Propagation & Seed Starting

Propagation…It’s a Way of Plant Life

While sowing seeds is a popular method for gardeners and greenhouse growers, another method that is an easy and quick way to start your plants is cloning. A clone is a small piece that is clipped off the “parent” plant and grown into another plant. Cloning plants is a practice that has been going on for centuries, can be done with simple equipment and will give you a jump start on production.

Starting Seeds

When starting seeds, it’s important to know not only what you’re growing, but how it will grow and what you can expect. Where I live in Iowa, we grow heirloom vegetables and flowers. These open pollinated seeds have been saved for generations and usually have a story behind how they arrived in the today’s gardens. When you use seeds you’ve saved from heirloom varieties, you can get a sense of what is normal for that plant and, weather permitting, have similar yields each year. One of the downfalls with heirlooms in production gardening is that they can be more susceptible to insect and disease problems. The fruit may also be a little more irregular and have an occasional blemish. This is generally not a problem for the discerning customer seeking the superior flavor of heirlooms, or a savvy salesperson who educates their client about the qualities that heirloom crops possess.

Most of the seeds that are grown today are hybrids. These seeds are often crosses of two or more plant varieties that have been proven to exhibit superior yields, tolerate a wide variety of growing conditions and have improved disease and insect resistance. Since the hybrids are crossed with at least two different parents, it can be hard to predict what you’re going to get with the next generation of seeds. I won’t bore you with a dissertation on the Punnett square, but genetic variability happens when you cross two parent plants. Plant breeders use this variability to choose superior plants. But with those superior traits, come some inferior traits. Furthermore, these seeds are generally patented, and you could be in violation of the law if you save these seeds or try to clone these plants. Large commercial growers can expect a visit from the “patent police” to be sure that they are not unlawfully cloning patented plants.

The bottom line is you need to know your seed when using this propagation method. Whether a master gardener or a novice, learning the pros and cons of the seeds you choose to plant in your garden or greenhouse will help you become a better grower.

Days to Harvest

Plant seeds throughout the growing season. You want to extend your harvest for as long as possible, so do a few plantings to prolong your produce production.

Determinate vs. Indeterminate

Determinate crops generally ripen or mature at about the same time and are “programmed” to produce a certain number of fruits. Indeterminate varieties continually produce while environmental conditions allow.

Symbols for Disease Resistance

Try to choose seeds that are disease resistant. Learn what the letters mean after the seed name. The longer the list of letters on your seed package, the more resistance it has bred into it. I have listed a few below:

V – Verticillium wilt

F – Fusarium wilt

N – Nematodes

A – Alternaria stem canker

T – Tobacco mosaic virus

St – Stemphylium (gray leaf spot)

SWV – Tomato spotted wilt virus

LB – Late blight

Cloning for Consistency

Clones are exact genetic copies of the parent plants. The largest living organism in the world is a clone. It is an aspen tree in Utah that is named Pando. It covers over 100 acres and is estimated to be many thousands of years old. Unlike growing plants from seed which we call sexual reproduction, cloned plants grow via asexual reproduction. Pando is using adventitious roots to perpetuate itself.

So, how does Pando apply to your growing? You can use a few different methods of cloning in your own growing to get a jump start on production. Cuttings are one option. Just like the name implies, cuttings are small “snips” of the parent plant. You simply need to make sure you have a node or growing point present where adventitious roots can sprout from. When you clone, the new plant will have the same genetics as the parent plant. This has a lot of benefits, but it also has a downside. The main benefits of cloning are that it’s faster than starting seeds; you have a good idea of what to expect based on the parent plant and crop optimization. The downside is genetic uniformity. You can lose a whole crop to a disease that, if you had a genetically diverse crop, would have only killed a few of the plants. Also, if you are growing commercially, you could get into legal trouble if you try this method with a patented hybrid plant.

Plants can clone themselves because of hormones called auxins. Auxins have properties that change vegetative growth into root growth. Most cuttings will root on their own, but a rooting powder or gel can speed up the process and help with success rates.

Other Forms of Propagation

Another way to clone your plants is by dividing them. This is common with daylilies, hostas, sedum, and many other perennials that have been growing for a few years. It is best to wait until your plants are well established before you divide them. When you divide plants, make sure you have some of the root and shoot intact with each division. Dig up the whole plant and use a sharp spade to create mini versions of the parent. This article explains how to divide daylilies.

Runners and rhizome propagation are other means of plant reproduction. In Iowa, we use strawberry runners to perpetuate our strawberry production. Last fall, I took some runners off my ever-bearing outdoor strawberries, brought them in to our hydroponic greenhouse and started harvesting berries in March. These hydroponic strawberries are so sweet tasting they knock your socks off. A friend of mine grows his own hops to brew beer. He brought me some rhizomes this spring, I popped them in a Dutch bucket alongside my tomatoes and they are thriving. I’m guessing there are not too many people in Iowa growing hops hydroponically right now, but this just proves that almost anything that grows in the soil will do well hydroponically.

Tissue culture is another means of cloning plants, but on a cellular level. Take just a few cells of a plant and grow them in a Petri dish until they have roots. Tissue culture is done in a super-sterile environment like a plant research laboratory at a university, or by the big dogs like Syngenta or Pioneer. I did some work with tissue-culture production while in college at South Dakota State University. Due to the specialized equipment and super-sterile environment, tissue-culture cloning methods are not used very often by the homeowner or smaller scale grower.

Plants can propagate in many ways and no matter which method you choose, from starting with seeds to cloning, you will find success. Starting from seeds takes a little longer for plants to be large enough to start producing, however, if you have your timing right, it won’t slow you down. Cloning and some of the other methods can give your growing a head start, boost your crop and you won’t have to worry about starting seeds far in advance. The method of propagation that you choose for your garden or greenhouse growing depends largely on your preference.

Sam Shroyer has a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from South Dakota State University and over 20 years of horticultural experience, it is his goal to “re-teach” the public that sustainability and self-sufficiency is well within everyone’s reach.

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