If you love plants and want to learn more about how to grow your own native plants, this article is for you!

This article is the first in a series focusing on propagation of native plants. In each article, we will talk about what we’ve been working on in the Conservancy’s native plant nursery. We hope these articles will inspire you to grow your own native plants, and we’re happy to help you be successful by sharing our story. We love hearing about your plant propagation adventures as well.

April

April is the first month of spring growing conditions, and this year the season started off with a bang with lots of warm sunny days in the beginning and middle of April. Early season flowers such as red-flowering currant and June plum are now finished blooming, seablush is in full swing, and Saskatoon bushes are catching our eyes with their white flowers. It’s been an epic year of flowering for our most common tree; the Douglas fir. I think I can speak for all of us when I say I’m happy the firs are finally finished producing what felt like an endless rain of pollen this spring.

Seablush (Plectritis congesta) blooming in a restoration site at St. John Point. This annual wildflower germinates in late August, blooms in April/May, and the seeds are ready to collect in late June. Photo by Tamara Bonsdorf.

At the nursery, this is the time of year we watch the seeds we sowed in the fall germinate, and the hardwood cuttings we started in January send out fresh shoots. It’s a busy time at the beginning of the growing season; a time to clean up the nursery following a couple of slow months in February and March. Recently we’ve been busy potting up seedlings, weeding, and top dressing. Those activities are covered in more detail below.

Potting Up

There are two primary periods of time when we pot up or split plants. One is in April, and the other in June. We start a lot of our plants by seed in shallow 25 cm x 50 cm trays, or in 38-cell flats (each cell is about 4 cm in diameter by 12 cm deep). Seedlings started in the previous fall are often ready to pot up into one-gallon pots in June the next season. After we pot up seedlings in June, we inevitably end up with plants that weren’t quite ready or were extra and we didn’t have the heart to throw away. In April we look over those seedlings from the previous year and pot up anything we want to keep. The primary cause of failure when potting up or splitting plants is drought from root disturbance. If the fine roots are damaged too severely during the process, the plant will die.

Some tips for potting up:

  1. Choose a cool day with low wind.
  2. Water your seedlings the day before or a few hours before potting up.
  3. Limit the time young plants spend out of pots.
  4. Be gentle if splitting small plants apart, retain as much root and soil-on-roots as possible.
  5. Utilize longer roots by hanging them into the pots as you fill them with soil.
A red-flowering currant seedling. Seeds sown in September germinate in January/February. Seedlings are ready to pot up in May or June, ready for planting out in fall. Plants take 2-4 years to mature with seeds ready to collect in July.

Fertilizing

Just like us, plants need to eat. We get our energy and nutrients from the food we eat, while plants get their energy from the sun and their nutrients from the soil. We don’t use any chemical fertilizer in our nursery. The soil mixes we’re currently using include a significant portion of nutrient-rich compost. The compost we’re using is a product called Earthbank Fish Compost, available in bulk from Peninsula Landscape Supply. Mayne Island Recycling and Mayne Island Garbage both offer back-haul services for transportation of larger quantities of compost or soil. For small volumes, Sea Soil by the bag from Home Hardware is an equivalent product. While the compost is a great source of nutrients in the first year, it becomes nutrient deficient after one year as mobile nutrients are washed way, taken up by the plant, or incorporated into microorganisms actively breaking down the remaining chunks of bark and wood in the mix. In April, any plants staying in the same pots they were in last season receive a 3-5 cm top dress made of compost and bone meal. As we apply the top dressing, we also give the pots a thorough weeding, removing any mosses and liverworts that have begun to grow.

Beware the Slugs!

I love banana slugs, they are super cool, just not when they’re romping across our seed trays like slobbering lawn mowers. Our nursery is surrounded by natural forest habitat full of the many lovable creatures who call this place home, and we love to see the frogs and dragonflies visiting us. The slugs, however, are unwanted visitors, especially in April. Other than gently relocating some of these unwanted visitors, our primary method for preventing slugs is to temporarily move our freshly germinated seed trays into our greenhouse. We rarely use the greenhouse, but in April it’s packed full.

Banana slugs are the second largest slug in the world. The open hole is used for breathing.

Late Season Cold Snaps

Is it just me or are late season cold snaps becoming more severe and regular? It seems like the past 3 or 4 years we‘ve received our coldest temperatures late in February after the plants have been tricked into growing by some warm days earlier in the winter. These cold snaps can be especially damaging to the herbaceous tissues of fall-germinating wildflowers and freshly sprouted seedlings. If we see temperatures below -2C in the forecast in the late winter, we pack our greenhouse full until the cold snap is over, and then move everything back outside again.

Our small greenhouse provides a shelter for herbaceous plant tissues during late season cold snaps. Heat mats prevent freezing. The sticks in the buckets are Pacific willow and red-osier dogwood, which we grow from hardwood cutting in January.

May

Looking forward to May, we’ll be making a seed collection plan for the summer and setting up our shade cloth and watering systems. We use a 50% shade cloth ordered to custom sizes from a company called Covertech. The use of shade cloth reduces the frequency of watering and drought stress on young plants. The drawback of a container nursery is that plants have small root systems relative to top growth. Currently we have four 20’ x 20’ shade cloths supported by a grid of nine evenly spaced 4”x4” posts 10’ tall and linked with 3/8” steel cable. Shade cloth is clipped to the cables using carabiners. We are currently watering by hand. Water from a pond is pumped to an elevated storage tank and gravity fed to the nursery. Depending on weather, we water up to three times per week from May to Sept.

Four shade cloths are supported by stainless steel cables. The 50% shade cloth reduces watering frequency and drought stress. The shade cloth is hung from May until September, and stored inside during the winter.

Thanks for reading, and look for the next edition of Notes from the Nursery in the July edition of the Oystercatcher. In that article we’ll talk about seed collection and splitting hardwood cuttings.


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