(I don't know) When to Propagate What and How

Greenhouse on October 20. Nassella cernua in foreground

I've played with propagation for getting on 3 years now, and I've come to know a bit of this and that. To pour nearly boiling water over lupine seeds and let them soak overnight, for example, to break their dormancy, and to strip the leaves from cuttings even though it feels cruel. But I have a ways to go before I have that deep, internally felt calendar of events that tells me what to do when, which years of experience and attention (I hope) will give me. I'm still all at sea about when to take what kind of cuttings, and -- especially on my mind lately -- when to sow seeds.

Last year I started seedlings late, according to Dara Emery's calendar (which I blogged about here in 2009). This year I got closer to what it should have been, but I was still a bit late.

Last year so many seeds germinated I was overwhelmed. This year - not so much. Vast swathes of not so much, actually.

When I mentioned this to Denise, who guides our CNPS propagation group activities each month, she laughed and said, well, it would be surprising if anything came up at THIS time of year.

And another CNPS expert I know says she sows in February. So what's with sowing perennials in late July?

Why is this so confusing? I think the July date is so you can get plants ready to go in the ground by late fall - out of Mother Nature's natural cycle, but maximizing garden loveliness in spring, perhaps? Whereas February is Mother Nature's time, around here. Though I also see things popping up as soon as rain arrives. I've saved batches of seeds to try a February sowing too, and compare results.

There are other reasons for the low rate of germination this year. I tried a lot of wild gambles, seeds I collected a couple years ago and never planted, like false Solomon's seal and starry Solomon's seal. Also "mysteries" - seeds that lost their labels. I'm just curious to see if anything comes up.  One or two things have.

Mystery 6!
Watching for seeds to germinate is more compulsive than Facebook!

I think giant wakerobin has germinated! But he looks a bit chlorotic. Am I drowning him? Does he need fertilizer? Or is this a weed or some other thing that got mixed in? I don't know - it's a mystery!

Trillium chloropetalum, giant wakerobin seedling. Maybe.
The other thing that's different this year is the planting media I used. I just went with commercial potting soil, as advised by Glenn Keator in his book The Complete Garden Guide to the Native Perennials of California. It's certainly easier than mixing up my own, but I think different seeds may prefer lighter sandier mixes and others might prefer a more peaty mix. So I'm not sure. I did mix peat into the riparian seeds, and in some cases they are getting so soggy green algae is forming on the top. Whereas the ones with a bit of sand or vermiculite sprinkled on the top and no extra peat are looking OK.

However, a couple things are doing well. I have Nassella cernua coming up fit to beat the band:

Nassella cernua, nodding needlegrass seedlings
I tried using this bunch grass down the southern chaparral slope to make a "river of grass" a couple years ago, but I failed to irrigate sufficiently and they all died, pretty much. A few may be struggling to survive there. Very thin soil on top of sandstone doesn't seem to suit them. This year I will probably try them in the south garden where I'll irrigate a bit more, and see how they do. I'll also try them in different light/shade situations. And I'll definitely be able to plant these seedlings when the good soaking rains begin so they can get going before frost danger arrives. They grow quickly as seedlings. And if happy - can live for a hundred years or more, they say!

I was also hoping for a lot of the nice soft green clumping Torrey's melic grass, which also does well with a bit of irrigation and/or shade, especially on banks where it grows natively around our place, but it is not cooperating greatly. I gathered a lot of seeds from last year's lot which did well in Experimental Bed Number 1 and a few other places. I'm hopeful the spring sowing will be more fruitful. Or seedlingful, rather.

Melica Torreyana - 5% success. I think spring is the time for them

I am thrilled to finally see some tiny tiny seedlings of alum root, Heuchera micrantha, coming up in one or two cells.

 These small local perennials look a lot like coral bells. The ones I propagated last year did quite well their first year in the garden, except that they didn't blossom.

I'm hoping to plant these seeds in fall this year (instead of late spring/summer!) and maybe they'll bloom in spring. Also I hope last year's will also bloom this spring. I'll let you know! FYI, I've learned that they part shade and can take full shade. They can be pretty happy with minimal to no irrigation, look more lush with more water, and do very well in pots. Ms Town Mouse has some also and has enjoyed the foliage. So we'll be comparing notes by and by.

I have riparian plant stories to tell, and planting plans from Rana Creek to share - and I have so many succulent cuttings from the class Town Mouse and I took, that I'm just bustin' a gut to be finished with this post and GET OUT IN THE GARDEN!

Happy gardening to everyone, from this sunny late October day on the central coast of California!


James said…
Congratulations on the successes you have so far. Maybe things will catch up when it gets cooler? Of the plants you mention I've only had experience with Heuchera maxima seedlings, though the seedlings I got came up on their own, unfortunately mostly in the worst places. I bought 4 packets of seeds at the local native plant sale and will be trying some from the garden...if time ever permits...
Haddock said…
I think some things come by experience and the trial and error method.
Country Mouse said…
Thanks for coming by - I do think that it's a dialectic. You learn a little, you try a little: repeat!