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.

Working at Secret Garden Growers

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Last March I started working part-time at Secret Garden Growers in Canby, Oregon. In addition to my job at Cistus Nursery this has meant that I’ve been working roughly 3-4 days a week but oftentimes it wasn’t nearly that much. For me, a middle-aged woman living with some serious chronic health issues, this was not only a huge hurdle to overcome, but it has been rewarding too. I’d call it an incredible opportunity.

To cover the 12 months I’ve made a collage of monthly photos below. I’m missing tons of great plants, and for some reason I didn’t find a pic I liked of the third dog, and the eldest, Gaia. (I missed the chickens too but I don’t see them nearly as often as the ducks, dogs, and cats.)

Like Cistus Nursery,  it’s a bit of a drive from where I live, but in the opposite direction. Located in Clackamas County, it’s very near to where I grew up and I very much enjoy my drives there although like Sauvie Island, it’s not easy to find a quick lunch. I get tired of packing my food, but over the last year, I’ve worked out ways of making it all work.

At the nursery I mostly propagate. I divide things, pot things up, and sometimes I do cuttings or sow seeds. During the busy months, I’ve helped with retail and weeded plenty. Like all nursery work, it’s important for everyone to chip in when and where they can.

I enjoy propagation work and I keep a nice clean space. To me it’s the writer’s version of the possibility of a blank page, dreaming of what will grow out of it. “Making the plants” as I call it, is more about the process than any vision I have but as I work, I consider the roots, how the plants grow, what I might do with them, and how I have seen them used.

My Virgo mind likes to analyze as I work with the plants and I take mental notes.

It also likes to rock to the beat to keep things from getting too serious. That’s a nice thing about working in a greenhouse. It means alone time with tunes blaring. I use my work time to stretch, to move, to help my hip out. Over the last year, my hip has continued to slowly improve but it’s been slow progress. But it’s progress!!!

As I write this now I’m nursing another manual traction that was done on my hip by the physical therapist and I continue planning to be able to stand and contribute to my life—and the lives of others. I mean that because I know that the plants I help to make help everyone else to make their own lives and private and public spaces more beautiful and that makes me happy. I know gardening doesn’t always seem that important to everyone, but I know for a fact it’s therapeutic to many of us in many ways.

Secret Garden Growers does mail-order too so be sure to check out the current inventory. (We have a lot of gesneriads!) Pat Thompson—the nursery owner who is additionally a great source for information—will also be up in Seattle this month in the Cascade Nursery Trail booth at the NW Flower & Garden Festival. Be sure to stop in and say “Hello” to her!

(If you have any questions about any of the images below feel free to ask me below in a comment. )