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How I have Fun While Killing Plants

Col Jackson

I guess the propagating bug first bit me when, as a kid, I established my own vegetable garden by growing pumpkins, carrots and beetroot.

I recall the feeling of independence that the ability to grow my own food from seeds gave me. It was probably that same independent streak (and perhaps some lurking Scottish ancestry) that prompted me to experiment with growing endemic native trees and shrubs to revegetate our nine-acre property.

Accessing the required seed capsules immediately caused me grief. With a desire to grow the finest of tall gum trees, I set out to collect my seeds from the biggest and healthiest specimens in sight. You can imagine the looks of disquiet on the neighbours' faces, as I appeared to carry out some strange primeval ritual, hurling sticks boomerang-like into the gum trees in an attempt to knock the seed-carrying bits off. This disquiet would have only compounded into alarm as I then wandered around in circles under said tree, all the time bobbing up and down like some frenzied emu as I collected the meagre fruits of my labours. Despite all this effort, those first couple of years saw my miserable seed raising attempts produce nothing more substantial than a fine carpet of moss.

Still, I persevered and eventually the propagating gods took pity and smiled on me (or perhaps at me). Maybe it was that my personal zodiacal constellation was fortuitously lined up with the right planets. Or perhaps my wife just said "Get those bags of seeds off the window sill and out of the house". The upshot of it was that I unceremoniously dumped the contents of several bags of seeds into a tray of sand. You can imagine my excitement when those cotyledons first pushed aside the sand grains and rose towards my bulging eyes. Success at last! After forcing each member of the family to come and bear witness, I carefully nurtured those seedlings through the forestry tube stage until they were finally planted out. No new father has ever been prouder!

Guides to Plant Propagation
Book cover

The second edition of Murray Ralph's Growing Australian Native Plants from Seed - For Revegetation, Tree Planting and Direct Seeding was published in 2003 and should still be available from major booksellers at $29.95. It covers:
1. Why grow local plants?
2. Seed development, viability and dormancy
3. Seed germination and seed treatments
4. Growing seedlings in containers
5. Direct seeding
6. Growing specific species from seed

A brief review of the first edition can be found here

* * * * * *

Don't forget to also check out ASGAP's Plant Propagation pages.

After that first success, growing natives from seed seemed to get easier. Some excellent publications on seed collection and propagation helped to set me straight and a newly acquired membership of SGAP started to broaden my propagating horizons. Although I was now becoming a rather dab hand at raising seedlings, I found the prospect of growing plants from cuttings a bit daunting. To expect a bit of foliage to grow after being broken off and simply poked into a pot somehow defied logic and seemed to me to be more akin to hocus-pocus than science. I distinctly recall an episode from my teenage years whereby one of Mum's prize garden plants somehow got in front of the lawn mower and became estranged from its roots. Sticking that back into the ground and making it look like it hadn't been touched did no good for the plant or, for that matter, me.

Still, those Plants Society people insisted that it did work so I finally made my first attempt. With very little on offer at home, I noticed that my work place had a good native garden. Being a shift worker at the time meant I was able to utilise those graveyard shift hours, sneaking around like a marauding wallaby, sampling a bit here and a bit there, even scuttling into cover as the security detail came around. With my collection safely smuggled home and painstakingly set into the cutting mix I was sure I could just about hear those plants growing. Alas though, as the days passed, more and more of my future garden came to look like Mum's prize plant as green leaves turned to yellow and finally brown before dropping off and festering in a bed of mould.

It was hard not to become disheartened as the numbers got whittled down to a hardy few that refused to die but equally refused to sprout roots. I watched those cuttings flower and put on new growth so well without the benefit of roots that I started to question this whole 'plant theory' stuff. The day finally came, however, when I detected some resistance to a gentle pull on the stem. I don't think I had ever seen anything as beautiful as those pearly white roots poking out of the bottom of the mix as I up ended that pot. Out marched the family to once again witness the marvels that I was producing.

