I wanted to be a gardener for so many years. However, I was thwarted by different circumstances: being a renter, poor soil, babies and toddlers, moving around a LOT, lack of time, lack of money, lack of energy, illness. Then, finally, my life smoothed out and I started a garden. It was so wonderful, in part because I had had to wait for it for so long. I started my garden from scratch and after ten years some of my beds are in their fourth or fifth iteration. I have many plants stockpiled, waiting for the weeds to be cleared, the soil contours to be altered, the paths to be defined. I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have done so far, and once in a while I am stunned by the scenes of beauty I have had a hand in creating. I have also made a huge number of mistakes, most attributable to ignorance or haste, but I am slowly and steadily addressing the ignorance, and trying to curb the impulsiveness. My life, increasingly, has become defined by gardening. I read about gardens, plants and gardeners. I spend most of my (scant) social time with fellow gardeners. I spend my (scant) extra money on plants. My primary volunteer activity involves running a plant sale. Gardening has become the water in which I swim, the air that I breathe, and yes, the soil in which I grow (I can’t find the darned “cue swell of violins” button on this program so just use your imagination).
So I was surprised to realize recently that I have almost completely stopped gardening as I have known it. The weeds have overtaken some of the beds, the carefully selected plants sit in their pots un-planted. No dead-heading, no pruning, no staking has been done. In short, the garden looks pretty shabby right now, and I am still not lifting a finger to address it. And all because I have a new love for… passion about… obsession with… plant propagation. I have long been a haphazard propagator; if I broke off a twig I tried to root it, sometimes even successfully. I owned several books on propagation , but never really set out to seriously try to implement the information in them. Then I found out that the Hardy Plant Society study weekend was offering a plant propagation class with a nurseryman whom I greatly respect. I vacillated for a long time, since the class was an additional gardening expense that did not go directly to the garden. However, after long deliberation I finally decided to sign up, and got the very last spot in the class.
I had a ball in the class. It took all the information I had struggled with in books and made the process real. Paul, and Linda (our last-minute, bonus instructor) walked us through the propagation of several types of plants, and we left the class with a 50-cell propagation tray filled with tiny starts (I also wheedled the starts from a Canadian participant who would have been unable to take hers across the border, so I actually ended up with 75). Now it was real to me. Here were living things which were depending on me for their care. I am a mom, I know this drill cold. The routines were different (in raising my human babies I neither housed them on the front porch, nor sprayed them several times daily with a mist of chilly water), but they were routines, and if I followed them I would be rewarded with a viable plant in just a few weeks (a far better outcome at my age than putting in years of back- and heart-breaking labor only to be rewarded with–Ta Da–a teenager). I was thwarted somewhat by the unseasonably cold, damp weather, but despite both that and an absolute absence of any kind of infrastructure for them providing either shelter or warmth, a lot of the tiny plants came through. Uh oh, now I was hooked.
About this time a friend of a friend of a friend (really, truly) emailed to say that she was cutting back her lavishly planted garden and would I like cuttings and plants for the plant sale. Yes, please! I will be right over. I arrived at her house to find her limbing-up a lovely Cornus ‘Hedgerows Gold’. I had lusted after this plant at the study weekend, but had felt parsimonious, having spent so much on attendance (yes, I finally bought a couple small plants, but I was really very restrained…for me), and thought it was best deferred since I had no idea where I would even plant it. But now, here was the plant I wanted, and all I had to do was take a bunch of cuttings, get them to root, pot them up a couple of times, wait two or more years for them to reach a good size, and Bob’s your uncle, I would have my plant. Wow, way better than shelling out $14, or whatever comparative pittance the ready-to- go plant cost! (By the way, this kind of thinking is completely irrational. Store-bought plants are a great deal, and I strongly urge you to support your local independent nurseries.) I had foolishly brought only a station wagon, not a truck, but I filled that car with branches until I couldn’t see out the rear or back windows, and then drove very slowly and carefully home. Whereupon reality hit: I had to make viable cuttings of all of those stems. I filled 2 flats with 100 cuttings of just that one plant. I went back a second time and she gave me roses, clematis, and hydrangeas. I filled more flats.
Then a friend of mine wanted to expand her propagation repertoire. Like me, she was as enthralled with the process as with the product, and wanted to learn what I had learned at the class. Another friend with a wonderful plant collection needed to cut her garden back for an event and offered to host us to take cuttings. We were there for three hours which was not nearly enough time to really absorb the scope of the collection or to work systematically. I left with both a 5-gallon and a two-gallon bucket loaded with fabulous cuttings, plus notes on names scrawled on a scrap of paper. Some of the plants and names have still not been matched up properly, but I added 200 more plant starts to my trove. And so it has rolled. An afternoon at a friend’s house yielded another two flats of about fifty plants each. Currently I have pots of cuttings on my porch from yet another foray which I am frantically trying to get processed (all that snipping and dipping takes a surprising amount of time). And in the meantime some of the original cuttings have developed little roots, so I have been potting them up into 4″ pots, of which I now have about 150. And through all of this I have still not taken any cuttings from my own garden. August has to be devoted to getting around to the viburnums, hydrangeas, and weigelas I have here which I want to get started.
Once the summer is over, however, that will not be the end of the process. If I am lucky I will then have between 500 and 1,000 baby plants in small pots which cannot conceivably make it through the winter on their own. Last year I brought 120 plants into the house for a couple of weeks during the worst freeze. This year I will need space for four to eight times as many. Other than evicting a child I don’t know where the room will come from. In short, I am making plants I cannot use and cannot reliably house, at the expense of the garden I already have. But I cannot seem to stop myself. The process is so magical, and varies so much from genus to genus, species to species, that it is like eating potato chips, or perhaps like gamblers at the slot machines: “Just one more”.
I cannot imagine being truly proficient at this process. There are so many variables, and some, like the weather, over which I have no control. It is claimed that mastery of a subject takes 10,000 hours, which is 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for 5 years. Perhaps if I truly did that I would feel knowledgeable about propagation. But I am not going to be able to focus in that way and I certainly would not be able to deal with the output if I even started down that road. What I need to strive for is balance. So, I am hoping that this is just a little fling, a mid-life flirtation that can settle down into a nice, steady friendship which will coexist with all the other aspects of my life and will let me wash my dishes, pay my bills, weed my beds and sleep at night.
I am lucky, though. In the staid, quiet, complacent middle of my life I get to experience the thrill of a new passion, with all that entails: the utter absorption in the beloved, the hours spent devoted to the beloved, the reciprocation of the beloved (I have to interpret the growing of roots as reciprocation, but I am not having any trouble with that). And I get all of that without any of the usual consequences of a mid-life infatuation. My marriage is stable (my husband even helped me pot up rooted cuttings one night), my kids know where I am (the front porch, always), my bank account is safe (until the need for a greenhouse becomes utterly overwhelming), and I have not caught any hideous, incurable diseases.
And all the while my house and garden wait, sighing gently, waiting for me to wake up, come to my senses, and start cherishing them once again. And I will, I promise, I really will, very soon, but right now there is a hydrangea down on Thurman from which I have GOT to try to get a cutting, before the season ends.