What is plant propagation and why is it important?

Date posted: 16 April 2017

Do you love gardening or are you looking to become a green thumb? You may have encountered the term “plant propagation” before, but if you’re scratching your head you’ve come to the right place.

Plant propagation is the technique of creating new plants from existing plants and this be done in a number of ways.

We thought we’d pick the brain of our Horticultural Curator of Plant Propagation, Matt Coulter – who propagates all the plants for Adelaide, Mount Lofty and Wittunga Botanic Gardens from our Nursery at Mount Lofty – to find out why it’s such an important skill for gardeners to have.

If you’re keen to learn more after reading, Matt’s presenting a Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices Masterclass at the Mount Lofty Botanic Garden Nursery on Sunday 7 May, where you’ll get to propagate plants using a variety of techniques. Book now to secure your spot.

Take it away, Matt!

What are the benefits of learning plant propagation?

It is a great skill to have because you can make lots of new plants for your garden rather than having to purchase them from a nursery (saving you money). It’s also nice to propagate plants and give them to friends and family as presents.

Plant propagation also just gives you great satisfaction in knowing you’ve played a part in creating those plants, which is probably one of the most rewarding aspects of gardening.

Many special plants are hard to come by in nurseries, so the only way of getting more of them is to undertake the propagation.

How difficult is it to learn? Are some plants more difficult to propagate than others?

Propagating plants is part of science because you’re dealing with living specimens, but once you understand the science behind the techniques, knowing why they’re undertaken can be fairly straightforward.

Some plants are extremely easy to propagate, while others present a real challenge – it really depends on the plant.

Sometimes you’ll propagate a plant well, but when you try again you might not get the same result, but working out why is one of the fun challenges you’ll encounter in propagation.

Describe some of the things people will learn in your Masterclasses.

Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices (Sunday 7 May or Sunday 17 September) is more of an introduction, where people can learn about seed collection and storage and then seed sowing and germination.

We then go in-depth on the propagation media that’s used and why it’s important to control this process. I talk about the materials that are used and what process they play in the propagation.

After the seed section of propagation we go into the process of taking cuttings and the way we go about preparing them for success.

We’ll delve into the environment we want to keep them under and how you would care for the plants once they’re taken home, and then then we discuss what the next step is once the cuttings have a root system.

We also run an Advanced Plant Propagation Masterclass (Thursday 10 August or Sunday 20 August – the introduction class isn’t a prerequisite) for those looking to delve deeper with more specific forms of propagation.

Both courses allow participants to learn in a fun and hands-on environment in the BGSA Nursery, which is not open to the public.

You’ll get a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility to see how the plants are started for our three botanic gardens, and lunch in included on the day.

What do you love about plant propagation?

I’ve never stopped learning with plant propagation, even after 32 years of working in the field, which makes it challenging, but a lot of fun!

I still get excited seeing seeds germinate or new cuttings developing a root system, and when these plants are planted in the garden and you see them growing it gives you great pride to think that you created that living plant. I find this the most rewarding part of gardening and horticulture.

What are some of the more challenging or fascinating plants you’ve worked with in?

The area of working out why certain seeds germinate and why some of them exhibit very complex areas of dormancies is challenging. Some species will germinate in two days, however there are certain species that may take two-to-three years to germinate. Understanding the science behind this is very interesting.

I’m lucky to work with some talented researchers in our South Australian Seed Conservation Centre, who are involved in conserving our rare and threatened flora. They study dormancies and help me to understand the complexities of this part of plant science.

I love growing plants and seeing the way they respond to what we do to them. I really enjoy trying to understand plant physiology and how they respond to the environment. It’s extremely interesting and it helps me grow better quality plants for the garden, which people will enjoy in the future.

I enjoy growing many types of plant, however over the past 10 years I’ve had a fascination with the Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum), on which I’ve undertaken a lot of research.

I’ve visited botanic gardens worldwide to discuss this species and I’m a member of a global group that discusses the Amorphophallus genera, of which there are currently over 200 species.

I’ve also helped the Botanic Gardens source around 20+ new species and hybrids – some of which have flowered this year, and I hope to obtain more to be able to show to the public in the future.