To Seed or Not to Seed?

Propagation is one of my favorite garden tasks. It’s just a big word to describe a couple simple techniques for starting new plants.

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There’s seed (which I’m sure everyone is familiar with), cuttings (think of it as cloning, but all you need is part of a stem, leaf or root to do it) and layering. Since layering is a technique that is used on actively growing plants, I’m going to ignore that one for now and just focus on starting baby plants.

Sowing is the traditional way to grow plants. 

Just follow the directions on your seed packets and you should be fine. A good rule of thumb when sowing is to plant the seed only as deep as its diameter. 

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There are a few seeds that are dormant and need a little help breaking dormancy. In that case you can soak, nick or freeze your seeds for a specified amount of time. Few seeds require treatments like that, so unless your seed packet indicates otherwise no worries.

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Not all seed is created equal. Yup, you heard me. 

Some plants are sterile and don’t produce any seeds, while others which do, don’t come true to seed. This phrase “not true to seed” refers to planting seeds from a single plant, but the emerging seedlings show wide variation in color, form and/or growing habit. When this is the case, you should take cuttings. 

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I take cuttings for rosemary, tarragon, lavender and my scented geraniums in the fall so they have a good start before the following growing season. And even though you can take cuttings anytime, spring and fall are best.

Use clean, sharp snips or a razor to sever a 3-6″ long stem or leaf from the mommy plant just above a node. Then, trim the bottom to just below a node–your cutting will root quicker from there. Sometimes rooting hormone is useful, others not-so-much, but stick your cutting in a light potting mix and firm up the soil. Most cuttings root in 3-4 weeks. 

And whether you are starting from seed or cuttings, a heating mat is invaluable! 

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Cuttings are also useful when you see a plant at your friend’s house that you want to steal covet. It’s less of an imposition to ask if you can just snip off a stem rather than tucking the whole thing into your bag when no one’s looking and giving “innocent eyes” when someone discovers the plant is missing.

For more on sowing seed, cuttings and the organic kitchen garden, check out my new book, The Backyard Gardener!

My Favorite Top 10 Seed Sowing Tips

I never mind propagating – whether sowing seed or taking cuttings. And there are a number of things you can do to get your seedlings off to a great start … these are my absolutely favorite tips:

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1. Use great soil! Happy, healthy, lush plants start with a good base. My favorite all-purpose potting mix is Pro-Mix BX with Mycorrhizae.

2. Moisten your potting mix before you sow your seeds. Watering afterwards often results in seeds sliding around the container. Also, it is hard to ensure the entire potting medium is moist if it’s watered from the top.

3. Label. This step seems obvious but it’s easy to forget every once in awhile (even for me)! For entire or half flats, I use painter’s tape along the side, and for individual pots/plants I use old mini-blinds cut into 4-6-inch lengths. These labels are waterproof and you’ve done your part for the environment by recycling!

4. Keep your seeds and seedlings well lit. I use shop lights over my flats and pots. Yup, the same one from the hardware store. I suspend them 2 inches above the soil and raise them up as the plants grow.

5. If possible, water the trays from the bottom. Place your seeding tray into a standard 1020 tray without holes and let the plants soak up water from the bottom.

 

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6. Use bottom heat to speed up the germination process. You can pick up heat mats at your local hardware or garden center. A great garden hack is to use incandescent (not LED) Christmas rope lights under your flats! They will warm, but won’t burn. Then, remove the plants from the heat source once they’ve germinated. (Note: seedlings don’t require as much warmth as seeds.)

7. Get a basic fan. You can find these for a few bucks at Walmart. A little air movement goes a long way to building strong root systems and healthier seedlings. Additionally, air circulation is a good defense against disease and infection.

8.Feed your seedlings once they have 2-4 true leaves with a gentle fertilizer. I prefer a fish emulsion and kelp mixture at half strength. It gives your plants a little boost.

9. Harden them off! Gradually expose your seedlings to cooler temperatures over a week before planting them outside. This avoids shock and transplanting stress.

10. Milk jugs and 1 to 2 liter soda bottles make great DIY cloches! Cut the bottom off and place them over the transplants, sinking the bottom about 1 inch into the soil to anchor it against the wind. On warm days, take the tops off to vent and replace them in the early evening!

