Bringing the art and science of cutting propagation back to the bench ©

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As a propagation instructor at the University of Rhode Island for 20 years I often have been asked to help develop protocols for propagating research plants. Typically the scientist wants to start right away, and is frustrated when I let them know that they should have started preparing a year or two earlier. Of course they are even more frustrated when they set up a half-baked propagation experiment and it fails. Plant propagation has been characterized as part science and part art – which it is, but it also is part experience, part preparation and part good record keeping.

Unlike some other areas of horticulture education, we have excellent propagation texts and printed resources for students and researchers to consult. Hartmann and Kester’s Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices, (HKDG), now in the 8th edition, is an unparalleled resource – with excellent references and both basic and practical information. This is still the best value for a textbook. Another book that all propagator-growers should have is Bruce MacDonald’s Practical Woody Plant Propagation, which offers practical advice for the nursery grower or commercial propagator. Sadly it is likely, since Bruce has passed away, that this text will not be updated, but it is still a must for the propagator’s shelf. The Combined Proceedings of the International Plant Propagators’ Society, while harder to dig into for the lay propagator, is a great place to see if “it’s been done” in over 60 years of IPPS meetings.

For sure, not every bit of propagation knowledge has been captured in courses or textbooks. There is a lot of knowledge still to be gained from local nurseries, greenhouses and garden centers. The folks that get into this business are mostly plant geeks at heart, and many are darn good propagators that would love to share their experience – you just have to ask. Or bring your questions to the next IPPS meeting!

Of the hundreds of students to whom I have taught plant propagation, only a handful have become commercial propagators – the majority resort to what they learn from me when they want to propagate a new plant or as a part of their garden routine. So I try in all lectures and exercises to give them methods that will stay true through time. I strive to teach them how the plants works, so they can – in essence – “Think Like a Plant.” But the art and sciences of plant propagation is incredibly varied and complex. It takes years, or even a whole career, to become a real expert. This knowledge must be accumulated through experience; it cannot be substituted by a textbook, or a computer-programmed machine.

Publication Title, e.g., Journal

Acta Horticulturae