Plant Propagation for Beginners
Plant propagation falls into two categories: sexual and asexual reproduction.
Sexual reproduction is about seeds, pollen/flowers, swapping of genetic material and inviting in slight variations and newness. Some plants are wildly “untrue to seed” because parent material was a crafted hybrid. Some plants are very tidily true to seed, in form and taste very much like their parents. Those are the ones that are easier to save seed from. In general, plants from seeds, and plants which create seeds, are more ecologically resilient because they’re quicker to adapt.
Pros: quickly adapts to your site, easy to store & share, culturally important to be part of the genetic diversity maintenance & process.
Cons: can cross into duds, observation needed when flowering (so no interference), new plants will need more time.
Asexual reproduction might not sound as exciting as flower sex, but hey, it really helps grow a lot of exact plants fast. If you have a whole food forest understory to populate, than having pots of mint, yarrow, strawberries, oregano, thyme, bee balm, chives, etc, all propagated through asexual means is what can do the job fast (and fragrantly and deliciously!)
These techniques are all variations on cutting a plant apart to start new ones. You can divide, literally with a serrated kitchen knife, replant runners (like strawberries), or encourage other plants to have stems make roots (through “layering”). You can cut parts of the plant to make “cuttings” or “clones” that root on their own, or with some plants “live stake” cuttings straight into the ground. Many plants take better to one technique than another, and if you’re unsure ask google “what’s the easiest way to propagate ____?”.
Pros: faster, exact flavor and type, bigger plants.
Cons: Sterile pots/potting soil infrastructure needed, not as resilient ecologically and, over the long term, can become sterile, making sexual reproduction impossible and severely limiting the genetic potential of the plant.
Grafting, which combines sexual and asexual reproduction (you grow root stock from seed, then graft clone stock onto it) is a method of combining two plants in order to get the plant we want. This is usually done with fruit trees because growing fruit trees from seed won’t result in the same variety. A twig or scion from the parent fruit tree is grafted onto a rootstock. The rootstock needs to come from a tree in the same family. There is often a choice of rootstocks; different ones result in larger or smaller trees. The scion and rootstock are carefully cut so that the cambium (green growing layer) of both fits together. A graft is successful when the scion and rootstock have fused and become one plant.
Pros: great fruit, great structure, can plan for diversity of sizes (from dwarf to standard).
Cons: weaker plants, may not live as long, more expensive.
Getting plants for free, with Gela and Michelle.
Use this “cheat sheet” to help you build your collection
- Go around your neighborhood and look for plants you’d like to have your garden. If appropriate, take some cuttings (you may need to ask for permission), then go home and see if you can get them to grow!
- Visit a local orchard and talk to the orchardist about grafting. Which types of trees are always grafted, and why? What types can be grown from seed?
Relevant Links and Resources
Here’s a short class on bud grafting.
One more from the amoeba sisters!
Plant propagation for folks with no cash!
This 1-hour class covers all the basics.