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.

Genetically speaking…

I want to introduce you to my friend and fellow gardener Bernard, a tall Dutchman who lives here and who loves gardening as much or more than I do. His real love is vegetable gardening.

Bernard starts all his vegetables from seed. When he built his house, he added a small space in his garage for his seed propagation area. He has a seed-starting light set up with tray warmers. He’s also got a steady hand. Prying tiny lettuce seedling roots apart for transplant requires the steadiness of a surgeon.

When he was a child in Indonesia, he and his mother were interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.   It was there that he learned gardening. Vegetable gardening was allowed, so the prisoners made the most of it to supplement their meager daily rations of a handful of rice. I suppose this experience further strengthened the Dutch proclivity for frugality.

Bernard spent most of his adult life setting up farms in Third World countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America for the World Bank… and honing his gardening skills.

Things couldn’t be much different between Bernard and me. He’s obsessively orderly. I’m obsessive as well, but I’m on the disorderly side of the coin. Also, as I mentioned, he’s a tall guy and I’m significantly shorter.

Most Dutch people I have met were tall, and I’ve wondered about this. Interestingly, I discovered that scientists also wondered about it. A century and a half ago, the Dutch were some of the shortest people in Europe. Something significant changed during that period. The Dutch are now, on average, the tallest of Europeans. And an interesting side note…we Americans are becoming, on average, shorter.

There are several theories about this phenomenon. Enhanced farming practices which the Dutch are now known for meant better nutrition. Better nutrition meant healthier people. Healthier people began to grow taller. It only took a few generations to happen.

And, it seemed that taller Dutch men and women began producing more children and most of those children tended to be taller. Some scientists believe that what’s happening in Holland could be evolution in progress.

It’s probably a combination of better nutrition, healthier habits and selective procreation. Regardless, the possibilities are interesting.

Now my friend also has a beautiful yard. Plants and flowers (all raised in his little garage greenhouse) are “just so”. He’s organized for sure. He keeps impeccable records of his plantings and their progress, what species and varieties he has purchased, when he bought the seed, where he bought it, how much he paid for it, when he planted  and transplanted, notes he has made about problems with specific species and more items than I can name here.

Myself, on the other hand, find that keeping records with too much detail removes some of the fun and mystery about seed germination.

His back and front yard are immaculately groomed, with lovely, well-mannered plants gracing well-kept beds.

My yard, on the other hand, is what Bernard refers to as a “jungle.” I think what he actually said was “Damn Jungle”. I used to blame the difference between his orderly Teutonic background and my wild “Gallic” background. Looking at me and my slightly olive complexion, it’s easy to assume that my origins are southern European. However, my DNA report came back to let me know that most of my ancestry was Irish, English, and, get this, Nordic.

Genetically, we’re probably similar. Culturally, we couldn’t be more different. But I’m still short and all my children are short. Two different varieties of the same genus and species. Which rather shows how diverse our world has become…and how similar at the same time.

Photo: Genetically, there is little difference between the many varieties of irises. Louisiana, Dutch, Japanese, Bearded, Siberian et. al. are all genetic cousins.