TODAY’S SHOW came out of a phone conversation that Ken Druse and I were having the other day, when I found myself confessing to him that I’d let things in my containers get, shall we say, a tad overgrown this season without the pressure of any visitors and tours to keep me in line.
And how I was finally trying to get them back into shape for the rest of the season (yes, there are still months to go even up North here!) by pinching things. And just for fun, how I’ve been rooting some of the pinched off bits in little jars of water. So all that’s to say, Ken and I got to talking about a little midsummer rejuvenation and also some of the less-obvious positive effects that can yield.
I don’t need to introduce my friend Ken Druse, author of 20 garden books, including one on propagation called “Making More Plants.” The photo up top, from Ken, is a jumble of coleus and sweet-potato vine–two candidates among many for pinching back and propagating–maybe even to make starts for next year’s garden. Ken tells us how, plus, enter in the comments to win a copy of that book of his.
Read along as you listen to the August 10, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotifyor Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
pinching and propagating, with ken druse
Margaret: And hello, Ken, I don’t want to waste any time with an introduction of you.
Ken: Are we getting facelifts?
Margaret: Facelifts? [Laughter.]
Ken: Midsummer rejuvenation. Re-hydration.
Margaret: Cool, cool.
Ken: Yes, sorry.
Margaret: I should say before we start, I think this is going to be one where we’re going to give away another copy of your “Making More Plants Book,” which we did a month or two ago, and it was-
Ken: That’s so nice.
Margaret: …so super-popular. With the transcript of the show, we’ll have all the info on that. But seriously, I called you the other day and I’m like, “Oh, it’s a mess. Everything’s so overgrown.” And I’m telling you about my Coleus that’s overtaken the Anise hyssop, and the Salvia is swamped by the whatever. And you’re laughing at me. And so what’s it time for, Ken, besides facelifts?
Ken: Well, just because you aren’t having guests visit doesn’t mean you let the whole thing go to pot-
Margaret: Oh, he’s going to-
Ken: ...or your pots go to pot. [Laughter.]
Margaret: …oh, he’s going to discipline me first, publicly, out loud on the radio.
Ken: You said you were pinching things, so they get kind of thicker, but it may be time to cut stuff back.
Margaret: I’m using a modest-sounding verb, but yeah, you’re right, some cutbacks. Well, I have these big bowls. You’ve been here, and people who have visited have seen them. They’re like big, low terracotta bowls on the patio and other places. And I group smaller pots around them, but they’re the big statement centerpiece things for my annuals, usually.
And not everything grows at the same rate and you put it all in when it’s small, little things from the garden center, but then some things grow more lushly than others—and so like the coleus, for instance. [Above big bowl and other pots on the terrace, at Margaret’s in an earlier year.]
Ken: Oh my gosh. [Laughter.] Yes. When you’re cutting those coleus back, you mentioned that you could root them in water. You can also, in some situations, just stick them back in the same container, if you’ve got space. And then that’ll get even more lush and full without hanging over and losing its bottom leaves and stuff. because when you pinch or break off that parent plant, it’s going to branch, and you’ll get more leaves on that one. And then you have these pieces that you can either stick in or root in water—or I like to use perlite.
Margaret: Oh, O.K. Containers like a pot of perlite?
Ken: Yeah. I have a small pot of perlite and I moisten the perlite, tamp it down really hard, and that really seems to help. And then I drill a hole in the perlite with a pencil, and stick in my cutting, and firm the perlite back around the cut end again. And you want to remove a couple of the bottom leaves of the cutting.
The cutting’s about four to six nodes long. Depending on the type of plant, 3 to 5 inches long. And some plants like coleus might root in two to four weeks. And then you have a new plant with roots and you carefully pry it out of the perlite, or in the case of water you want to move it when the roots are less than an inch and a half long. And sometimes roots made in water have a little trouble adjusting to a higher-oxygen medium. But anyway, you can stick them back in the same container that you took them from or just what you need, Margaret: another container of coleus.
Margaret: I definitely need that. That’s absolutely what I need because I’m doing such a good job managing the ones that I have this year. [Laughter.]
