Anyone can propagate plants…squirrels, birds and other animals do it regularly


 

Every spring as I go through my gardens, I find tiny oak seedlings sprouting from the ground…not just a few, but enough to create a forest if I were to let them grow. Some of these are surely caused by acorns falling to the ground and germinating.

Most, especially those growing far enough away from oaks to assure that they weren’t there by chance (unless acorns can walk), were brought there and buried intentionally…by squirrels, of course. The squirrels, having eaten their fill in the fall, begin burying acorns for winter supplies (literally squirreling them away). These bushy-tailed creatures, having short memories, forget where they buried the acorns. The acorns then germinate and sprout.

Houston holly, otherwise known as yaupon, or its Latin moniker Ilex vomitoria, is spread ubiquitously throughout the area by cedar waxwings, who eat the berries of the female plants. The pulp of the berries is digested, and the seeds pass through the bird and then onto the ground, where some sprout.

In interesting and complex symbiosis, plants and animals help each other. Plants provide food, and many animals help spread the plants’ seeds. We humans do too. How many times have we pruned a plant (or removed one completely) and the next spring, many new seedlings appear around the spot? Seeds have shaken loose and dropped to the ground as we were removing parts of the plant. Of course, I’m belaboring the obvious.

I often reseed my natives by stripping some of the ripe seed heads in the fall. Some I spread on soil in the yard, and some I save in old medicine pill bottles for future use. I also start some collected seeds in starter pots for transplanting into the garden after they sprout.

I have many gardener friends who save vegetable seeds from the previous crop. For some plants  (like tomatoes) it’s a little tedious. I have other friends, though, who buy seeds for all their vegetables and start them in their little garage growing areas. And one can start just about any plant from seed.

In a series of articles, I’m going to provide some guidelines for growing your own plants from seed, cuttings, and various other methods to propagate plants.

 

 

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Cold weather heeby-jeebies


The temptation to get out my Felco pruners and my lopper and going to work on all my plants that have been damaged from the freeze. The soggy mushy crinums. The drooping brugmansia, the unattractive plumbago, even the perennial butterfly weed, its dry stems and brown rustling leaves that I think are very attractive, but  at the same time, I’m longing for the green to sprout.

Only a couple of things hold me back. One, if I cut off the damaged limbs and various appendages of my plants, it will be difficult for me to tell where the damaged part ends and the live part begins. If I cut into the green that might cause the plant to sprout during some warm days. That would be okay if there are no more cold snaps, but with our recent weather (it’s snowed twice this year) that would be hard to predict. If I do prune, the plants do sprout again and another cold period arrives, the sprouts will also be frozen and the entire plant may not recover.  I don’t know if we’re going to have another cold storm. We’re in mid-January. Spring generally starts here on the upper Gulf Coast in very late February or early March. But with this kind of weather, who knows what might happen. Additionally, the dead material will help insulate the plant until spring actually arrives.

In my vegetable garden, I covered my Brassicae (cabbages, brocolli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts) with frost cloth and a tarp, but I could just as well have covered them with ice cubes. When I checked on them Tuesday afternoon, they were stiff as a board and as brittle as thin glass.

What a surprise when on Thursday afternoon, after the worst had passed, they were not only thawed, but what I thought would be mush instead were tall and sturdy leaved, green and thriving plants. And they are all close to harvest.

The reason that Brassicas and other cold -tolerant plants can withstand lower temperatures is because of their sugar content. Cold-weather crops have more sugar in their cells. Sugar water has a lower freezing temperature than plain water. Plants that are not cold-hardy have much less sugar in their cells, so have a higher freezing temperature. When the water freezes and then thaws, it causes the cell walls to burst. Plants with higher than average sugar content have a much greater advantage surviving freezing temperatures. If you notice, many cold-weather plants taste sweeter after a freeze or frost.

Our roses didn’t seem to be very affected at all. Most of them are natives from the Great Plains, and are, I’m sure, used to cold weather. Even the Duchess de Brabant bloomed throughout the weather and looks totally unscathed. But the crinums, angel trumpets, Turk’s cap, and a host of other plants are going to have a struggle – if they survive at all.

