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Gardens: Want more plants?

Propagating many plants can be as easy as dividing their roots, bulbs or rhizomes. This single iris clump yielded three large, healthy rhizomes that could be replanted or shared.
Propagating many plants can be as easy as dividing their roots, bulbs or rhizomes. This single iris clump yielded three large, healthy rhizomes that could be replanted or shared.

Go forth and multiply!

If you want more of the plants you love but don’t have a big plant-buying budget, just go forth and multiply the ones you have by using some tried-and-true propagation methods.

Botanical propagation — the process of making new plants from existing ones — is something plants do naturally either by spreading their seeds or spores (called sexual propagation) or by growing new offspring from their own stems, leaves, roots, bulbs, rhizomes, and the like (known as asexual or vegetative propagation).

Sexual propagation, because it relies on the DNA of two separate plants, results in offspring that are genetically different from the parents, while asexual propagation results in offspring that are genetic replicas of the parent plants — clones if you will.

Though there are myriad propagation methods to try, some require more expertise than many garden-variety gardeners (myself included) possess. However, we home gardeners still have plenty of simple and inexpensive options at our fingertips.

Among the easiest are: collecting seed (which works well for many vegetables, a number of flowers and some herbs), digging young seedlings (great for many trees and shrubs) and dividing or separating clumps of herbaceous perennials and bulb- or rhizome-producing plants (ornamental grasses, hostas, geraniums, daffodils and irises, to name a few).

Another easy method is to root new plants from stems, leaves and roots. Propagate succulents and houseplants by carefully breaking or snipping off healthy leaves and rooting them in a sterile growing medium or in water. Most other plants, however, must be propagated from either stem or root cuttings or by layering.

Layering can occur naturally

Layering, which often occurs naturally when low-lying limbs or runners stay in contact with the soil long enough to sprout new roots along the limb, is one of the best ways to propagate many shrubs, trees, vines and some herbs. The baby plants have the advantage of still being attached to the parent plant, which supports them as they mature.

A number of layering techniques can be employed, including ground and air layering. If you’re new to layering, practice by burying the tip end or a section of a young, supple, low-lying limb in a shallow hole beneath the parent plant. Secure it in place with a brick or rock. Then, when the buried site develops enough new roots to be self-sufficient, clip it away from the parent plant and transplant it elsewhere.

To propagate from cuttings, snip off young, supple root or stem sections, place them in water or a rooting medium and let them develop a healthy root system before transplanting them elsewhere. Whenever you take cuttings, be sure to use sharp, sterile knives or clippers. You may also want to treat the cut areas with a rooting hormone to promote faster growth. And if you’re growing cuttings in a soil mixture rather than in water (the choice of which may also depend on the type of plant you’re rooting) use a sterile, well-draining soil mix — not soil from your garden, as it may contain diseases or pests that can kill new plants.

Research before starting

How and when you gather seed, take cuttings or start the layering process varies among different plants, so do a little research on the type of plant you’re propagating before you get started. Typically, seeds are harvested as they start to dry on a plant; stem cuttings and layering are done in the spring, summer and sometimes into the fall; and root cuttings are usually best taken in the late fall when plants are dormant.

It may take several weeks, months or even a year or two for new plants to develop enough roots to be replanted elsewhere, but with a little patience you’ll have a whole new family of the plants you love to keep for yourself or share with others.

More detailed information on how to propagate plants is available online and through your local Alabama Cooperative Extension System office, or borrow a book on plant propagation from your local library.

May Tips

      • Plant summer annuals and perennials.
      • Plant ornamental grasses and fall-blooming perennials.
      • Seed new lawns and begin fertilizing established ones.
      • Remove emerging weeds from garden beds before they become established.
      • Plant eggplant, pepper, and tomato transplants.
      • Sow seed for sweet corn, squash, okra and lima and snap beans.
      • Fertilize houseplants that are actively growing or blooming.
      • Prune dead winter damaged limbs from shrubs, trees, and vines.
      • Keep bird feeders and baths full and clean.
      • Visit spring plant sales, garden tours, and farmers markets.

JACKSON, KATIE Gardening 2013

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.