x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Nick's Garden: How to propagate your own plants

Growing your own plants expands your knowledge and adds variety to your garden. And now is the perfect time of year to get started.

Marigolds, zinnia and morning glory can all be propagated new. Peter Anderson / Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images / Gallo Images
Marigolds, zinnia and morning glory can all be propagated new. Peter Anderson / Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images / Gallo Images

I'm often asked why I write about plants, particularly native ones, that are rare and hardly ever seen in local nurseries or souqs. There are many reasons, including a sense of interest and responsibility for trying to make the UAE a more sustainable place and the desire to see a distinctive, local garden aesthetic develop. But the easiest answer is a single word: propagation.

Propagation is often seen as a dividing line in horticultural circles. On one side are the serious, green-fingered enthusiasts who do it. On the other are those who don't. They are often labelled dilettantes who simply decorate their gardens with bought plants. This is a view that I don't subscribe to, but I do think that propagation in the UAE can release gardeners from the narrow and inappropriate palette of plants that are available commercially. It can also introduce more and different species that are native and better suited to the region.

Propagation also offers the opportunity to involve children in the garden at an early stage. It is a great way to improve your knowledge and make friends through seed swaps and plant sales.

If you're a keen gardener, you're probably already keeping an eye on night-time temperatures, eager to start planting seeds and getting this season's propagation regimen underway. As soon as the mercury is consistently below 30°C, you can plant your small charges with confidence, starting with the toughest, hardiest species - marigolds, zinnia and morning glory are all safe bets - because unexpected upward spikes in temperature could still kill delicate seedlings.

If appropriate seed selection is a delicate balancing act, vegetative propagation is slightly more straightforward and an early start can be a real advantage. As long as the plants you want to propagate from are showing signs of healthy, positive growth, try taking cuttings now. This will give your young plants the best possible chance of success, since they'll have the rest of the autumn, winter and spring to establish before being exposed to the sternest test of all, next summer's heat.

Of the various propagation techniques available, including cuttings, layering, grafting and division, sowing from seed is one of the most satisfying. It can also be mysteriously frustrating if you don't know the specific germination requirements of the plants in question. For example, it will be impossible to propagate a hybrid from seed, and seeds with thick coats may need to be soaked, scarified or both to speed up the germination process.

Whatever plant you are trying to propagate, it is important to do your homework. Clues can even be found in the common names of plants. Canna indica, for example, is called Indian Shot because its small, black, heavy seeds resemble shotgun pellets and are heavy enough to sink in water.

Seeds can be sowed in a variety of ways and the technique used will depend almost entirely on their specific germination requirements. Larger, tougher seeds or those intolerant of root disturbance can be sowed directly onto the ground, but most benefit from being grown initially in seed trays, individual cells or small pots. These should be at least 7.5cm deep to allow successful root development. Longer, deeper, containers called root trainers are also useful for tree seeds, particularly those of native plants such as Moringa peregrina and Ghaf, that develop deep tap roots. If you are recycling containers that have already housed plants and compost, remember to give them a thorough cleaning first and allow them to dry thoroughly to prevent a fungal infection of the planting mix, which is commonly referred to as "damping off".

Pre-prepared potting mixes specifically designed for container-grown seedlings are widely available. They drain freely while retaining moisture but some gardeners find them too high in nutrients and a little too moisture retentive for high-humidity conditions. You can mitigate both by adding sweet sand or perlite/vermiculite to the mix. This compost is suitable for seed trays and other containers. Leave a gap of around 2cm at the top of each container for watering and to make sure that your seeds aren't washed away during irrigation.

If the mix is already moist, seeds can be sowed directly. However, if it is dry, water it first and allow the container to stand for a day in a cool, shaded place before sowing.

If you are using packet seeds, now is the time to follow the sowing instructions included. If you've been given the seeds or collected them yourself, you'll need to know exactly what they need to germinate. Those that require light can simply be pressed lightly into the surface of the compost, while other, fine seeds can be left on the surface and covered with a thin layer of sand or dry compost.

Once the seeds are sowed, place the containers somewhere sheltered, cool and shaded, then water and check them daily. Irrigate with a mist spray or fine sprinkler and make sure that the water percolates all the way through.

When your seedlings are large enough to handle and have produced their second set of leaves, transplant them to a larger container if they are not already in one of their own. Choose the strongest seedlings since weaker plants are less likely to survive transplanting, and make sure they are well watered before lifting them. Always transplant them one at a time.

Use a dibber or pencil to ease the plant out of the compost, retaining as much root as possible, and ease it gently to its new location using the dibber as a rest. Wherever they are, keep the plants shaded for at least a week, and gently introduce sunlight over time.

Now start feeding your plants with an all-purpose fertiliser. Keep them just wet enough to be moist and to aid growth. Over-watering at this stage is a major cause of loss.

Depending on the species, your new plants will develop a full root system within three to six weeks, and grow to a size of 10-15cm, at which point they are ready for transplanting to their final position.

Garden buy: Luz de Luna lanterns

Strategically placed lanterns can transform any outdoor space, particularly when they're as pretty as this. Intricate metalwork is paired with worn-looking wood to create interesting contrast. It's shabby chic with a metallic twist. We love that it comes in these two distinct sizes - it means you can mix and match to dot clusters of lanterns around your garden. There's no need to get fancy with your candle, either. Simple but sturdy white ones will do the trick. Dh965 for both, Luz de Luna, Umm Suqeim Street and in Home Design, Mall of the Emirates, Dubai.