Maybe it is true that success breeds success. At the very least it gives one the confidence to go on with lifted spirits. I started sampling plants everywhere and many are the people who, to this day, are unaware that they have donated cuttings to fuel my newfound enthusiasm. What I lacked in skill I made up for with gusto; while it is true that many of my cuttings still died, the volume of production meant that a steady flow of new plants were the end product of my latest hobby.

So what are the rules that I propagate by?

Well I don't claim to use 'rules'. I really just stick to a set of guidelines for a while, and then veer off onto a tangent to try something new. Most common sense things work in propagating, it's just that some seem to be more successful than others, so here's where I'm at now. Much of my propagating has been done in ordinary concreting sand although recently I've started using a more open propagating mixture made of coarse sharp sand with roughly 15 percent peat moss mixed in. For seed collection and growing advice I've found 'Growing Australian Plants From Seeds' by Murray Ralph an excellent guide. I prefer to sow most seeds in the spring (early to late spring depending on the desired planting out time) as I feel this produces better results by matching the natural cycle more closely.

I'll set cuttings anytime that I have access to plant material, but given an option I choose material, from the most recent season's growth and discard the really soft new tips. The amount of foliage left on the cutting is an instinctive thing, but I try not to overload the ability of the stem to draw up moisture. It's a balancing act, as the plant needs to be able to collect enough solar power to produce new roots without losing too much water through leaves. For cuttings with smaller leaves I use the rule of stripping the leaves off the lower half or two thirds of the cutting. I often leave only two or three leaves on cuttings that have large leaves (eg. Alyogyne hugelii or Hardenbergia violacea) but cut those leaves in half to reduce water loss. Care must be taken when stripping the leaves. Stripping them by pulling down the stem works with most but watch for bark peeling off. If bark is pulled off with the leaf, try pulling upwards or even cutting with secateurs or a knife. I always use a hormone rooting compound simply because I think it's worth the cost. In the past I have used a powder but I am currently using a purple gel readily available at a large hardware shop.

My propagating area is nothing more complex than a wooden frame with a clear poly cover tacked over it. This is mounted above an open grid at waist height and is closed on all sides except one. I cover the poly with shade mesh through the hotter months (roughly November to April) to reduce the heat stress on the plants. Watering is automatic with an artificial 'leaf that tilts in response to the wet/dry cycle and triggers micro-jet sprays that dampen all foliage. This innovation was perhaps the most influential towards my propagating success, as the plants no longer had to rely on good ol' forgetful me to water them. Maintaining a moist environment seems to minimise stress on the plants but plenty of airflow is required to beat fungal attack.

If I was to give propagating advice to anyone it would simply be to HAVE A GO!

Experience is a most wonderful teacher, punishing with the disappointment that comes from failure while rewarding with the excitement of hard won successes.

Don't worry excessively over mixes, hothouses, sprays or hormones. I have seen plenty of fine plants that have risen out of nothing more than potting mix or pure sand in a pot sitting on a back veranda subjected to a hit and miss watering regime. An astute man told me that the best time to collect cuttings or seeds was 'when you are there' and nothing has caused me to doubt that wisdom. Experience is a most wonderful teacher, punishing with the disappointment that comes from failure while rewarding with the excitement of hard won successes. The lessons are slow but better learned for that. I still get a feeling of eager anticipation as I sow new seeds or set new cuttings, anticipation that turns to real exhilaration when a plant can be potted up to 'stand on its own roots'.

And don't let the failures get you down; even the so-called 'experienced' propagators still get those. If I've had a run of mouldy cuttings or unresponsive seed and need an emotional lift to get my confidence back, I grab the spade and lay into the nearest patch of kangaroo paws. Just chop it up into pot-sized chunks, make sure it has a few of those brown dangly bits underneath and slap it into some potting mix. Divide and conquer ... a propagator's psychological saviour!

From 'Growing Australian', the newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Victoria), December 2005.

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