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Plant Propagation for Home Gardeners

Plant Propagation for Home Gardeners

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Published by: Seed Savers Network on Apr 08, 2011
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08/06/2012

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Agriculture and Natural Resources
FSA6024
Plant Propagationfor Home Gardeners
James A. Robbins
Professor andHorticulture Specialist ­Ornamentals
Arkansas IsOur Campus
Visit our web site at:http://www.uaex.edu
Many home gardeners wish toreproduce special plants in their landscapes or start their own vegetableand bedding plants. Plant propagationis the controlled reproduction of plants using a variety of methods.These methods can be broadlygrouped into sexual and asexual(vegetative) methods. Sexual propagation is focused primarily onpropagating plants by seed. Seedpropagation offers some advantages inthat the technique is often economicaland efficient and lends itself to long-term storage. The primary disadvantage of seed propagation is that manyseeds do not come “true to type,” sothe offspring are not exact copies of the parent. Asexual propagation techniques include cuttings (e.g., root,stem, leaf), budding or grafting, layering and division. Asexual propagationtechniques, while often more laborintensive than seed propagation, doallow the gardener to get an exactcopy of the parent plant.
Seed Propagation
Seed propagation is commonlyused by a home gardener whenstarting plants for the vegetablegarden or for some bedding plants.Most gardeners are well aware of howto prepare a seedbed in a vegetablegarden and then follow the directionson the seed packet to sow the seeds.Starting seeds indoors for thevegetable garden or for bedding plantsis fairly simple. The two most criticalfactors are using a high-quality seedgermination mix and then keeping theseeds moist but not overly wet. Mediafor seed germination should ideally besterile, most likely consist of asignificant percentage of peat mossand never contain garden soil. Gardensoil is a poor choice because it is notsterile and typically holds too muchwater. Manufacturers often sell a soilless media designed specifically forpropagation. The media should bemoist before sowing the seed. For verysmall seeds, it may be easier tosprinkle the seeds on the mediasurface and then use a fine spray of water to settle them into the media.For larger seeds, you can sow theseeds and then cover them with anappropriate depth of moistened media.The general rule of thumb for coveringseeds is to cover the seed with twotimes the diameter/width of theseed. Again, use water to settle themedia in after topdressing the seedwith media.
Figure 1. Germinating seed.
Keeping the media moist (i.e., notwet and not dry) during germinationof the seed is critical. Once the mediais at the correct moisture level, simpletechniques can be used to maintainthat level for the entire germinationperiod. One simple method involvesplacing a glass plate or sheet of plastic or Saran™ above the lip of theseed tray or container. If the plate orsheet is elevated just slightly abovethe media surface, it will need to beraised or removed once the seedsbegin to germinate and grow. Theother common option is to place a
University of Arkansas, United States Department of Agriculture, and County Governments Cooperating
 
