The Family Plant Nursery: Homestead-Scale Propagation Projects

The Family Plant Nursery: Homestead-Scale Propagation Projects

I started learning about propagation because I wanted edible and medicinal perennial plants for my budding homestead and I quickly realized that buying them in any kind of quantity would cost more than I was prepared to pay. So my adventure in plant propagation began. I set up a little nursery of desirable species by sourcing cuttings from friends, grafting onto the wild crab apples on my land, and planting seeds. It took way more time than the nursery-bought alternative, and it was not always tidy or efficient, but I learned a ton. Helping plants to grow and reproduce uplifts the spirit, induces a reverence for nature, and can even nourish the body. I hope you will seek the magic out for yourself and share the joy with your family.

Seeds

Watching a seed sprout is a real pleasure. In the same way it’s hard to believe a newborn baby will someday be a full-grown adult, the genetic potential that’s contained in a little seedling is miraculous. Seeds are living things in deep hibernation, waiting for the right conditions to awaken. As propagators, it’s up to us to provide these conditions.

The main considerations to think about are temperature and moisture. Plants that evolved in warmer climates will naturally want higher temperatures to germinate. Each species is a little different, but as a generalization sowing seeds in potting soil that is kept moist (but not wet) under a sunny window in a seed tray will usually do the trick.

There are some special conditions often required by perennial plants (plants that have life cycles lasting more than two years). Some have tough seed coats that would normally be broken down by the digestive system of an animal, or simply eroded over time. We can emulate this process by scarification, a technique in which we damage the seed coat. Sometimes it’s suitable to do this by nicking the seed with a knife, and sometimes you can do it by briefly exposing the seed to nearly-boiling water. It depends on the species, and a quick internet search should give you more than enough info on the needs of the seed you’re working with. Another important technique is stratification—exposing the seed to periods of warm or cool temperatures in order to break its dormancy. More on this below.

Portrait of the persimmon as a young seedling. The cotyledons (the first leaves, as opposed to “true leaves”) sometimes get stuck like this in the seed coat, but are usually able to work themselves free.

A pair of slightly older persimmon trees I grew from seed.

Project: Grow an apple tree from seed

The next time you find yourself biting into an apple, save the seeds. Put them into a bag with a 50:50 mixture of moist sand and peat moss (some people tell you to use a damp paper towel, but I find this does not work nearly as well). Put the bag into the refrigerator and wait six to eight weeks. This process is called cold stratification. It mimics the natural period of cold (i.e. winter) that the apple seed needs to germinate.

Check on the seeds regularly to see if they’ve sprouted early. If they have, plant them and water daily. If a seed germinates, consider that a success. If you can protect and care for your apple tree long enough for it to bear fruit (5-8 years) consider it a miracle and enjoy the literal fruits of your labor. Since your apple tree will be a genetic mishmash of its parents, there’s no guarantee the apples will be exceptionally tasty. But they’ll probably be good enough to eat, and they’ll definitely be good enough for making cider.

You can also let nature stratify your seed for you. Sow the seeds in the late fall and a percentage should germinate in the spring. If you get really into it, you could even start your own homestead-scale breeding project, in which you select parentage and develop your own varieties.

Cuttings

A couple of currants grown from hardwood cuttings stuck directly in the ground.

Unlike humans (for now, at least!), many plants can reproduce asexually, meaning they can create exact genetic replicas of themselves. Furthermore it’s really not that hard for us to facilitate this process in many plants, meaning that we can create a virtually unlimited number of the same genetic specimen. If you go to a nursery and buy a plant, chances are it will be a cultivated variety that has been propagated asexually. In many applications this is preferred, as the characteristics of the plant will be predictable, though of course less genetically diverse.

For our purposes, besides just being downright amazing, asexual propagation can be incredibly useful. If we have a hardy kiwi vine that’s productive, we can create a replica of it and give it to a friend to start in their own garden. Or we can choose to ramp up kiwi production by making a few replicas for ourselves. It’s pretty empowering, as it doesn’t require any specialized tools or have any significant barriers to entry if you’re doing it at a homestead scale. And it’s a great way to share with others.