But seriously, it has been kind of an epic year, in the sense that our realities are changed completely. Our patterns of life are changed—I mean, I’m stating the obvious. And then on top of that in our region and many other regions, there’s been severe weather. I’ve had almost no rain, until a hurricane. In fact, I should ask you, how did you do during the hurricane? That was just a couple of days ago. I had a couple of inches of rain, outages for a day or two, but not terrible, terrible, like many areas nearby had much worse times.
Ken: And I know you’re praying for rain. I’ll say, a lot of areas, there are still places in New Jersey that don’t have electricity. We lost power for almost 24 hours, but we had 5-1/2 inches of rain. And then that stopped. And then the wind came and the wind was really a lot of wind, but knock wood; knock trees. And I’ve got dead trees here. So I thought, uh-oh, that’s going to be something. There was one stick about 4-1/2 feet long from the ash tree that was stuck into the lawn straight up.
Margaret: It’s always funny when that happens in a big storm, it’s almost like a spear gets thrown, and it really lands like right as if someone inserted it with force. Well, someone did. [Laughter.] I had a couple of inches rain and I keep saying to myself is this whole year, the theme weather-wise has been: “It never rains, but it pours.” It won’t rain for a month practically and then we get-
Ken: That’s the way it is.
Margaret: These torrential, gully-washers; crazy.
Ken: And sometimes it’s almost no rain.
Ken: It’s a half an hour of tons of… You think, “Oh finally,” and then it turns out it’s dry under the trees sometimes. And you got less than a half an inch.
But I was thinking about what we were talking about just before, if you make a new plant and you pot it up of a coleus or a sweet potato vine or a begonia, you can try to carry that over in a very sunny window inside. And by March, that’s probably not going to be a very pretty plant, but you can cut that back, and it’ll make new growth and then make cuttings of the new growth. And you can save a lot of money, because you can use those cuttings to fill your containers next spring.
Margaret: Well, see here, the whole time I thought I’d just been kind of losing it due to what I was starting to speak about before—about all of our realities and patterns of living have changed in these last five months. And so this is the first garden season where, for instance, I have not, in person, gone to a garden center. For those big pots, whereas normally I’d go and I would have either pre-ordered particular things with a design in mind or I’d go to the garden center and mix and match and make my design on the spot, I just ordered some things last-minute by mail to put in them, on the close-out sales.
It wasn’t maybe the best thought-out kind of stuff [laughter], but what I had done is when I saw that there was one plant I got that it just wasn’t a doer. It wasn’t a performer. It just didn’t seem as nice as I thought it would in the mix that I was inventing when I placed my mail order. And so I yanked it out.
And so I had from the previous year, from our mutual friend, Ken Selody of Atlock Farm in New Jersey, who’s a topiary specialist, I had a couple of coleus topiaries from last year, from 2019, that I grew as houseplants over the winter. I kept pinching them. [Above, coleus topiary before grooming back to a tighter shape, creating cuttings to root.]
And again, I think it was just this kind of weird homebound year. I kept pinching and I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to put these in this little vase.” The windowsills have all these tiny topiaries, little arrangements—sorry, not topiaries, but bits of coleus from the topiary—like flower arrangements, but just foliage [below]. And they started rooting.
And so exactly what you said when it came time, when that one plant—it was a particular begonia—looked like hell, it left a big space in the pots. I thought, “Ah, I’ll take all my little water-rooted coleus out,” and I did. And I put them in and I kept it well-watered in the pot to help them adjust. And don’t you know, they did what you said—they filled in. I’m just not a propagator. You’re a propagator, you’re someone who makes more plants. That’s the name of your book, “Making More Plants” [affiliate link].
Ken: I can’t resist it.
Margaret: And I got in this lockdown time, I have been waste-not-want-not Margaret. You know what I mean? I’ve been that way with the pantry, with eating, with everything. Do you know what I mean? It’s made me more conscious of “use everything, don’t waste anything,” because you’re not going anywhere. It’s funny. It’s very “home economics with plants.”
Ken: We need a word for this-
Margaret: I don’t know what it is.
Ken: Because we started off talking about rejuvenation and maybe this is Renaissance or something. We’ll have to think about that.
Margaret: Well, it’s upcycling, recycling.
Ken: Yeah, it’s recycling, certainly.
