“Nothing in life is free” goes the famous saying; but clearly nobody told the plant kingdom.
Instead, our gardens, woodlands, hedgerows and wild meadows are like well-stocked larders at this time of the year, all of it magicked up by nature with just a little help from us. As another summer’s growing season comes to a close, all we need to do is to harness just a little of that boundless generosity and put it to productive use.
One of the best ways to do this is by propagating plants from home-saved seed, cuttings or division, three supremely cost-efficient, rewarding and time-honoured ways to grow lots of plants for free.
How to start? At this time of year (unless we’ve been exceptionally tidy-minded when it comes to regular deadheading), the ripe fresh seed of many kinds of plants can be found in abundance in our gardens and allotments. Harvested on a dry, still day and left to fully dry off indoors for a few weeks, this can be stored in paper envelopes/ bags for future use and/or to share with friends and family.
It’s also always very worthwhile sprinkling a little around the garden (after all, nature is the master propagator) to give you young plants that can be left in situ or lifted and transplanted elsewhere.
Suitable candidates for home seed saving include the seed of many common annuals such as nigella, opium poppy, calendula, cornflower, cosmos, agrostemma, ammi, dill, helichrysum, amaranthus, nicotiana, tagetes and sweet pea. Many different types of perennials also produce lots of ripe viable seed at this time of year including delphinium, lupin, linaria, bupleurum, rudbeckia and campanula. Certain herbs and vegetables including tomatoes, peas, lettuce, French beans and coriander are also suitable for home seed-saving as are many kinds of trees and shrubs which are often laden with ripe, viable seed from now until early November. Examples include camellia, magnolia, rhododendron, acer, viburnum, cornus, oak, sorbus and hawthorn.
How to identify it? Just bear in mind that nature packages its seeds in many different, ingenious, resilient ways (examples include seed capsules, pods, fruit, wings, nuts), so take the time to inspect each plant closely. It’s also very important to only harvest seed when it’s fully ripe, typically when the fruit/nut containing it is ripe or the capsules/pods have become brittle and faded to golden brown. Otherwise, it won’t be viable. But don’t leave it too late, as otherwise garden wildlife (squirrels, birds, mice etc) will almost certainly beat you to it.
If you’re saving seed from what’s known as a hybrid variety (a variety with F1 or F2 after it’s varietal name), then also bear in mind that the resulting progeny won’t share all the same characteristics as the parent plant (which is not to say that they won’t make good plants, but just that they’ll be quite different). Even plants grown from seed harvested from non-hybrid, self-pollinating varieties will show natural variation, nature’s clever way of maintaining diversity and sustaining plant health.
For those of us who want to propagate plants that are genetically identical to the parent plant, then two great ways to do this are through division and cuttings, both of which are methods of what’s known as vegetative propagation. Division, in particular, is an excellent way for beginner gardeners to quickly and easily bulk-up plant quantities to stock a new garden. Ideally suited to clump-forming perennials, it’s simply a matter of using a sharp spade, garden knife or small saw to divide the parent plant into a number of smaller clumps, making sure that each comes with its own viable section of root system. Then quickly either pot these on or plant them into their final growing positions in the garden, making sure to give them a good watering immediately after planting.
Another good alternative is to plant these divisions temporarily into a small nursery bed (this allows you to easily keep a close eye on them as regards watering etc until they’ve established their own strong root systems, at which point they can then be planted out into the garden or allotment).
At this time of year, as garden centres start to sell off stock of pot-bound plants, there are great bargains to be had in terms of acquiring established container-grown plants of suitable species that are begging to be divided in this way. Examples include geum, achillea, astrantia, echinacea, delphinium, aconitum, lysimachia and alchemilla. Just like the biblical story of the loaves and the fishes, the resulting plants will quickly bulk up so that in a few years’ time the process can be repeated all over again.
Cuttings are yet another time-honoured way to propagate plants that share all the traits of their parent plant and are genetically identical to it in every way. That favourite rose growing in a friend or relative’s garden? The beautiful hydrangea that you don’t know the name of? That pretty shrub that’s of sentimental significance? All are prime candidates.
