genetically the same as the original.

Why? Because the rose is propagated through cuttings, and, since the resulting bush comes from the original, it IS the original..

Italian Basil After Thinning

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Be patient, we have waited several months for Jerusalem Sage to stike roots from a cutting, and roses can take from a few weeks to several months, depending on the variety. Herbs usually strike roots fairly quickly if they are annuals, and take a bit longer if they are perennials. Shrubs usually take much longer...some upwards to a year.

If you want to know if your cutting is developing roots, gently tug on the stem. If you feel resistance, there are roots. If not, wait. When you've determined your cutting has roots and is ready to move out of the sterile mix and into soil, with a spoon or small trowel reach as deeply into the mix as you can and lift gently. A lot of medium will cling to the roots, and that's good.

Rosemary Rooting in Water

Rosemary Roots

Pop the cutting into a prepared pot (a pot filled about half way with potting soil and well dampened) by setting it gently down onto the soil, and the ladling in soil to fill the pot to the rim. Water gently and thoroughly, until water comes out the bottom. Now set the pot out of direct light and wind for a week or so.

Gradually move it to the site you want to plant it, increasing the amount of direct sunlight and wind over the space of 10 days to 2 weeks. Plant in the ground and congratulate yourself on being a proud parent.

Generally, bulbs are split, but some perennial shrubs also lend themselves to splitting. In the case of bulbs, every 4 or 5 years daffodils, tulips, narcissi, and crocus need to be lifted from the soil, the little bulbs that formed around the main bulb removed, and the large bulb replanted. The little bulbs may also be planted and they will bloom in 2 to 3 years.

Perennials and some shrubs form clumps at their base which are really new plants. These need to be removed because they will compete with the mother plant for water and nutrients. Chrysanthemums are a good example of a clumping perennial. Dig up the whole thing in the spring, remove the little rooted plantlets around the base with your fingers and see if the little ones have their own roots.

If the root mass is so dense that it cannot be separated (Pampas Grass is a good example), take a sharp knife and cut the root mass in halves or quarters. The plant then becomes several and all will likely survive. Cutting the root ball sounds more severe than it is. Each above ground bit has plenty of roots to survive and more room to send out feeder roots.