Genetically speaking, everyone has a mother. In the horticultural world, being a mom means you either produce seeds sexually, or clones asexually. There are a few different techniques you can use to reproduce plants without needing pollen from the parent plant(s) to produce seeds. The newest, most scientific way to do this is tissue culture. This uses a series of chemical processes to grow a full size plant from a tiny piece of plant tissue, in a test tube. While this method isn’t practical for most gardeners, it is definitely neat! There are two methods any gardener can easily use: grafting and cloning.
WHY DO I NEED A MOTHER PLANT?
To get more plants for your garden. Our need for cloning stems from the gardener’s mantra: bigger, stronger, faster. One of the big reasons for avid gardeners is to retain exact copies of very rare plants. Cloning can even keep your grandmother’s heirloom tomato strain
alive for generations to come. It only takes one mother plant to create a whole garden of plants. No waiting for spring to buy plants or for seedlings to mature. Using cloning to sustainably manage your vegetable garden just makes sense. You can make clones of plants that you consume the most of… forever.
Cloning is a necessity for some plants. Most of the bananas we eat today are clones! A genetic mutation in the edible varieties made the fruits of the banana plants sterile. In nature, this usually means a road to extinction. Savvy farmers propagated the yummy fruit plants, spreading them around the world centuries ago. Thanks to this process of cutting the ‘suckers’ from the base of a plant in the vegetative stage, and cloning them, we still have bananas today. Nor would we have French wine. A set of devastating disease and pest plagues almost wiped out the vines. Cloning via grafting with resistant roots saved France’s vineyards more than a century ago. Obviously, cloning and mother plants are important to know about.
Nature has cloned on its own forever. Strawberry plants are a perfect example. The plant will send out a ‘runner’ shoot at the base parallel to the ground. When it reaches fertile soil, it automatically produces roots, forming a new plant. This allows the mother to search out more fertile ground, or better sunlight for her offspring. A mother always wants the best for her children, and the strawberry mom is no exception. In your garden, you can aim the runners to root into a pot, or a desired spot. After the runners have established roots they can then be cut from the mother plant for sale, or replanting.
Most plants won’t do this naturally, conveniently creating clones as the strawberry plant will. So it is important to know what to look for when selecting a mom. You will be making exact copies of her – so choose the best, strongest looking one you can find. Keep her planted in a pot that’s large enough to hold her root mass. The new fabric pots on the market like Smart Pots, or root pouches are great for mothering purposes. The fabric is a felt-like material that allows air through the walls, yet it is dense enough to not allow light in. This pot can
prevent root rot, and root circling, which is known as being ‘root bound’. Both can stunt or hinder growth at best.
FEEDING YOUR MOTHER
Most hydroponic nutrient product lines have a ‘grow’ formula that, when fed lightly, will work great for your mom. A few examples for this are: Botanicare’s Pure Blend Pro Grow with a liquid N-P-K of (3-2-4), Fox Farms Grow Big (6-4-4), or General Organics Biothrive Grow (4-3-3).
Need a lot of clones? You may want to train a young seedling to be your mother plant, pruning her to promote more branching before taking any cuts. We can do this by simply trimming the top new growth of the main branches as the plant gets bigger. Remember, less is more when pruning anything! Be sure to make cuts above at least two sets of growth, so that when you cut one main stalk, two branches will form from the leaf sets below. You can continue to use this manipulation trick as the mother plant grows until you have enough branches to accommodate your cloning needs.
For faster branching, try an extra nutrient boost using a marine algae product,such as Nitrozime, or Bioweed. These help to create the burst of new shoots at the right time. It can also help with the rooting process, so include it with the week-of-cutting feeding too.
MAKING GOOD BABIES
Cloning is best done in the vegetative stage of growth for almost all plants. You will need to set up a light to provide 18 hours of light for your mom to keep her in that ready for vegetative propagation stage. Mother plants need a regular schedule for nutrients and water. Being careful not to overdo it on either. Overfeeding can lock out essential nutrients your mom needs to thrive. Over watering can cause a multitude of mold, fungus, and bug problems. An over flux of food or water in your mom’s system, when it comes time to take cuttings, can also make rooting more difficult. Giving your mom the right food before cloning her can make a world of difference in the babies. Remember, whatever is in her system at the time of cutting will also be in the system of the clone.
A good rule of thumb is to cut your normal fertilizer mixing directions in half a week before taking cuttings. Adding a bit of vitamins and hormones to that week’s feeding is also a good idea. A dose of Superthrive is also great for the expectant mother. Follow label directions for mixing. When deciding how much to water take the simple route and touch the growing medium. You want moist media, not wet. If the media dries up between feedings just use plain water to supplement.
TAKING THE CUT
Always start the cutting process with clean equipment, and have everything ready to go. You will need a sterile blade or scissors, growing medium or rooting plugs, a rooting hormone to aid in the process – and of course, your mother plant. Choose a branch for the cutting that includes new growth with at least 2-3 sets of leaves. Cut at a 45 degree angle, and quickly get the cut end into the rooting hormone, then push the dipped end down into growing medium. Mist cuttings daily with water to keep them happy until roots begin to form.
THE MOTHER OF INVENTION & SPEED
Grafting takes the root system of one plant called a ‘rootstock,’ and fuses a cutting called a ‘scion’ to the top. The plant created has the genetics of the mother plant, and the rootstock will supply the uptake of nutrients through its root system. You can use the grafting technique to get creative, combining different mixes of colors and types of desired crop characteristics of rootstock and cuttings. It can also allow your plants to overcome stress factors like diseases or pests, and even the soil quality of an outdoor garden.
Grafting can make your indoor garden more efficient. Grafted vegetable plants can also deliver an earlier harvest, and a much longer harvest period. Reproducing ready-to-bloom plants offers a variety of benefits. Success starts with a healthy, happy mom – and knowing when to make the cut.
[alert type=white ]This article was written by Jenn DiGioia. It was originally published in Garden Culture Magazine, Issue 3, under the title, Mothering Techniques: How To Care for a Mom.[/alert]