At this time of year, you can take what are known as semi-ripe/semi-hardwood and cuttings of many kinds of perennials, shrubs and trees, while the end of the year is time for what are known as hardwood cuttings. These technical-sounding terms can sound off-putting, but are simply a reference to the plant propagation material used, which are shortish pieces of healthy plant stems that are firmer or ‘harder’ to the touch than the soft, sappy growth of early to midsummer.
Cut in early morning (when the stems are fully refreshed), to a length of 10-15cm, just below a leaf node and then gently stripped of their lower leaves, semi-ripe/ semi hardwood cuttings should be quickly ‘planted’ into a 2-3 plastic litre pot filled with good-quality seed-and-cuttings compost (roughly five cuttings per pot), before being watered, covered with a clear plastic bag, sealed with an elastic band and then placed in a sheltered spot away from direct sunshine. If you have space in a glasshouse, polytunnel or cold frame, all the better. If you can give them the bottom heat of an electric propagator, then better again.
Examples of plants that can be propagated using semi-ripe/ semi-hardwood cuttings include many shrubby evergreens such as rosemary, sage, lavender, box, escallonia, holly, viburnum, hebe, camellia, ceanothus, cistus and choisya.
Hardwood cuttings, by comparison, are ideally taken a little later in the season (late October-early December after the leaves have finished falling), using slightly longer lengths of stem (15-30cm) no thicker than a pencil. Cut them so that the top of each cutting is slanted (this way you can tell which way is up) and “plant” them with two-thirds of the stem buried below the surface. They appreciate but don’t require bottom heat and can be “planted” outdoors into a cold frame or protected spot in the garden where they will take at least several months to root.
Plants best suited to being propagated by hardwood cuttings are deciduous species, examples of which include roses, philadelphus, buddleia, elder, cornus, forsythia, jasmine, vitis, honeysuckle, willow and many varieties of fruit, including currants, gooseberry and mulberry.
Whatever kind of cuttings you take, make sure choose a healthy parent plant free from pests or disease. For the same reason, if you’re growing them on in pots, give the latter a good scrub before use. It’s also really important to carefully label your cuttings (don’t kid yourself that you’ll remember) including the date they were taken, the name or a description of the parent plant.
Last but not least, keep a careful eye out for those self-sown seedlings that so often appear in our gardens and allotments at this time of year. Whether left in situ, transplanted elsewhere or potted on for later use, they’re yet another example of nature’s boundless generosity.
*Useful websites/ resources for further information on home seed saving and propagating from cuttings and division include Brown Envelope Seeds (brownenvelopeseeds.com), Irish Seedsavers (irishseedsavers.ie ) The Gaia Foundation’s Seed Sovereignty Programme (seedsovereignty.info) and the RHS (rhs.org.uk)
This week in the garden
At this time of year, many flower and vegetable beds, glasshouse and polytunnels are being cleared of dead and faded plants in preparation for another season. But don’t just dump all that garden waste in a forgotten corner. Instead, add it to the compost heap to give you lots of lovely, organic home-made compost to use in the garden or allotment next spring. Again, all for free.
Mid-September is the cut-off point to clip beech and hornbeam hedges, as well as evergreen hedges such as Leylandii, yew, eleagnus thuja, Lonicera nitida and privet. Always use a guideline/string to cut hedges, wear protective clothing including eye goggles and take extra care if you’re working from a ladder or using a mechanical hedge trimmer.
Dates for your Diary
Continuing until September 25th, Mount Venus Nursery, Mutton Lane, Dublin 13, the nursery’s annual Autumn Plant Sale, see mountvenusnursery.com
Rescheduled from last weekend to tomorrow, Sunday September 18th, as a result of poor weather conditions, Irish Specialist Nursery Plant Fair, Fota House, Fota Island, Carrigtwohill, Co Cork
Also Sunday September 18th (10am-5pm), Fruitlawn Gardens, Abbeyleix, Co Laois, garden open day at the home of designer and plantsman Arthur Shackleton garden with rare plants for sale, see arthurshackleton.com
September 22nd (8pm), Garryduff Sports Center, Rochestown, Co Cork, T12ER22, Jack Willgoss of Wildgoose Nursery UK, will give a talk entitled A Late Summer Love Affair, on behalf of the Cork Alpine/Hardy Plants Society