I do plan to take my own advice (if I have the stamina, patience and intestinal fortitude) and wait until early spring to prune everything. But when I look at my once-beautiful plants, I feel like Dr. Strangelove, my hand uncontrollably drawn to my left-handed pruners instead of the “button.” I have been spending cold evenings in my garage, polishing, cleaning, oiling and sharpening them. Maybe it’s just the cold weather and a slight case of cabin fever – not me becoming a serial planticidal maniac.

 

On plant propagation


This article is the first in a series of articles on plant propagation.

When the first shoot of a plant breaks the ground, waving its tiny embryonic leaves, I am always overcome with satisfaction and elation.

A tiny seed I planted and in days or weeks, has germinated, sprouted and is on its way to becoming an entity that has a vascular system, creates its own food and, will one day bloom, grow its own fruit and seeds, and perhaps provide food for myself, my family, birds and other wildlife, enrich the soil and, eventually be turned into compost, making the nutrients in its leaves, stems and flowers available for the next generation of plants.

Despite their dramatic entrances, embryonic seeds are not the only way of creating new plants. Division, vegetative, layering, cuttings, grafting and budding are also tried and true methods.

My dad knew about grafting and budding long ago. He loved citrus and was rather obsessed on the processes. He and a volunteer from Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service (that’s before master gardeners appeared on the horizon) would assiduously graft and bud different citrus species onto trifoliata stock. Poncirus trifoliata – a close relative of the Citrus genus – is one of the root stocks that growers use to create stronger and more productive plants.

Seeds are the result of sexual reproduction of flowering plants and conifers. As I’m sure most of you reading this are familiar in one way or another with sexual reproduction, I’m not going to bore you with the obvious.

Seeds from different plants have different characteristics. Some need to be sown deeply into soil or growing medium. Some need to be sown shallowly, and some need to be exposed to light before they can germinate.

Some seeds have pulp around them which needs to be removed before planting. Other seeds have extremely hard shells and require scarification (nicking the seed with a knife or rubbing it with sandpaper) to assist the embryo in emerging. Other seeds need to be stratified – soaked or placed in a cold place for a period before they can be planted.

If you’re looking for a gardening hobby to keep you occupied on cold winter weekends, or scorchingly hot ones, this might be something you would want to try.

I will be discussing various methods of plant propagation in future articles.

Photo: Preparing to plant Texas bluebonnet seeds in coconut coir pots. The reddish tint on the photo is a result of using red LED lights to germinate the seeds and help the seedlings flourish. More on that in a subsequent article.

Winter is a haven for birds here


(Photo: Black-bellied whistling duck. Photo courtesy of Cornell Ornithology Lab.)

It’s literally freezing outside, but I took some moments to do a little bird watching. Since my office borders the waterway, I see a great many waterfowl around.

Last year, I saw an eagle catch a fish, land about 100 yards away and proceed to feed. Awesome sight. Today, despite the freezing temperature  – or perhaps because of it – water birds are congregating.

Herons, both great blues and whites, mallards, black-bellied whistling ducks, cormorants, a few terns and a gull all depending on the water for a meal.

Mallards are migratory, but some live here all year long. Along the waterway, there are four drakes, one of which is an albino, who have masterfully kept all other drakes out of the area. I have seen fewer hens, although twice mallard hens have built nests in our parking lot and hatched eggs…waddling to the water with the ducklings in tow. Once, a duckling was left in the nest. One of the caring souls here took it home and added it to their small flock of domestic ducks. The little fellow grew to adulthood, only to be eaten by a hungry fox.

While cormorants and black-bellied whistling ducks tend to be around all year, there are more of them flying around in the winter. Both species are migratory.

Cormorants tend to spend their winters along the southern coastal states, but also winter in Oklahoma, Arkansas add eastern Tennessee. They spend summers in their breeding grounds of the northern states (Idaho, Montana, The Dakotas, and Canada – although they might extend east into Minnesota and Michigan.) However, some cormorants live along the Gulf Coast all year as well. People often see them on the edges of waterways with their wings outstretched. Because they are diving birds, their feathers tend to become waterlogged. They stretch their wings to dry the feathers. Cormorants can dive up to 25 feet.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are native to the valley and to Mexico, but they do like to overwinter here. As with all the migratory birds however, some live here all year long. These birds nest in mesquite, hackberry, willow, live oak and other trees. They especially like cavity nests in dead trees. They actually do whistle, and look more like geese than ducks. Ornithologists are recording that they are expanding the northern part of their range.

