Welcome to week 5 of my Get in Your Garden! Guest post series. I love my garden, and over the last 4 years I have learnt a lot about gardening and about growing your own plants from seeds. However one thing I have yet to try is propagation. It’s a subject that has always seemed a little bit daunting to me, but this year I may just dabble in it a little!
Get in Your Garden! Guest Post Series #5
This weeks guest post is bought to you by Jonathan who is concentrating on propagation projects in 2017 and blogs about it at The Propagator. Today he is guest posting for me, and is giving us all a simple propagation tutorial to get more from your plants and your garden. So I will hand over to Jonathan……..
Hi, I live in Reading with my wife and 4 kids, one of whom is still vaguely interested in helping me in the garden. I garden in my spare time on a typical medium size suburban plot. I’ve been raising plants from seed for a few years with some pretty good results. I’ve also dabbled a bit with cuttings with very patchy results. I decided to try to improve my propagation success rate and investigate a broader range of techniques. I became a little bit obsessed with propagation in general and decided to start a blog this year to share my progress. The blog is my assorted ramblings, progress, disasters, setbacks, results and some tips along the way.
Get More Plants, for Free!
Propagation is a wide-ranging, complicated sounded business, with a lot of jargon and techniques. It certainly can be fiddly and some kinds of propagation such as cuttings can have a high failure rate which can be off putting, or sometimes take ages to see results even when they go well. Entire books have been written, academic careers forged, deep expertise acquired all off the back of this natural process that plants, left to their own devices and in the right conditions, manage all by themselves with no help or intervention from us. The good news is that you can take advantage of this evolved reproductive behaviour without any complicated equipment or facilities.
An easy way of getting more plants is to divide what you already have into smaller plants. This technique works on many clump or mat forming perennials that die back to a crown over the winter. Spring is a good time to divide these plants as they are putting on strong root growth in preparation for the summer. They will be well equipped to recover from the indignity of being disturbed and will grow on quite happily. By now, most perennials will be showing shoots of new growth which makes it nice and easy to identify potential new plants.
My daughter helped me do this in our garden at the weekend. I have a clump of well-established astilbe that I haven’t touched for a number of years. I should really have divided the clump before now, but never mind, better late than never.
The first thing to do is to dig up the clump – not a complicated business. It’s a case of getting a fork in under the plant and levering it up and down, loosening the roots, moving the fork around the clump until it can be lifted.
After doing this a few times I’ve learnt that it’s a good idea to put down a sheet, some old compost bags, something to keep the soil and stones off the lawn, making tidying up a bit easier. I have commandeered a large plastic tray which came with an oven cleaning kit. I hoiked the clump from its home into the tray for the next stage.
The temptation is to dive in to the top of the clump with the fork and start pulling it apart. You can certainly do it this way, but to minimise the chance of damaging the shoots it’s better to go in from the side. There are many ways to attack the initial division process. I favour the ‘two fork’ approach. Two forks, jammed in to the clump back to back. Then they just need wiggling backwards and forwards. I find that the action that provides the most leverage is to use the angle of the forks and push the handles together (rather than apart). The metal tines then push each other apart, taking the clump with them. But don’t sweat it, jiggling back and forth does the job. If you don’t have two garden forks handy, a spade can be used, an old saw, even an old bread knife. It is not a delicate process!
For a big clump like this one, the quick and easy route to division is to split it into 4 or 5 smaller clumps and plant them straight out into the garden, ideally having dug some compost or manure into the ground before hand.
Don’t forget to firm them in and give them a good watering. It’s important that the roots are in good contact with the soil. But, if you want even more plants, keep reading!
I was curious to see how many plants I could get from the clump so I took it a stage further. I took the tray into Propagation HQ (the shed) for further preparation. Some plants have very tough crowns or rhizomes, particularly if they’ve been left for too long before dividing. The smaller clumps can be difficult to divide. Again, an old saw or bread knife are useful tools. Just cut them up, aiming for shoots and roots in both sections. This seems drastic but is not traumatic to the plant. Mind your fingers…
As I was splitting up the astilbe I removed the old woody stems, bits of crown and roots, they have no further part to play. This is part of the renovation process, the plant will appreciate it.
Next, we cleaned the individual divisions. I found that parts I’d previously thought were one potential plant often became two or three when we cleaned the mud off. For the little plant to grow, it just needs a section with roots and at least one shoot, so you can go quite small.
After my daughter and I had finished splitting and washing we had 45 sections. That’s a pretty good return from an hours work.
These plants are a little small to put straight in the garden so instead we potted them up in 7cm pots. Depending on the plant being divided, the roots can be quite long or an awkward shape, which can make potting them up difficult. Don’t be afraid to trim the roots so they are a manageable size. I clipped off quite a few knobbly bits of astilbe root as I was going. Pruning the roots in this way actually helps as it stimulates the plant into a spurt of root growth.
Here they all are, potted up. I have just used multi-purpose compost, nothing fancy.
So that’s 45 baby plants from one clump that was probably 3 or 5 plants when originally planted years ago. I have a supply of pots but if I couldn’t easily lay my hands on 45 pots I would have made pots from newspaper, also something the kids can help with. The equipment needed for this is simple, a baked bean tin or pesto jar, some newspaper cut into 20cm wide strips and some sticky tape. Roll a couple of cut sheets around the tin, not too tight, with half the sheet round the tin, half sticking out over the end. Fold over the sticking out part and tape down, then remove the tin. This should leave you with something vaguely pot-shaped. They will stand up to watering and a bit of weather, particularly if closely packed, and can be planted straight into the ground with the plant when the time comes.
I’ve put the pots in my greenhouse, but a reasonably sheltered spot somewhere will be fine. Keep them watered so they don’t dry out, and with a bit of warmth and sunshine they will grown on a treat and be ready to plant out in a few weeks. They also make nice gifts for friends and family, or as donation to charity plant sales.
So there it is, a propagation technique that is hard to get wrong at this time of year, just chop ‘em up and re-plant them. Dividing plants in this way is good for the plant, it will appreciate being divided and given more room to grow, and is also a very quick and easy way to greatly increase stocks of plants you love.
The list of garden plants that can be divided this way is long, but includes:
Agapanthus, Anemone, Aster, Astilbe, Bergenia, Crocosmia, Dierama, Delphinium, Epimedium, Eryngium, Euphorbia, Gentiana, Geranium, Helianthus, Helenium, Hemerocallis, Heuchera, Lychnis, Lysimachia, Primula, Salvia, Sedum, Verbena
Why not give it a try?
Thank you so much Jonathan, you make it look so simple. You’ve encouraged me to attempt to divide a large Aster clump that I have in my garden, that has been bugging me for years. I also need to try your newspaper pot idea.
For more propagating tips and tales, you can follow Jonathan’s blog The Propagator.
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