 
clear plastic bag over the container, again with thegoal of simply trapping existing moisture contained inthe media. If the bag is not rigid, it is common to usean appropriate length of bamboo stake or chopstick tokeep the bag from collapsing in on the fragileseedlings. Some seedlings are very sensitive to saltsin water; therefore, for small seed germinationprojects, you may wish to use deionized bottled wateruntil seedlings are up and actively growing. If seedhas been sown with a high density, you will mostlikely have to transplant the fragile seedlings to adifferent container (e.g., cell pack) to allow theseedlings to reach a size that can be transplanted intothe garden or landscape.
Figure 2. Seed germination trays.
Especially with woody plants, you will need tobecome familiar with two terms:
stratification
and
scarification
. In a simple sense,
stratification
involvesdifferent methods imposed by man to cause seeds togerminate after simulating environmental conditionsthat seeds would normally experience in nature. Forexample, think about a red oak acorn that falls to theground in the fall. In nature it is exposed to wintertemperatures and then begins germinating thefollowing spring. The internal signals keep the acornfrom germinating in the fall before harsh weathersets in. Knowing this, if you harvest red oak acorns inthe fall and then want to germinate the seed indoors,you need to replicate what would have gone on innature. Therefore, the red oak acorns are placed in acontainer with moistened media and then placed in arefrigerator (32 to 45 degrees F) for three months.These “stratified” seeds can then be removed from therefrigerator and sown, and germination should beginsoon if the temperatures are suitable. Referencebooks will clearly mention what kind of stratificationregime is required for each species.
Scarification
is any physical process that softensor damages the seed coat making it more permeableto water and air. Again, propagation books clearlyindicate which species require scarification toimprove germination. Plants in the Legume familyare one group often mentioned. For small seeds, youcan simply place the seeds between two layers of medium sand paper and then rub the sheets back andforth. For larger seeds (e.g., Kentucky coffee tree),you can use a metal or nail file to abrade the seedsurface. Seeds can also be scarified using hot water(170 to 212 degrees F). With this method, simply dropthe seeds into four to five times their volume of hotwater, remove water from the heat source and let theseeds soak for 12 to 24 hours unless the literaturestates otherwise.
Vegetative Propagation
Vegetative (asexual) propagation techniquesinclude cuttings (e.g., root, stem, leaf), budding orgrafting, layering and division. Propagation techniques such as cuttings, layering and division can beeasily performed by home gardeners; however,budding and grafting typically require more skill.
Cuttings
An understandingof terminology isrequired before goingfurther. A number of terms are used whendiscussing cuttingpropagation. Simpleterms are used todescribe where thecutting originatedfrom (e.g., root, stem,leaf), or with stemcuttings, the relativeage of the wood/tissue(e.g., softwood, semi-hardwood, hardwood). With stemcuttings, we may also refer to the number of nodes.Nodes are simply the locations on the stem where theleaves originate from (i.e., more precisely, where thebuds are located). It is also common to refer to theoverall position on the stem that the cutting wastaken from (e.g., terminal, sub-terminal). For example, it is common for a gardening book to instruct youto collect “terminal cuttings with three to four nodes.”With most cuttings, you also need to pay attention tothe original “up and down” ends of your cuttings(polarity). If you think you will have trouble keepingtrack once you have removed a cutting from a stem,you can simply use a lateral or cross-cut to referencethe top/“up” and an angle cut to reference thebottom/“down” of the cutting.The
media
you use to root cuttings can have asignificant impact on your rooting results, not onlythe number of new roots but the growth of theseroots. An ideal rooting media needs to be sterile, welldrained and provide adequate oxygen. Individualcomponents that are most commonly used includecoarse perlite, coarse vermiculite, peat moss andsand/pumice. These individual components can becombined in a variety of ways and percentages.Examples include 50% peat moss: 50% perlite(volume basis); 50% perlite: 50% vermiculite; 100%perlite; 100% sand/pumice; and 100% peat moss.Rooting cubes (e.g., Oasis Rootcubes
®
) made out of foam are also used.
Figure 3. Typical three-nodesemi-hardwood cutting withbasal leaves removed.
 
 
Figure 4. Effect of media on rooting performance.Left: vermiculite, peat moss, perlite, peat:perlite
The
rooting environment
has a major influenceon the rooting results. Remember that with cuttingswe have separated a portion of the plant from theparent plant, thus removing its source of water andnutrients until a new root system has reestablished.Environmental conditions that add stress or hastenwater loss diminish the rooting success. Therefore,conditions such as high light, high temperature orbreezy conditions often have a negative impact on therooting results. Even with cuttings that have leaves,it is hard for people to imagine that making “food” isnot a priority, but forming roots is. Cuttings will relyon stored “food” until new roots are regenerated. Withthis in mind, ideal temperature conditions for mostcuttings are to have the air temperature 10 to 15degrees cooler than the rooting media. Ideal temperatures for many types of cuttings would be an ambienttemperature of 55 to 65 and a media temperature of 65 to 75 degrees F. In most home situations, having adual temperature is difficult; however, gardensuppliers do sell waterproof heating mats designedspecifically to place propagation trays on to elevatethe media temperature. As for light levels, it is critical to keep cuttings out of direct sunlight until theyhave rooted. Appropriate light levels can be found innorth-facing windows or by using grow lights in darkrooms or basements.The critical factor with cuttings that containleaves is to maintain the highest level of relativehumidity possible around leaves until roots form.Commercial propagators use intermittent mist systems or fog systems to achieve this goal. While theseoptions are possible for a homeowner, there are easiersolutions. No matter what option you chose, the goalis the same: you are trying to trap moisture alreadypresent in your rooting media. For very few cuttings,using an inverted Ziploc™ bag or one-half of a clearplastic soda bottle works very well over a single pot.If you use the threaded end of a plastic bottle, youcan easily remove the bottle cap to vent moisture if itbuilds up too high in the bottle. For large numbers of cuttings, it is easier to use a seed tray or flat. To trapmoisture when using a tray, use a clear tray lid orpieces of bent strap metal (Fig. 7) to keep a plasticbag from touching the cuttings. With most leafycuttings, we need to transition or “harden off” cuttings before planting them outside. Once cuttingshave formed roots, you can start this transition byperiodically venting your cover with increasingfrequency to reduce the relative humidity slowlyover time.
Figure 5. Simple propagation option using plastic bag.Figure 6. High dome for rooting cuttings.Figure 7. Simple propagation tray.Figure 8. Plastic bottles (top or bottom) for rooting cuttings.

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