It may not be sexy, but nothing beats the satisfaction – or the economy – of growing plants from scratch. By Helen Razer.

Propagate and prosper

With tender loving care, squash seedlings will sprout happily on a windowsill.
Iris is at it again. Her front yard is a living encyclopaedia of autumn’s blooms – dahlia, coneflower, the black-and-yellow warning signs of primula – and mine is a hill of sheep shit. Almost daily, I stop to gawp at No. 15 and its long-manured soil; a little out of envy but chiefly from hope. If I stare long enough, Iris gives me pity and a fresh cutting or a sandwich bag of saved seeds to take back to the trenches. If I stare too long, which I sometimes do, she’ll retreat with a tip of the gardening hat to the back yard – an Eden I’ve not yet seen but imagine is rich in seasonal greens. 

To give the rest of us our due, the most decorated gardener on our street has had a 40-year head start. There must have been a time when the hot stab of livestock manure took the knees out of her trousers, and her beds produced nothing but stinkweed and defeat. But today, she’s claimed her quarter acre from Melbourne’s ungenerous sand belt. 

Her victory is over the earth itself but also through secateurs and sandwich bags. And, as I have recently learned, loo rolls. We’ll get to this up-cycling technique in a bit. For the moment, I need to persuade you, as Iris has persuaded me, of the rewards of propagation. 

There are plenty of reasons not to grow from seeds or clone from cuttings. My mother, a former nursery owner, can recite them all. She came of horticultural age in the 1980s – the Don Burke era of “lazy gardening”. It was then that market innovation gave us cheaper plants and took away gardener’s daylight as people spent longer at work. Why tend a seed or cutting for weeks when you can have a mature plant for pennies in minutes? Why foul the house with perlite?

To be candid, I do find the mess a bit annoying. I’m not one of those artsy people who can turn function into form and arrange things octagonally on a vintage soft-drink box. No. My cutting and seed-raising station looks and smells like a shit-show as I spray fortnight-old seedlings with diluted fish emulsion. That stuff works but it smells like arse. 

You can probably do better or at least place your station out of the way. Especially if you have cats, grabby children or, for example, an in-law who drinks half a bottle of Sullivans Cove and sings “Allentown” before he dives crying for lost youth into my Tuscan kale at 2.40am. (Germinate Tuscan, or lacinato, kale now. This cultivar is a hardy, pretty and delicious friend to minestrone and in-law-free Australian conditions.)

But until I have a Doris Duke dream greenhouse, my kitchen windowsill will do to raise the sun-loving seeds that cannot be directly sowed. And, really, it’s better to have needy babies in plain view so I remember to mist them with room-temperature water a few times a day. They’re really not a bother and they do produce a range and quality of plants better than the often limited, overpriced, root-bound stock you’ll find at a gardening centre. Growing from hundreds of seeds maximises your success in ways a few tubby little agribusiness rejects in plastic cells cannot. This is as true for the balcony gardener as it is for the sand-belt obsessive. 

Propagation is cheaper, stronger and minimises transplant shock. And direct sowing is marvellous; your plants start adjusting to their surroundings from the moment of germination. Even in autumn, you can direct-sow poppies, coneflowers (both of these seeds will benefit from a fortnight in the fridge) and pansies whose Satan faces give us hope for evil as they laugh at winter’s angels. 

In the autumn vegetable garden, lettuce can now be directly sown, as can garlic, cauliflower, broccoli and carrot, in all those showy heritage colours designed to outdo dinner guests. Now is the time for legumes – there’s nothing much easier to grow, and keep growing, from seed than peas and winter beans. I’ve grown the same garden pea, or Pisum sativum, for years from pods harvested from an original $3.50 Diggers Club packet. (When seed-saving, choose only from the best and most productive plants.) Oh, and my broad beans have just gone in and these, like most legumes, are great soil improvers with their habit of pulling nitrogen. 

My ‘‘crimson flowered’’ fava is to legume cultivation as the gull-wing Mercedes is to automotive collectibles. It is decorative and so rare no botanist has bothered to give it a Latin name. (Scarcity is another reason to grow from seed and outrun the dull monoculture of nurseries.) The high-yield heirloom species was donated to the British Heritage Seed Library by a gardener from Kent named Rhoda Cutbush. All who grow it are in her debt. When I told Iris I had grown Home County descendants, she asked for some pods. These are the only garden gift she has accepted from me.

Meanwhile, Iris keeps on giving and her original advice to “for goodness sake, label your seedlings and cuttings” cannot be repeated often enough. To make labels, a pencil and plastic pieces cut from a large plastic milk bottle will do fine.

Iris also let me in on the loo-roll secret – brilliant for those seedlings, such as tomatoes, that you can start raising with indoor coddling as early as July. 

First, save the cardboard tubes from your loo rolls. Then, make six two-centimetre incisions at one end. Fold them over to form a base and fill the roll with moistened seed-raising mixture. This doubles as a cutting medium and you can certainly make your own from perlite and coco fibre. I don’t. This is because I so often (a) smell of gardening materials and (b) yell “save the toilet roll/milk bottle/newspaper/vegetable cuttings”, that if I’m to ever again expect sex, I need to cool it with the DIY. Simply pop a seed in the container and, after six weeks, plant out the entire thing, label and all. By fanning the tabs out, transplant shock is again avoided. You could use peat pots but these are expensive, often unsustainably farmed and best left to cannabis raisers. 

Measures for raising a seed vary and I recommend reading the packet or, in the case of a stubborn princess, such as the Himalayan blue poppy, searching gardening forums. For growth of native seeds, take advice from nurseries specialising in hyper-local plantings. They know which plants work to attract local fauna in an altered landscape and won’t try to persuade you a Sturt’s desert pea is any more indigenous to the northern beaches than Bob Ellis. The CSIRO publication Growing Australian Native Plants from Seed is a resource of merit. 

As with seeds, ideal conditions to strike cuttings vary. But if you have a clone donor, a talent for theft or for mature plants to replicate, you can afford to experiment. I’ve found hydrangea is easily struck in open ground, and winter-flowering pineapple sage will grow just about anywhere. But my camellias need rooting hormone and indoor care; so many of us do. And if you have ever managed to strike a hoya, you’re a better man than me. I’ve killed seven of these marzipan beauties. 

Not all plants will propagate but that doesn’t stop me from giving them a go. Cut a 15-centimetre portion with secateurs or scissors; ideally, these should be rinsed after immersion in 10 per cent bleach solution. If there is a flower on the cutting, snip off this and all but the uppermost leaves to direct energy to root formation. If there’s bark on the end, scrape it off to about two centimetres. Place the cutting in your medium or flowerbed and keep it moist but not sodden. Avoid contact with in-laws and Billy Joel. 

This cultivation madness does not presuppose you have Iris-standard soil. No one but Iris has that, apart from small-space gardeners who can cultivate in pots of perfect medium. But through seasons of working your soil, which is nearly always poor in Australia, you’ll transform it from clay or sand to uterine Arcadia. And if you have no time this season to bring in a hill of sheep shit or to start a no-dig bed, use big barrels, raised beds or little tubs of purchased mix to sustain the plants you nursed from seed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 10, 2014 as "Propagate and prosper".

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Helen Razer
is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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