Great blue herons. These large birds feed on just about anything they can catch and swallow. While their favorite food is fish, they will eat ducklings, rats, mice, and other small mammals, frogs, and other birds. Although some are migratory, many of them do not migrate. Last year, a great blue with a broken wing wandered into as parking lot near here. The animal was almost as tall as me. A park ranger and myself finally cornered him, and with the help of a cast net, finally capture it. I took it to animal rehab where they repaired its wing and released it back into the wild. Great blues are a federally protected bird.

Great white heron. Also federally protected, the great white, unlike its more sedately colored cousin, tend to not migrate, although, even if they do, their range is limited. Those along the Gulf Coast are generally permanent residents.

There are several elegant common  terns in the lake as well. They spend their summers mostly in Central Canada, but their winter migratory regions encompass most of the coastal United States and Mexico. Terns will fly over water, hover there, and them plunge to catch prey. Sometimes they will also pursue insects on the fly.

 

Winter is a haven for birds


(Photo: Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Courtesy of Cornell Ornithology Lab.)

It’s literally freezing outside, but I took some moments to do a little bird watching. Since my office borders the waterway, I see a great many waterfowl around.

Last year, I saw an eagle catch a fish, land about 100 yards away and proceed to feed. Awesome sight. Today, despite the freezing temperature  – or perhaps because of it – water birds are congregating.

Herons, both great blues and whites, mallards, black-bellied whistling ducks, cormorants, a few terns and a gull all depending on the water for a meal.

 Mallards are migratory, but some live here all year long. Along the waterway, there are four drakes, one of which is an albino, who have masterfully kept all other drakes out of the area. I have seen fewer hens, although twice mallard hens have built nests in our parking lot and hatched eggs…waddling to the water with the ducklings in tow. Once, a duckling was left in the nest. One of the caring souls here took it home and added it to their small flock of domestic ducks. The little fellow grew to adulthood, only to be eaten by a hungry fox.

While cormorants and black-bellied whistling ducks tend to be around all year, there are more of them flying around in the winter. Both species are migratory.

Cormorants tend to spend their winters along the southern coastal states, but also winter in Oklahoma, Arkansas add eastern Tennessee. They spend summers in their breeding grounds of the northern states (Idaho, Montana, The Dakotas, and Canada – although they might extend east into Minnesota and Michigan.) However, some cormorants live along the Gulf Coast all year as well. People often see them on the edges of waterways with their wings outstretched. Because they are diving birds, their feathers tend to become waterlogged. They stretch their wings to dry the feathers. Cormorants can dive up to 25 feet.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are native to the valley and to Mexico, but they do like to overwinter here. As with all the migratory birds however, some live here all year long. These birds nest in mesquite, hackberry, willow, live oak and other trees. They especially like cavity nests in dead trees. They actually do whistle, and look more like geese than ducks. Ornithologists are recording that they are expanding the northern part of their range.

Great blue herons. These large birds feed on just about anything they can catch and swallow. While their favorite food is fish, they will eat ducklings, rats, mice, and other small mammals, frogs, and other birds. Although some are migratory, many of them do not migrate. Last year, a great blue with a broken wing wandered into as parking lot near here. The animal was almost as tall as me. A park ranger and myself finally cornered him, and with the help of a cast net, finally capture it. I took it to animal rehab where they repaired its wing and released it back into the wild. Great blues are a federally protected bird.

Great white heron. Also federally protected, the great white, unlike its more sedately colored cousin, tend to not migrate, although even if they do, their range is limited. Those along the Gulf Coast are generally permanent residents.

There are several elegant common terns in the lake as well. They spend their summers mostly in Central Canada, but their winter migratory regions encompass most of the coastal United States and Mexico. Terns will fly over water, hover there, and them plunge to catch prey. Sometimes they will also pursue insects on the fly.