Propagation and Plant Production: Cooking up Plants for Friends and Strangers During Covid-19

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It’s late on a Thursday night in the month of October in 2020. For the last few weeks I’ve been feeding myself a steady stream of fantasy and horror films as I recover from a physical meltdown of sorts that’s common for myself, and seemingly unfathomable at times for others. I made it through the season, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic and for those of us that work with plants, this has felt like a never-ending season of what’s referred to as being “slammed” in a kitchen. Imagine months of this, at two nurseries, but I thankfully work behind the scenes, and this does make it easier for me mentally and emotionally.

We’re still waiting for the results of a final x-ray, but it’s clear I’m exhausted and damaged. While one spine issue improved, another disk protruded. Instead of swelling up with one hereditary angioedema attack, I had two simultaneously. My complement, immune, and nervous systems are all tired. I’ve been on a steady diet of anabolic steroids for just over a week now.

Yes, that’s right folks, I’m a doper! These are not illegal drugs, I have a prescription for them, but it’s surreal at times to really sit back and think about how hard I work to work so hard. I guess I’m passionate about what I do though, and plants inspire me to keep doing what I do.

I think it’s safe to say I potted up thousands of plants in 2020. Flat after flat after flat left my workspaces and were carted off to the public realm or else back into a greenhouse until they’re ready for their closeup. There’s a rush you feel at that moment much like the excitement of cooking in restaurant kitchen and you’re part of a performance and as the plates disappear out of your sight you breathe a sigh of relief and you feel more and more like a badass as the night goes on and you near the finish line.

When it comes to plants though, it is a bit different. The adrenaline rush is not quite as dramatic. I just perform the initial part of a performance. My part is to make the starter and to get it stable enough so that you can take it home and complete your task. Sometimes, I may even have been the one who sparked the seed into life. Once in the hands of the gardener, with the plant being planted, it completes its lifecycle. I’ve helped to supply so many gardeners with the supplies necessary to make their artwork, or else to create their calm and happy space. With each flat I complete I toss out my hopes and wishes and I let go of my control of them a little bit. They all cannot live. Some of the duds must be plucked out so as to retain some integrity to the batch. Plants must be edited as they are presented. I’m probably better at that nowadays than I am at editing on the page but it’s so much clearer when you see a flat of plants. I’m not seeking out misspellings or grammatical changes, I just need for them to be uniform, a baker’s perfect dozen.

Once a flat is processed I turn my back and forget about them and move on to whichever plugs or plants need to be up-potted, re-examined, assessed, and often I help to make plants look a bit more appealing with snips here and there. There is never a dull moment in production and propagation. It’s a hamster wheel with a blur or plant life forever in our midst.

Nursery work is hard and complicated. Sometimes the monotony of it is a challenge but you look for differences and subtle small things in your crops as you go. I think of this as the ideal time to use the boring repetitive moments as a teaching tool of some kind. It’s a moving meditation. For my physical therapist, she’s used this aspect of my jobs to help me work harder on my PT. We must all make the most of our daily lives, and this helps to define us, and give us meaning.

There is an art though to the juggling and rhythm of growing crops. Nature truly is the choreographer that we work with as we do our many dances through the seasons. It is the rhythm that we live by in the plant world that I live in and I’m sure that’s something others around the world share with me.

Folks have asked me a lot if I’ve missed my dinners this year and that’s been a tough topic for me. During my dinners I rarely spent time at the table with the guests. I was in the kitchen working hard and I don’t want to do that again. Taking back the space in my back garden this summer really helped me to get through everything. I spent quality time in the space I created from scratch. This let me consider the development of my own recipe. My distaste for some of the ingredients I’d included there. I gardened in this space and breathed in it. I made plans for changes, and thought through my missteps. Clearly, gardening and cooking conflated and I realized just how much I love propagation, plant production and kitchen work. I reached a kind of self-actualization in my hammock in the back garden in late summer, hanging right over the spot where my table usually sits and it felt so good. Eureka!

Potting up thousands of plants still makes me feel like I’m cooking for all of you though, and there is yet that space between us both, and I’m hurriedly working behind the scenes, so that you can feel pleasure. Maybe I’m an enabler after all. But this relationship feels even more complex and poignant than ever, during a year when we’re all living through a pandemic. We must continue to make the most of it.

The Zoom Office: Video Socializing with Garden Designers in the era of Covid-19

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While I’m not a garden designer or landscape architect, I guess that I play with them on the same playground. What they may call “plant materials” or even a “plant palette” has to come from somewhere. I help to make the plants so why not invite me into the circle?

This does not look like the garden of a designer. That’s because it’s my lab-or-a-tory with an emphasis on the lab-or.

While there are many who work in these professions who don’t think a lot about where their plants come from, there are still others who care a lot and want to know everything they can about the plants they use in their work. To be honest, time and time again I’ve been shocked when I’ve met professionals who just think plants come from massive wholesale nurseries and that they seem to appear for their asking. In my honest opinion, I think they don’t want to take the time to care about the labor and environmental issues of that entire process—but that’s just my opinion based on the impression I’ve been given. This has just been my experience.

If you care about where your food comes from, then you should care about where your landscape was grown, how it was grown, and by whom. That too is just my opinion though.

Oliver loves the summer office.

So, thanks to my being a hands-on propagator working at two small nurseries in the PNW I’ve met some great plant folks. With an academic background in science and the arts, it’s honestly a lot of fun for me to meet and talk with these designers. Many are very engaged in their work, so much so, that it’s personal to them. They want to create beautiful spaces, but they also want to do so responsibly. I enjoy hearing about their processes, and hearing folks discuss how they do their work.

I must confess that I skipped the first few invitations that I was sent. I had things that I was doing and will write about those next time, but then I committed and I’m glad that I did. Since then I’ve participated a few times and have talked to several folks in this ongoing group roundtable. Today though I kind of forgot that it was happening and was late so I just showed up looking like this…

My back hurt. This was about as much as I could muster. Luckily, we had yet another great discussion and I continued to learn while at the same time staying home and safe. I mentioned that I needed to post something here, and it seemed like a good idea to discuss these meetings.

This COVID-19 thing is still afoot and my autoimmune issues caused by a blood disease that I have are not getting any better. So, until the vaccine comes along, you’ll typically find me socially with friends in front of a screen, and this summer, I’ll be doing that a lot out here in my summer office.

If you want to organize something like this, just be sure to have a moderator who keeps you sort of on track. Thanks Caleb!

Begonia dregei with Agapetes hosseana.