A summer trip to the family home place, whether it is in town or in the country, is a memory-maker for families. There they find not only special food and comfy chairs on a front porch made for sitting, they see plants that have been growing around the house practically forever.
These are plants that make memories because their ownership can include generations in a family or represent decades of friendship.
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It is not hard to bring home a bit of these memories in the form of seeds or cuttings from special plants taken from a grandmother or aunt’s garden.
Thus they become heirloom plants.
When the giver is being generous, some of these heirloom plants – including day lilies, Shasta daises, black-eyed Susans, hostas, irises, Lenten roses and peonies – can be dug up and put into a paper bag to take home. This is basic transplanting. Just sink a shovel into the ground, bring up the root system with stems and leaves attached and put it in a paper bag or pot to take home and replant.
If only a portion of the plant is being given, it can be divided, with roots and stems gently separated and the mother plant replanted. This is particularly useful with perennials that produce clumps with baby plants around their perimeter. Lenten roses are famous for producing seedlings that can easily be dug with a trowel.
Shrubs are a different matter, requiring a technique called cuttings. These shrubs – including spiraeas, viburnums, camellias, hydrangeas, forsythia and old-fashioned roses – can be propagated by this technique.
Most plants tend to be ready for taking cuttings in early-to-mid-summer, which is just at the time of family reunions. The fresh growth that came out in the spring is now mature but not too woody to cut and root for new plants.
When such cuttings are taken too early, they tend to flop and deteriorate before roots emerge. The tip of the stem might still be a fresh, new green, but down the stem a ways, say 3 to 5 inches, it should be firm enough to use. Use clean, sharp shears for this work to reduce the chance of disease. The cut should be sharp and clean so that it does not crush the stem tissue. Keep the leaves, but if some are quite large, cut them in half to reduce the chance of dehydration during rooting.
Take more than one cutting because this is not foolproof. Opt for side stems instead of the tip ends and do the work in the morning while the plant has more water in its system. Transport the cuttings in a small plastic bag with damp soil or perlite around the roots and put them in a small pot of clean potting soil as soon as possible. Rooting powder is a help with this. Just dip the cut end of the stem into the powder before you put it halfway down into the soil. Water the soil well and keep the pot in a sheltered place, not in a hot, sunny spot.
New leaves will signal that the plant is rooting. As it grows, move it to a larger pot, then eventually to a space in your landscape.
A third method of saving plants is collecting seeds, commonly done with non-hybrid annuals such as sweet peas, cosmos, moon flowers and zinnias. Look for pods of flowers that have matured. Snip off the pods and store them in a paper bag kept in a cool, dry place until sowing time next spring.
Q. Is it too late to sow some zinnias for this summer?
A. Not if you are careful to protect the young seedlings from hot summer sun. It would be best to sow them in a pot that can be kept in a sheltered place while the plants develop before transplanting them to a flower bed. Or, sow sparingly and let them grow in a large pot.