Project: Make all-natural rooting hormone. Though synthetic rooting hormone is cheap and widely available, natural rooting hormone is free, widely available, and also pretty dang easy to make. Willow (Salix spp.) happens to contain a hormone (indolebutyric acid) that encourages rooting. All you have to do is snip up (or put in blender) some small diameter willow stems and soak them in water for a few days. Let your cuttings sit in the willow water for a couple hours before you plant them.

Project: Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) from hardwood cutting: In the spring, before the elderberry buds out, cut a section of a branch and stick it in the ground. That’s it! Elderberries root without much fuss at all. A pencil-sized diameter is usually recommended, though I’ve had success with larger cuttings too. Having two buds below ground and two buds above ground on each cutting is an arrangement that seems to work out well. They may even give you some berries in their first year.

Grafting

The strangeness of pressing two sticks together and seeing them grow as one is something you have to try to understand. Of course it’s a little more complicated than that, but not as much as you might think. What you’re really doing is putting the vascular cambium of a rootstock (the lower part with the roots) in contact with the vascular cambium of a scion (the upper part with the shoots). The vascular cambium is located between the bark and the wood, and will look like a thin green line in cross section. It’s where cell division, i.e. growth, occurs. If the the rootstock and the scion are of the same species or closely related, and their vascular cambia are held in contact for long enough without drying out, scar tissue will seal the wounds and they will grow as one.

As with cuttings, grafting is a form of asexual reproduction. But unlike with cuttings, grafting can result in a plant that has qualities of both the rootstock and the scion. This is how dwarf fruit trees come to be. A rootstock that has been bred to have limited vigor is connected with the scion of an apple tree that produces excellent apples. The result is a small tree that bears excellent apples, and will bear them many years earlier than a full sized tree. There are issues with dwarf trees, and they’re often a less than ideal choice for a homestead, but that is a discussion that will be covered more in-depth in a future article.

Grafting has a lot of potential as a community-based activity. Prune your neighbors’ fruit trees in late winter/early spring in exchange for the scions you collect. Graft them onto store-bought rootstocks or use wild crab apples you have growing on your land. When your trees grow larger, cut scions and give them to your friends. This past March, Hilltown Seed Saving Network had their first scion swap. Stay tuned for another one next year.

Cleft graft on a wild crabapple. The next step was to seal all cut surfaces with grafting wax. OESCO in Conway is an excellent local source for grafting supplies.

Top-worked apple tree the following spring.

Project: try a whip and tongue graft. Excellent instructions via Cummins Nursery.

Layering

Layering is another asexual propagation technique, in which a stem is bent down and covered with soil, so that it begins to send out roots at a new location. This happens without human assistance in many shrubs, such as our native raspberries, which have arching stems that bow over and touch the ground and “leapfrog” by sending out new roots and starting the process over again. We can facilitate this phenomenon to create more plants to share with friends and family at no additional cost.

Apple rootstocks planted nearly horizontally for propagation by layering. Each rootstock will be covered with dirt after it sends up vertical shoots. Each shoot will grow its own roots and eventually be cut off to form a new rootstock.

Project: Raspberry Layering

Bury the tip of a raspberry shoot in the ground—it could be a cultivated variety or one you find while wandering out in the field. Put a rock on top of the soil if it needs more weight to hold it down. Return after a growing season and see what’s happened.

There are many other propagation techniques and I encourage you to learn about them and experiment with more projects. Here are a few resources that helped me out:

Books

American Horticultural Society Plant Propagation

The Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation

YouTube channels

Edible Acres—a small nursery in New York focusing on low-cost permaculture. Great ideas and experiments here.

Twisted Tree Farm—another nursery, great videos on tree propagation

Skill Cult—very cool small-scale apple breeding project, great info on grafting and orcharding.


Davis Wang, Certified Arborist and Horticultural Enthusiast

Davis Wang is a certified arborist and licensed pesticide applicator (needed for the application of organic pesticides in MA) who works locally for Hilltown Tree and Garden. He has a Master of Fine Arts in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is married, is in the process of building a house in Ashfield, and has a baby boy on the way.

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