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.

Let the Propagator Cook You Up Something Special…

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Hey there! Welcome back!

It’s exciting to be blogging again. Folks have told me to be bold and honest so here I am after a somewhat cold and wet day at work out in Canby at Secret Garden Growers. I’m drinking my Five Farms Irish Cream Liqueur (County Cork), thinking about y’all and why I love to do the crazy propagating that I do, and I’m wondering who will now be irritated by my speaking my mind and acting in my foolhardy and rather reckless and random ways.

I suppose if I irritated you in the past, you’re likely not reading this, so please don’t complain about my unorthodox ways. It’s been done before, and yes, you can talk about yourself while writing about plants.

I’m a horticulturist now more than ever, and I’m still an amateur botanist and seed grower. This means I can talk unorthodoxly with even more knowledge and I may respond with even more obnoxious responses, but I swear, I’m a good woman with a green heart of gold.  I promise to have posts where I actually explain something, or rearrange my garden, but it will mostly continue to be random thoughts and plants. I’m doing a lot and my interests will remain all over the plant map.

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Me at the bench with some tools and plants. It feels a lot like standing at the kitchen counter. Neither scene is pretty and I’m not going to lie about that. There is no fantasy to behold here (or there). All I can say is that crafting plants and food requires a lot of hard work, consistency, practice, skill, and instinct.

These new posts of mine will be blunt in 2020. I’m not going to be selling you on concepts of beauty, or marketing things you don’t need to buy. I don’t want to influence you, but as always—that is if we already know one another—I might want to play a bit and roil, throw some mud, or on the contrary, make some mud into a mudpie. (I am the most optimistic cynic you’ll ever meet. It’s either charming or repulsive but I’ll leave that up to you.)

Generally—or rather speaking broadly, or let’s just say overall—I just want to get the circulation flowing in you, and me. This is primarily an exercise I’m doing for myself. While I press myself to write here, I’m writing on a project elsewhere.

Garden writing/literature in English has always been a bit boring to me. I think I always found the repetition and homages to this and that a bit pedantic. Where are the rapscallions? I feel like they’ve been papered over and committed to the role of the garden gnome and that too is a tired cliché, is it not? I’ll let you gnaw on that one. To keep myself amused I continue to read garden literature in Italian and French but it is slow-going. I do not have the time to read. I work and read what I can when I can and then I chew on the words while I work at Cistus Nursery and in Canby too. I very much enjoy my time to think.

Life can be difficult. I come to the garden to be alive and to concentrate. It’s a kind of meditation to me. I come not to judge or be judged. I come here to grow. I came into the horticulture industry to grow—and I have grown into a kind of horticulturist. I suppose it’s the feral kind, but I’m a Spaghetti Westerner and I very much enjoy my freedom.

As a propagator, I have a lot of time to myself. Have I said that enough yet? I’ve thought a lot, written very little other than lists, listened constantly, and heard much. Propagators—from what I know—are organized folks. We’re loners. We seem to have an innate sense of the seasons. Or maybe what I mean by that, our seasons. My gardening calendar is much different than many others. I live by a production calendar.

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Oh the seeds…so many seeds. This is the easy part. The most difficult part is potting them all up as they grow and keeping them happy. This requires extra time, extra hands and help, and a keen eye to keep them happy and healthy as they continue to grow.

I like to say that as a propagator, I’m “back of the house” material, much like the kitchen staff in a restaurant. They produce food, we produce plants. I work in production at two nurseries. I do some retail, but my heart is in making more plants, and funny, it feels so often like cooking the same dishes over and over—year in and out, with a few fashionable changes from year to year. Like my production calendar, a kitchen is thinking months and months in advance too.

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A baked Timballo di Anelletti. I made this a few years ago for a dinner. Like a good crop of plants, it took time to plan and prepare. Cooking and propagation require an eye for detail and plenty of patience.

Growing plants from seed, division, and/or cuttings, also feels like making art supplies, or maybe, let’s call them the plant pigments for planting palettes, for amateur designers, students of garden design, and designers.

As a student of art history, I just want to add that an artist is one who knows their media nearly as well as they know themselves. The art and the crafting of those materials become part of who they are and it is ONLY when they can raise us up, make their art into something more, take us to another level, then, and only then, can it be considered art—and not craft.