11. BONUS: Give your seeds and seedlings a light dusting of cinnamon when sowing. It’s a natural fungicide!

 

By |April 18th, 2016|Growing & Gardening, Propagating|

Scented Geraniums

 

Scented Geraniums are one of my favorites to propagate from cuttings and grow. I love the variety of smells, particularly right after a good rain. And while summer is drawing to a close (sniff, sniff) you don’t need to day goodbye to this pelargonium (a.k.a. scented geranium), now is the time to take some cuttings and pot them up!

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You can take cuttings of this woody geranium anytime from spring to late summer, but I have found that cuttings taken in August and September do especially well. And don’t worry if you are a first-timer or experienced grower, scented geraniums are easy to propagate.

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And we all lose a few, so don’t be worried if you see a casualty or two, it’s not you – it is just the nature of the beast. Even the most experienced propagator will lose some cuttings.

Cuttings root best in moist (NOT wet or soggy) soil. I use a mixture of potting compost or soil and perlite. The perlite gives the mix just a bit of extra space so the cutting can spread its roots out.

Take a clean, sharp razer blade, knife or scissors and snip your cutting from the fresh, fleshy green stems. If you keep your scented geraniums around long enough you will notice they can become rather woody at the base of the plant. That is NOT where you want to take a cutting.

I like to take 2-3″ cuttings from a healthy stem. I always include at least one leaf, but if I have a node (branching) available I take it below the node.

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And although it is tempting to take a cutting from a flowering stem, resist! Either find a new stem or cut the flower off first. If you take a cutting that is flowering the plant’s energy is not going into developing the roots (which it needs to), but rather to the flower, which almost always results in a cutting casualty.

Rooting hormone … ehhh.

I don’t find that it helps the rooting, but if it makes you feel better you can give it a light dusting.

Plant your cutting in a moist potting mix. You can use small 3-4″ pots, or trays if you have the zealous propagator disorder (which I have been known to to suffer from). Use your finger to create a hole, insert your cutting, then gently firm the soil around the cutting.

Place your cuttings in a warm, sunny spot. Right now I have mine on tables in my backyard, but a windowsill will do just as nicely. Then water and wait.

When it comes to watering I find it best to water from the bottom of the pot (if it has holes) or at the base of the plant. You can tell it is time to water when the top of the soil is dry. Be wary of overwatering your geraniums. Let them tell you when they need a drink.

On average it takes 3-4 weeks for the roots to develop, but will happen sooner if given the right conditions (sun, moist soil, and time). You can tell that your cutting has taken if you give a gentle tug on your cutting, and you feel it anchored in place.

Once your cutting has taken, pinch back some of the leaves (only if your cutting has enough leaves) and you will be rewarded with a bushy, happy scented geranium.

I keep my scented geranium babies in the greenhouse, but a kitchen windowsill and/or counter that gets bright light throughout the fall and winter will be all you need so they are ready for the garden (or a container planting) come spring.

If you’ve propagated enough, pot-up your extra scented geraniums in a pretty pot, and give them away to friends and family. They make wonderful holiday gifts and housewarming presents.

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With their subtle flowers, lush leaves and their delicious scents, scented geraniums are a sweet garden surprise to many. For me it was love at first sight. And now I’ve been growing and propagating these ethereal little plants for many, many years.

And now you can too!

For more on growing and the organic kitchen garden, check out my new book, The Backyard Gardener!

Warmly,
Kelly
By |March 27th, 2016|Annuals, Growing & Gardening, Propagating|

Propagating Pelargoniums

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Have you ever started a project with a timeline in mind of how long it would take … and then it takes twice, scratch that, four to FIVE times as long?  Well, that’s about how long it’s taken me to propagate all our varieties of scented geraniums!

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And that’s not even going into all the leaf and flower drying and essential oils we’ve been distilling from everything growing in the fields and hoop house.

 

But with just over 50 scented geraniums (or pelargoniums for you more botanically inclined plant enthusiasts) growing for next year it’s been a busy couple of weeks months of cutting and propagating.

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For many of our larger leaf cultivars I trim, no, make that cut down the leaves by half or a third in order for the plants to have enough energy for root development, rather than transpiration. This helps them develop stronger root systems much faster than if they had their entire leaf.

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And don’t waste your money on rooting hormones – scented geraniums really don’t need need or require that in order to set root. They are more than happy to grow roots and into healthy plants with just some light, water and TLC.

By |October 19th, 2015|Herbs, Propagating|