What is Plant Propagation?

This article is by Zoli Wall an instructor who will be sharing at Spirit Weavers Gathering 2023

Plants have been growing, reproducing, and evolving since the beginning of life on earth. In countless forms, plants cover the globe, providing oxygen to breathe, food to eat, and beauty to soothe and inspire us. In many ways, we owe our lives to plants.

The practice of Plant Propagation is the intentional creation of more plants. Whether it’s making cuttings of Pothos to live on your windowsill, seeding a garden, or breeding rare orchids, propagating plants gives something back to the earth and brings us into a deeper connection with everything around us. 

The world of plants is highly complex and new discoveries happen every day. Learning the basics of botany can take you far in understanding this world but it is truly an ever-expanding field where there are as many exceptions to the rule as there are rules. Don’t let these complexities dissuade you! Growing plants can also be intuitive and instinctual. No matter our lineage, our ancestors have always worked with plants. It’s in our DNA and we can cultivate our relationship with plants by being curious, conscious, and willing to experiment.

But let’s start with some botany; there are two main types of plant propagation, sexual and asexual. As you may imagine from the name, sexual propagation typically involves two plants of the same or similar species exchanging genetic material to produce a new plant from a seed. Asexual propagation happens when a part of a plant is made to regenerate into a separate plant from its parent though it remains genetically identical, a clone of the original. Both kinds of reproduction happen in nature, without human intervention. 

Sexual methods of plant propagation involve pollinating flowers, and collecting and germinating seeds. Often, this type of propagation is used to create new varieties of plants with unique characteristics or to improve the desirable traits of a certain species. The vast diversity of plants is largely due to sexual reproduction.

Asexual methods of propagation include growth from tubers, bulbs, rhizomes, and stolons, taking stem cuttings, leaf cuttings, cane cuttings, grafting, division, layering, and tissue culture. These techniques are widely used in nurseries and have the benefit of creating more of the same plant without the potential for variance inherent to sexual propagation. It can also be a way to create larger, mature plants more quickly.

For the beginner aspiring propagator, the easiest methods are usually seed germination, root division, and cuttings. You should always start by doing some research about the plant you want to propagate. Is it a shrub, tree, vine, succulent, or something else? Where is its native habitat and what conditions does it need to thrive? For example, how much sun or water does it need? What kind of soil does it prefer? Is it an annual, meaning it lives for one reproductive cycle and then dies, or a perennial, meaning it can live through multiple reproduction cycles? These qualities of the plant can also tell you what methods of propagation would be most successful.

Seed germination involves collecting seed material, placing seeds into an appropriate soil medium, and then supplying them with the right amount of moisture and sunlight for them to sprout. Seed germination is great for annual plants that are shorter-lived but produce seeds relatively quickly.

Root division is when you split a plant up at the base of the root into smaller plants or pieces of the plant. This technique works well for tubers, bulbs, rhizomes, and plants like grasses, potatoes, ginger, or daffodils.

Cuttings are when you cut off a section of the plant, usually a leaf, stem, or root depending on the plant, and create conditions for it to grow into a new whole plant. Sometimes this involves applying a rooting hormone and placing the cutting into a medium like water, perlite, or potting mix. Once the cutting has produced enough additional root and stem or leaf growth to be able to support itself it can be outplanted into a larger pot or directly into the ground. Cuttings are a good method for most herbs, shrubs, and vining plants.

The internet can be a great resource when starting out on your plant propagation journey. There are lots of videos online showing different methods for all different types of plants but even better is going to your local nursery and asking questions. Your bioregion is going to have a great effect on what kinds of plants you can propagate as well as how and when to do so. Find the plant people in your area and grow your community while also growing your knowledge and skills!

Another great tip is to take notes. Write down the dates you took your cuttings or gathered & planted your seeds and update your notes with the dates of root development or germination as well as your observations of the conditions around your plants such as weather, where you sourced your materials from, what mediums you used etc. This will help you recognize patterns in your process and determine which strategies work best. It can also be a form of journaling, note how you felt or what you were thinking of. Plants are as aware of us as we are of them and there is no limit to what they might respond to. Talking or singing to your plants has been scientifically proven to impact their growth.

Plants are your community and if you treat them with love and the gift of your awareness the world opens to you in ways you never expect. Recognizing plants you are familiar with out in the wild is like running into old friends at the grocery store. Witnessing the growth of a plant over time is akin to witnessing the changes in ourselves as we grow and change in response to the conditions of life. By nurturing plants you develop a relationship that in turn nurtures you with food, medicine, and beauty. It makes you feel at home in the world, cultivating plants is a way of cultivating belonging.

More about the Author:

Zoli is a lifelong plant lover. Born and raised on the island of Kaua’i and surrounded by the verdant jungle, she began her journey as a plant person at a young age. A student of Permaculture, Zoli has worked in the agriculture industry for over 10 years doing everything from nursery management to market gardening and aquaponics. She now works as a Landscape Designer and ISA-certified Arborist while also managing a small farm on her family’s homestead in the ahupua’a of Kalihiwai. When she’s not working with plants she’s usually playing in the ocean or cuddling up with her partner and her dog. Zoli will be sharing Make More Plants! at Spirit Weavers Gathering.You can find out more at www.kaohinanigardens.com or @ka_ohi_nani on Instagram.

Pre-order/purchase Spirit Weavers Gathering’s book: When Women Gather, A Decade With Spirit Weavers here.

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