Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Taking Root

     I learn a lot about what will grow in my garden by trial and error ... mostly error.  Most of the plants I buy and plant are "experiments" -- to me at least, not that they are particularly rare -- and many of them don't survive one or another of the challenging conditions they face: humid summers, extremely variable rains, indifferent drainage, deer browsing, an inept gardener.  So when something grows well for me, I want more.  Last year I decided to try to focus more on easy propagation techniques.
     Actually, propagating a plant from a cutting was the very beginning of my fascination with gardening many years ago.  I came to gardening as an adult with no prior experience.  When I got my first real job, I became friends with one of my coworkers, Nina, who gave me a cutting of her Pothos houseplant and a plastic water bottle to root it in.  Amazing!  I was enthralled by the fact that we could create new plants by rooting cuttings in water!  I did it over and over again, giving some of the plants to other friends.  Nina let me learn the advanced lesson on my own.  Variagation is a genetic expression that can vary on different parts of the plant.  My pothos sported some leaves with less variagation than the original, but I didn't notice or attach any significance to this.  Variagation slightly reduces vigor, and the greener sections grew more vigorously.  The vigorous growth made them more obvious targets for my uneducated clippers and after several generations (I don't remember how many intermediate plants I once had anymore) I now have what is probably the only totally unvariagated Pothos that anyone has ever bothered to keep.  But I love it anyway, my stringy, plain little child.

     Sometime after that I learned how to propagate cuttings of cushion mums and did that for a few years.  In late spring, I would fill a flat with potting soil and snip cuttings from various mums that had been propagated from the ones I found growing in my yard when we first moved in.  These mums would generally bloom in the fall and come back in the spring (to be propagated again) and then bloom again starting in July.  They had a much looser style than the ones in the garden centers because I was not giving them professional haircuts, but I like the loose style.  The July blooming drove me crazy though because I thought mums were supposed to flower in autumn!  That's when I realized that cushion mums are a devious plot of the nursery industry.  Oh well, I still like them, but not as much because they are a bit of trouble.  Now I have real perennial mums and just buy the "annual" ones if I happen to get the urge in the fall or maybe have a party (the photo shows a flock of very rare birds that arrived for my husband's 40th birthday party.  You can see both the pink perennial mums and the burgundy cushion mums together to the right of the gate).
Flamingo migration and my front garden in early November
     While I was propagating cuttings of mums, I learned that the same exact technique and timing works for other plants.  I rooted a bunch of rosemary cuttings this past spring.  I'm hoping that by next Christmas they will be a nice size, still in pots, to give as Christmas gifts.  I've also made new Speedwell (Veronica spicata), Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), and Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) this way.  This year, I also successfully rooted cuttings of Carolina jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens) -- visible in the flamingo picture climbing up the right side of the porch -- because I want to put some more of this fantastic native in my yard. And Lemon verbena (Lippia citriodora) because I love it in tea and especially its clear lemon (not citronella) scent; yet it's not really quite hardy and I'm tired of losing it.  Now I have more plants so hopefully the little ones will survive in their pots in the garage if the bigger one doesn't make it.
Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
     Along these lines, some people root cuttings of annuals and keep them indoors over the winter to plant out again in the spring.  I don't like buying annuals every year except once in a while if I want to splurge to fill a hole (like for the flamingo party).  Usually I just do without annuals, except self-seeders (another awesome way to get new plants, a topic for another post).  But I think I will buy a few this year that I would not normally buy and see if I can keep them this way.  I'm thinking I would like some scented geranium; also some coleus with pink in the leaves to underplant my Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).  This is another fantastic native that gets purple berries in the late summer and early fall.  When I saw the unusual color of the berries I bought a plant, and this year in particular it was just outstanding.  But it's in a slightly out-of-the-way spot and I want a companion nearby that will draw attention to the berries when they are present.  I haven't figured out what that companion should be yet: I don't have anything that is quite right that's already growing in my yard and there are some aggressive groundcovers already present so I do not want to put a delicate untested perennial in that spot.  But a colorful annual might be just the thing.  I wouldn't need to finesse the timing too much and don't need to worry if it gets clobbered.  But what if it does well and I like it?  Then I would want it again next year and might not be able to find the same cultivar.  Aha! But coleus can be rooted in water!
      Surely nothing could be easier than rooting in water, the magic of the Pothos plant all over.  I recently learned of some other plants I like that root in water.
  • Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana): I rooted cuttings in water because it could be done, only to pitch them in the compost months later because I actually don't need any more Mexican petunia and feel ambivalent about sharing a potentially invasive plant with friends.  

