The art of propagation

The big news this year is that I am the Artist in Residence at UBC Botanical Garden. The (somewhat loose) theme of my residency is “the art of propagation.” I am interested in both the beauty of plants throughout their lifecycles, and the social and pragmatic dimensions of propagation—in particular, the arts of sharing and of making space.

The thing about propagation is that you need other plants in order to make your own—seeds, cuttings, divisions and so on. And while you can buy seeds, other plant materials have to be procured through other gardeners. Being relatively new in town, and living in temporary housing helps me to see the art of what gardeners in other times and places have likely taken for granted. So, as a start, I am going to need to make some new friends in order to make new plants.

Once you’ve got them, things like new seedlings and cuttings go through a period in which they are extremely susceptible to all kinds of problems (fungus, pests, overwatering, drying out). Until they develop a strong root system, you’ve got to watch over them quite closely—watering frequently but not too much, monitoring light exposure, temperature, and so on. Making space, in a physical sense (for environmental support, in the form of things like propagating cases and grow lights), and metaphorically (for the attentiveness the plants require) are significant barriers to home propagation for many people. I am interested in the kinds of creative solutions that might, nonetheless, make it work. One of the central trajectories of my residency will be to undertake (and write about) a series of experiments in propagation in and around my apartment. To what extent is it possible under less-than-perfect conditions?

All this said, I have been unwell for the last month and so am late starting seeds. I have not even finished planning everything I want to do let alone started. It is hard not to feel that in a few short weeks, the whole year will be lost.

The sense that there is a Right Way to garden, and little room for error is pervasive in garden culture and particularly in the propagation manuals I have been reading: not only is it imperative to be on time, you have to be knowledgeable, systematic, attentive, organized and tidy in everything you do. However, it’s important to remember that this kind of advice is oriented toward guaranteeing success, and/or ensuring productivity on a large scale. If you accept less than 100% success, or are working on a small scale, there is more wiggle room. I can say this with confidence about basic forms of propagation (e.g., growing tomatoes from seed); this year I will try to figure out where the wiggle room is in more advanced undertakings.

Because what if propagation was not an advanced horticultural skill but a basic LIFE skill—like cooking or balancing a budget? This used to be true, and still is true in some places and cultures, but what does it look like in a contemporary urban context—with all that implies about the potential for intersecting constraints? My apartment is crowded and the patio on which I garden is surrounded by tall buildings. I have a family and a chronic health condition. I am deeply worried about declining insect and bird populations, and about plastic pollution. Many of the technologies and techniques that normally improve chances of success with propagation strike me as problematic. Nonetheless, I believe there is still great potential to make a positive impact by learning this skill, as long as I am a bit flexible about the outcomes. I am determined that being busy, or broken, does not have to prevent us from doing something good for the world.

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