Making new plants ourselves

Twinleaf seeds ©Janet AllenThe amazing seedpod of the twinleaf, which always reminds me of a garbage can with its lid up

It's always nice to get free plants. For some plants it's surprisingly easy to get new plants either by rooting cuttings, dividing established plants, or starting plants from seed.

There are big differences in the ease of reproducing plants, and different methods are suitable for different plants. We use William Cullina's books, which have very useful information at the back on how best to reproduce each kind of plant. Some are quite tricky or require years to germinate.

For some plants, we find that just buying the plant is the easiest way, then dividing it after a few years or looking out for seedlings that appear.

The disadvantage of taking cuttings or dividing plants, unlike starting plants from seed, is a lack of genetic diversity. In one person's yard, though, I wouldn't think it would have the negative impact that selling a single cultivar all over the country has.

From cuttings

Cuttings ©Janet AllenRooting pussy willow cuttings

Sometimes creating new plants is just as simple as putting a cut stem in water, as with these pussy willows. This is simpler than it would be for most plants, but there are probably others that work well with this method.

Dividing plants

Dividing plants ©Janet AllenDividing plants

More often than starting plants from seed, we divide mature plants. It's the cheapest way to get more plants, especially for expensive or hard-to-find plants. Of course, I've had to be patient while my purchased plant matures.

(See more about dividing plants … )

Starting from seed

Planting seeds for spring ©Janet AllenPlanting seeds for spring

It's surprisingly easy to start some native plants from seed. Here we're experimenting with planting swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) seeds in the fall. Previously we had cold-stratified seeds by putting them in moist paper towels and refrigerating them for six weeks, then planting them in little pots. Why not let winter do the job? We sink the pots into the soil. Of course, we could just sprinkle them on the soil, but it's always hard to remember where we planted them and to recognize any seedlings that come up.

Labeling the pots of seeds ©Janet AllenLabeling the pots of seeds

We've (finally!) learned to label what we plant.

Note that we've covered the seeds with a small amount of soil, contrary to William Cullina's recommendation to surface-sow. This is the way we've always planted these seeds, but I assume Cullina's method would work, too.

Young bluebells ©Janet AllenA young bluebell plant we started from seed

Here's a bluebell (Mertensia virginica) we started by simply planting about three dozen seeds in a 4" or 5" pot and leaving it buried in the soil over the winter. We were astonished to see dozens of little bluebell plants the following spring. We planted them in various places in the yard, and they bloomed the following year.

We also bought a twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla), choosing one that had a seed pod (see the photo at the top of the page). We planted each of the seeds in a small pot and put the little pots in the garden over the winter. Lo and behold, almost every one germinated!

Of course, the next challenge is to help the tiny plants survive. If they're important, we'd continue growing them in pots, but since we had more seedlings than we needed, we just planted them out. About a third of the bluebells survived and are now blooming size. Some were just "misplaced," i.e. not labeled properly, dug up accidentally, or experienced some other traumatic event. Some of our twinleaf plants got eaten, but I think we'll still have all we need.

Kentucky coffee tree ©Janet AllenKentucky coffee tree

We've even started trees and shrubs successfully just by planting a seed or nut. This Kentucky coffee tree—now towering over our house—was planted 23 years ago as a nut by our then 3-year-old son. It started out life in a cottage cheese container in a nursery school!

Even the mighty oak can start with an acorn, probably much more successfully than as a larger seedling.

Dogwood shrubs and pagoda dogwoods seem to be especially easy to grow from seed.

Starting plants under lights ©Janet AllenStarting plants under lights

We sometimes start seeds inside, usually under lights. We use regular fluorescent lights, not the special grow lights. They seem to work fine.

Not all plants are easy to start from seed, though. I don't have enough interest in starting plants to try the difficult ones—those are the ones I buy as at least seedlings or small plants. But for the easy ones, it's satisfying to know you have as many as you want for the price of a little effort.