New roots on a gardenia cutting
  • Basil: this was a miracle!  I have been growing basil for years but didn't know they rooted in water.  It's probably too much trouble for me to try to keep a basil plant alive in the dry house all winter and I'll continue growing them from seed in the spring.  Rooting basil cuttings solves a different and more aggravating basil problem, however: bolting.  I knew you have to pinch off all the flowers or the basil leaves turn bitter.  Too many times have I missed the deadline and not even gotten to save my mature plants as pesto because I was hoping I could keep getting fresh leaves just a little longer.  I pinched and I pinched, but once the plant started flowering, there really seems to be nothing I can do.  Pinching off the flowers maybe buys a few days, but the herb is doomed once the process begins.  It's harder for me to grow basil from seeds in midsummer since it's hard to keep the seedbed moist all the time so succession planting is a bit of a non-starter.  That is, except when I failed spectacularly at pinching off the flowers and it actually self-seeded, but that left a big gap in the late summer with no basil.  However, this year I rooted several cuttings in water and had brand new basil plants to put out at intervals.  Some of the cuttings seemed to flower almost immediately, causing more frustration, but others were even more lush and beautiful and tasty than the original.  I haven't quite worked out the variables yet, but this is definitely worth doing again this year.
  • Gardenia: another miracle!  I read somewhere that gardenia can be rooted in water and my reaction was "are you kidding?"  For me, it was unexpected that a woody plant would root so easily, since the plants I knew about were all fleshy annuals.  I cut some right away, probably at a terrible time of year to do it (just a month or two ago) and it worked!  For some time I've realized my gardenia is not very happy in its spot, but I'm sure it would not survive being moved so I have simply suffered along with it.  But if I can propagate it this easily, I can try it out in multiple spots all over the yard and hopefully learn what it really wants. 
While I was potting up this rooted cutting this weekend, I also took cuttings from my Golden Showers rose.  I read a lovely story in Greenprints magazine by Georgia A. Hubley about preserving a rose by rooting cuttings in a garden bed under a glass jar.  This reminded me that I had rooted rose cuttings in a garden bed a few years ago.  When I did it then, I was pruning the rose and listening to Felder Rushing's Gestalt Gardener podcast while I worked.  By a coincidence I took to be fate, Rushing was talking about rooting cuttings of roses in a garden bed.  He suggested taking a handful of cuttings and putting them into a well-worked bed that gets regular attention.  Whatever watering and attention the plants in the bed get would benefit the cuttings as well.  As it happened, I had just planted a new shrub in improved soil nearby so I took the opportunity.  I didn't really believe any of these cuttings would root but one did and grew new leaves and even one tiny flower while still just a foot tall or less under my shrub.  Eventually I knew I would have to move it, but I actually didn't have any place to put it.  I think there may be only one spot in my yard that is protected enough not to be nibbled by deer and the parent rose is in that spot (you can see its single November bloom in the flamingo photo too, right in front of the porch).  Golden Showers is not a small plant either; actually it's huge.  I was not going to be able to shoehorn the little offspring into another bed.  I ended up giving the new plant to another friend who had suffered a rose disaster when people he hired to power wash his house had an accident with the bleach.  I was happy to be able to help.  But why would I propagate a plant when I have no place to put it?  I don't know, but it was cheaper and more fun than buying a plant I don't have a spot for.  It's not like I've never done that before.  And this was not the last time either.  I just made some more cuttings of Golden Showers to give the glass jar method a try.  
Newly stuck rose cuttings
I'm hoping I'll be even more successful with this method, since the cuttings should not dry out as easily as they might in the open air.  But I should have taken cuttings of my Virginia Rose instead (or in addition).  This is another great native, which I bought at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson.  It is very happy in my garden but I have never seen it for sale locally.  OK, I said there was only one spot for a rose, but I make an exception for the Virginia Rose.  I planted it surrounded by a wire cage to protect it from deer while it got established and now it is so tall that most of the growth is too high for them to reach.  It's behind other shrubs which mostly disguise the wire cage (which probably isn't necessary any more anyway) and the rose spreads and scrambles as it likes.  It only blooms for a short time each year but very abundantly.  If I had multiple plants, I'd just put them here and there and let them do what they like.  Most of the time, I'd probably forget about them (like unfortunately I did when I was taking cuttings this weekend) but June would be just glorious with them blooming all over the yard.  I guess I know what I should do this weekend.