Margaret: And so you said in anticipation, so I have these coleus pieces; I’ve cut them off to give the other things in the pot more room to do their things, since the coleus was outpacing them. And now I’ve got these rooted coleus, and now I’m tucking them back into holes in the pots and elsewhere. And you’re saying, I could also think about putting some of them in a pot of their own for my windowsill, a sunny windowsill in the winter, and then pinch them again and make more cuttings for next year. I think it’s upcycling. I like it.
Ken: Well, something else that I’ve started to do just this week is collect seeds from some of the plants, especially the annuals and biennials that some of them are going by and turning brown, the whole plant. And sometimes I just take the “dead” plant and just lay it where I want those seeds to fall. But sometimes with things like Nicotiana that are still blooming, I’ll just pinch off those little brown fruits, the dry fruits, and pour them into a plastic cup or a paper cup and then pour that into a little white envelope to save for next year. And I do that with the poppies, too, with the opium poppy or the bread… whatever you want to call it-
Ken: Breadseed poppy. And you see these fruits, these dry fruits, and if you tip them on their sides, a thousand seeds will pour out of one… You actually have to be careful. I leave some of them in the garden so that they’ll just drop their seeds where they are. And then some I saved the seeds, and I sow them on the snow in January or February where I want them to grow. [Breadseed poppy pods upside-down in paper bags at Margaret’s to save seed from.]
Ken: I’m collecting seeds. I can’t believe it—I’m making cuttings, I’m collecting seeds, what’s wrong with me? [Laughter.]
Margaret: Because you really need more plants.
Ken: Oh, well, of course.
Margaret: But for me, it reminds me–this urge that I’ve had that, as I said, that I don’t usually have–has been a little bit like my canning-and-preserving instinct. It’s a little bit like that.
Ken: Exactly. Exactly.
Margaret: It’s like: don’t waste anything, save all the bits, turn them into soup stock, freeze that or make tomato paste, can that, or tomato sauce, can that. It’s been that way and I don’t know, it feels a little bit consoling in a way. I don’t know. I’m kind of liking it. [Laughter.]
Ken: Can you think of something in your garden that self-sows?
Margaret: Oh, yeah. You mentioned a couple of them, the opium poppies, and also the Nicotiana—which right now the hummingbirds… I can always tell when the hummingbirds from farther north are starting to move, and I feel like they are, they may be starting to move in, though it seems very early, being sort of early August, but I feel like there’s suddenly more in my garden. And that’s what happens in August and September here is I get instead of a couple or few hummingbirds at a time, I get lots at a time.
Ken: I think it’s babies, maybe I’m wrong.
Margaret: Maybe it is. Maybe it’s babies, maybe you’re right, maybe–but at some point during hummingbird migration, I get loads and loads. It can’t be that many babies, but at any rate, the nicotiana is a big attraction, so I can have-
Ken: And what about your Verbena bonariensis? Do you still have that?
Margaret: Yes and that self-sows; that’s the tall verbena with the purple heads. That definitely self-sows. Angelica gigas [above], the biennial Korean angelica, that’s self-sows. I’m trying to think of other things that do.
Some of the Corydalis, the fumitory called corydalis, some of those self-sow, like lutea, the yellow-flowered one. That’s not an annual, technically, but it self-sows.
Ken: And it blooms the first year from seed. My Brunnera self-sows in dry shade. Remember when hellebores were like $35 a plant?
Margaret: Well, if anyone had ever known that they-
Ken: You lift the leaves and there’s a hundred hellebores under them. It does take time.
Margaret: Under the mother plant, but boy—and actually, it worries me because they’re creeping out into the gravel now in some places. [Laughter.]
Ken: I mow them in some places.
Margaret: Yeah, no. It’s wacky. It’s wacky so-
Ken: Well, columbines self-sow, that’s a nice one and you can save the seeds, if you have a lot of different columbines and there’s one or two that are particularly gorgeous, I’ll collect the seeds of those. If it’s really blue or maybe a double white one or something. And I label the little envelopes. I don’t know what those little envelopes are made for.
Margaret: Those little glassine bags?
Ken: That would be nice. No, I have just white envelopes. I think they’re for coins. Remember when we used to have coins?