It has only been through propagation that I’ve come to viscerally feel and know it to be true. Some gardens are truly art and I have spent time in only 2 or 3 that I would label as such. My art history professor once argued with me that it’s craft NO MATTER WHAT, but I definitely disagree. IF you want to claim your designs to be art, know your goddamn plants. Do NOT try to sell me on what you did with them, how they are spaced, what they look like in pics, or their calming arrangements. Extend those plants, their lives, how they grow, through what you do, and it can truly be art. I know, it’s a bit like asking you to play gawd but it’s nice to have #goals. I mean, #realgoals.

My hope here at my own home is always to play with plants scientifically aka horticulturally, artistically, and to hope to make something very special. I blend this with my personal taste, and also to match the architecture of my home, but some part of myself is always using this place as a canvas to play upon in the hopes of making a moment of art in time and space.

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A simple ingredient. How can we make this taste like even more than cauliflower? How can we lift up the simplest of simple things? Even with a plant, or two?

Returning to cooking, well, and art, let’s take a moment to consider the Master Chefs. Do they not take the humble ingredient and lift it to something more? Yes, yes they do. I’ve tasted the food of a handful of Master Chefs, and when I cook, and I have cooked many dinners for many people, I would never even call myself a humble chef. That is a title earned, and I am proud to be an accomplished home cook.

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Here I am exhausted a few years ago after cooking a five course meal two nights in a row for 10 guests each evening.

So Ann, what the hell is your point? My guess is that you’re already annoyed a bit by now. (I purposefully have never written in perfectly pretty prose packages either.)

My point is this. Just because we can call ourselves whatever we want to in the Information Age doesn’t mean we should. Don’t claim to be something other than what you are and embrace it. Many folks don’t know much. I sure don’t and I’m not going to claim to be an expert. Folks tell you to speak with authority. You know what, some folks who speak with authority should take a seat and eat some humble pie. I got tired of blogging and even reading online because there is a lot of nonsense out there. I didn’t want to contribute more schlock to the internet and I don’t want to encourage others to do so either. Please stop producing content to market your products unless it’s good content. It’s not helping us. Produce content because you have something of value to contribute. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard, “But I read it online…” about a plant and the information has not always been accurate or helpful. Dare I say it but fake news even exists in the Hollowed Halls of Horticulture where so many of us go to hide from current events.

Don’t believe everything you read online, and question it all. I feel so punk right now.

To write again, I needed to feel like I could produce valuable content and I have done my time. My posts won’t continue to be nearly this preachy but I AM trying to say—stop posting and re-posting what’s popular. I want to see and hear folks as online as individuals. I value that and I think right now a lot of gardeners are craving interesting reading content.

Be bold! (Former garden bloggers who need to post again, I’m writing to you!)

Getting back to my lovely beverage this evening, looking over their site for a tie-in, making sure that they’re not liars trying to sell me some Irish tall tale, I’m delighted to find this: “The cream is sourced entirely from five family-owned farms in County Cork, run by families that have a deep connection to the land and a passion for their craft.”

Hey folks! The best plants are crafted by true craftspeople and by their network of plant people. I’m one of those people and handcrafted plants are what I do, and are what I care about, and I hope that more people come to appreciate and understand this in the way that they care about their food. I want more folks to fall in love with horticulture, be able to start their own small businesses, and love their craft and labor. Big hort is out there, and I know that careers in horticulture seem like a life in the poorhouse, but we need to make this matter. It DOES matter. If it matters to you, support small and independent hort.

And please, don’t be an ass and complain about the price of your plants this season. Many of your plants—especially the large ones that you request so often because you can’t wait—require A LOT of care and resources in containers. This often includes hard labor and that costs $$. I see this attitude shifting more and it’s wonderful to meet grateful customers who really do appreciate all of the little things required to help plants live and thrive.

Know the process and support local small growers, small nurseries, and the plants that we develop and preserve. Buy handcrafted seed-grown plants, heirloom varieties, unique native plants from your region, and support small businesses in your area. Support Hort! 

I am lucky to live in Oregon—and by extension the PNW—where we have many great independent growers and small boutique nurseries. Sometimes I worry that future generations won’t have what we do, and it’s important to get involved at the local level, and to reach out and get to know the land and place where you live. We need folks to get involved to preserve these traditions, both for native plantings and otherwise, or else I fear many of our plants, and where we live, could be lost.

Plants really do matter.

All plants matter.

Plant matter.

See you next week!