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Grow As You Go

Propagation: What it is and how to do it

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Editor’s note: “Grow As You Go” is a weekly column chronicling the flora of UW and its impact on mental health and overall wellbeing.

This week I wanted to do something a little different. If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably realized that I have a lot of fully grown plants, but not a lot of seedlings. Therefore this week, I want to focus on propagation and the growth it spurs.

“[Propagation is] the process of growing new plants,” Jon Bakker, professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, said. “It can happen from seed — that’s what we most often think about, getting a seed to germinate and grow; but you can also propagate plants from vegetative propagation, where you take a plant and split it and basically clone the plant. So you get new plants that are independent of one another.”

The first plant I successfully propagated was an avocado pit. My friend Allie taught me how to do it last winter, and eventually, the pit began to root. Around the same time, I also planted a variety of seeds and really enjoyed watching them grow, so I chose to do it again this week. 

This week, I propagated four plants: a strawberry, an apple, another avocado pit, and a carrot. I’ve included step-by-step instructions so you can do it too. There is no guarantee that these methods will be completely effective and grow a new plant, but the potential to cultivate a new plant is worth the investment 

According to Bakker, growing plants is a good way to ground ourselves in the physical world and leave — if only briefly — the digital one we often inhabit. It is also important to remember the sustaining role that plants such as fruits and vegetables have in our food systems.

The first plant I propagated this week was a strawberry. One of the easiest ways to do this is to buy a strawberry plant and replant the shoots that come out of it. But since it’s October, and we have passed strawberry season in Washington, I decided to try another option.

To propagate the strawberry, I isolated the seeds using a method I saw on TikTok. To do this, cut around the edge of the berry to isolate the outer part with just the seeds; then, let the berry dry — ideally outside on a sunny day. The seeds should come off pretty easily, without any strawberry residue, and can be planted in a pot with some dirt and placed on a windowsill. According to Strawberry, it is recommended that you put the seeds in the fridge to germinate, but this step is optional.

Next, I propagated an apple from a seed. Many people use a technique called grafting, which is when you take a part of another apple tree and plant it to create a new, identical one. For convenience, I chose to use seeds instead. I cut the apple into quarters, took out the seeds, and planted those that were still intact in a container with dirt.

After this, I propagated an avocado pit. It is essential that the avocado be ripe to guarantee that it can be removed whole. You don’t want to accidentally cut through the pit, and once it is out, wash the leftover avocado residue off and dry it. I was taught to peel off the brown layer of skin around the pit, but this is not necessary. To propagate it, I put three toothpicks in the top part of the pit and set it over a cup of water. The top should be a little bit above the waterline and the water should be replenished over time so that the root can grow down into the cup.

Another way to propagate an avocado is to use a plastic bag. Once the pit is prepared, wrap the avocado in a wet paper towel and set it in a plastic bag with no air inside. This replicates the above process and will allow a root to start growing, but the avocado should be transferred to a cup with water after a root begins to form so that the growing process can continue. 

Lastly, I propagated a carrot. The most efficient way to do this is to use seeds; however, I did not have seeds and decided to use another method that involves the carrot top. Choose a carrot that has some green leaves still attached to it and make a cut about an inch from the top. Submerge it in a cup of water and put the cup in a plastic bag without an air bubble. Eventually, the carrot should begin to grow roots and can be moved to a bed of dirt outside. 

While there is never a 100% chance that propagation will be successful, when it is, it definitely feels rewarding. Cultivating life from another plant or seed is an exciting process. Having a relationship with nature as a student can be difficult, but it promises positive mental health benefits and an improved sense of well-being.

“When I have the time to take care of my plants, it’s like I’m taking care of this living object, and that's so important to me, because even if things aren’t going well for me, I can still give support and care and nourishment to this thing that I have,” Eileen Zhang, a second-year student studying human centered design & engineering, said. “When I take care of it, I'm thinking I have the power to do good things or create something special, even if it's just a small plant.”

Reach columnist Taylor Bruce at Twitter: @Tay1or_marie9

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