Margaret: [Laughter.] Yeah. Oh gosh. Saving seeds, that’s the subject that I did this past week in the “New York Times” article. It was about vegetable seeds, but you’re reminding me because what you’re talking about is identifying whether you want to just tip a plant over where you want that plant to sow for next year, or leave it in place. And again, this can be with vegetables or with ornamentals—we want to make a plan now before without thinking we pull all the lettuce or all the cilantro or all the beans or all the peas.
A lot of these things, if you’re either only growing one variety or they’re an open-pollinated variety or both, depending what it is—and even with tomatoes, a lot of it tomatoes you can save seeds from safely, the open-pollinated or heirloom ones or whatever. There’s distancing and all this kind of stuff, but a lot of us don’t have 50 different kinds—it’s not a farm. But don’t pull all the bush beans that are fading. Don’t eat all the pods, let a few go, let some go and save some beans and save some peas. And that feels good, too.
But if we don’t mark it off now, if we don’t note which Nicotiana we’re going to leave to sow there and which we’re going to collect heads from into a paper bag to put over to another place… Do you know what I mean? It’s a little strategic, I think, right now. Anyway-
Ken: You dry the beans and you store them dry, just like you would with a dry bean?
Margaret: Yes. And the tricky part with beans and peas is that since they’re so big, you first have to let them, the pods—the vine stays in place, the vine and then the pods will turn brown or tan and the seeds, if you shake the pod on the vine, will rattle in the pod. That’s the time when you harvest them. And then you open the pods, you take the beans or peas out, they’re still not really dry, even though they sound dry, relatively speaking. And you spread them out on a screen in a warm, dry, airy place, like a garage or whatever. And it can take several weeks, really, to dry down to the ideal dryness to last well over the winter in storage.
The way to tell—it’s hilarious, and to the person that I interviewed for the Times story, Ken Greene of Hudson Valley Seed, I said, “How do you tell?” And he said, “Well, you get a hammer.” [Laughter.]
I was like, “What?” He said, “Well, you get a hammer and you smash one seed.” And he said, “If it cracks into splinters,” he said, “It’s ready. It’s down to like 7 percent moisture level, which is ideal. If it mashes, it’s not ready.”
Ken: I just ruined a seed doing that. And I didn’t have a whole lot of seeds, but I saw somebody did that and they just cracked the outside. And I thought, oh, that’s a good idea. Instead of sanding it on a very hard seed. And it splintered all right, dead, but you’re talking about when you have a whole lot.
Margaret: Yes. And again, in order to have a whole lot of peas or beans seeds for next year, you would have to anticipate and not pick all your edible pods along the way. You’d have to be leaving some vines unpicked. Say you had a 10-foot row or something of X number, or even a 5-foot row, you’d have to say, “These four over here, these vines, I’m going to let them do their thing right through to sexual maturity and seed-setting, right? I’m not going to pick from those or I’m going to pick once and then I’m going to let them form their second generation, and I’m going to leave those.”
Ken: Like the bean pods don’t split open and drop their seeds by themselves?
Margaret: That’s why you have to keep a strict eye on it and watch it. And so you want to get them just before that point, but yeah, sure. Well, and sometimes the small critters, the furry guys, like the chipmunks and squirrels, they come and split things open. [Laughter.]
So tell me just a few other things because now that I’ve become the master propagator over here with my jars of water and whatever—I can get some perlite, I think I have a bag in the garage—what else can I do? What other things could I be thinking of for this futurist sort of future forward looking?
Ken: I’m not out in the garden looking so it might be hard. We got the Coleus and a lot of things with square stems, like Plectranthus. [Above, at Ken’s, Plectranthus argentatus.]
Margaret: Mint relatives, you’re saying?
Ken: Right. And mint, but we’re not doing mint, but there’s a lot of ornamental Plectranthus now. What’s a common name? Swedish ivy doesn’t really describe these plants, so we call them Plectranthus. And the begonias, especially the fibrous-rooted begonias, either the small ones or angel wing ones, whatever you have, you just can’t really do that with the tuberous begonias. There’s so many of the ornamental sweet potato vines, and they root readily. Can you think of some more, too? We said coleus. [A gold-leaf sweet potato vine at Ken’s, below.]
Margaret: No, but the begonia thing I think is a good idea. And the Plectranthus, that’s something that usually people have it like trailing, there’s a variegated one-
Ken: Oh, there’s four different ones that are available-
Margaret: …and a silvery one. And people have a trailing out of a pot, and that would be kind of nice. That would be kind of nice to have a supply of that.
Ken: There’s the hothouse geraniums, too, but it’s a little bit different with the geraniums. I let them callous over overnight before I stick them in the perlite. I’ll put the leafy part in a plastic bag that’s open and let the stems, where they’re cut, just sit out in the air overnight. And then they form a kind of a callus that close off, and it keeps them from rotting when they’re becoming cuttings. But I know people who stick geraniums in water and they root.
Margaret: The worst thing that can happen, she says with her vast experience doing this this year [laughter], is that you can have these beautiful little windowsill arrangements. I have enjoyed, even before I noticed that they were rooting and because I didn’t do it consciously saying, “I am propagating.” I have lots of little vases and glasses and things and I put them in just because it was pretty. It was almost like having flower arrangements. [Below, ‘Redhead’ coleus forming roots in a glass of water on the windowsill.]
And so the worst that can happen is you enjoy them then, if it doesn’t root, if the thing you choose doesn’t root. That’s the worst that can happen, is that it looks pretty [laughter] for a week or two or three-
Ken: Impatiens—I’m still thinking-
Margaret: Oh impatiens, impatiens. Yeah, that’s right. But it’s important to take off those extra leaves underneath. That’s the one thing-
Ken: Right, you don’t want those in the water that’s for sure.
Margaret: And how long should the roots be? They get these white… The coleus gets these really long white roots pretty quickly. And inch or 2, you said, maximum of root?
Ken: Yeah, I’d say longer than an inch, shorter than 2. And sometimes people leave them and they end up filling the whole jar with 6-foot-long roots and they don’t really always catch on. They kind of don’t do as well as the ones with shorter routes.
Margaret: Because the adjustment, as you said, to a different medium, the soil versus the water, for that establish a foot-long root system would be wild. I could get that.
Ken: [Laughter.] And have you ever cut your coleus or Plectranthus and just stuck them in the pot where they came from?
Margaret: I don’t think so. And again, and this year it was so hot and dry, I would have been… You’d have to keep up with the watering of those pots probably once or twice a day because the pots are big, you know what I mean? They’re out in the sun and so forth.
Ken: In the right year.
Margaret: In the right year we can try—I’ll try direct, what do you call it, “sticking the cuttings,” that’s what you call it.
Ken: Sticking, we’ll call it sticking.
Margaret: Sticking the cutting, sticking the cutting.
Ken: And if you take off some of the bottom leaves and even cut some of those leaves in half to reduce the area of transpiration, sometimes that helps the cutting catch on.
Margaret: Even the leaves you leave on, you may reduce the size of to take stress off.
Ken: With a scissors.
Margaret: A clean cut. Oh, boy.
Ken: Have we confused everybody too much? [Laughter.]
Margaret: No, no, no. And again, this is a little bit of like the basic tiptoeing into some propagation. And again, what’s the worst thing that can happen? It’s going to look beautiful while you’re enjoying it in the glass jar or the pot. And the best thing that can happen is you’ll have sort of a mother plant, a next-generation plant that will become the mother plant for some March or April cuttings that will go out into your garden once rooted. That’s the best scenario. Anyway…
Ken: I just can’t cut stuff up and throw it out.
Margaret: I know.
Ken: That’s my problem. [Laughter.]
Margaret: I know. Well, Ken, we’ve managed to squander another… But I’m always glad to talk to you. And I’m glad, even though you did tease me at first, you didn’t completely laugh at me for my mad propagation experiment 101 over here. Thank you. I’ll talk to you again soon.
Ken: Next time 2.0.
how to win ‘making more plants’
TO ENTER TO WIN A COPY of Ken Druse’s “Making More Plants,” simply comment below, in the box at the very bottom of the page, answering the question:
Are you pinching and cutting back, and have you ever rooted anything and carried it over? Tell us!
I know–some of you are shy, so just say, “Count me in!” or something like that, and you’ll be entered for the drawing.
I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, August 18, 2020. Good luck to all.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the August 10, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).