Root magic

Root magic is when you take a little stick, or a little seed, and you coax it into making roots – the foundation of plant life.   No roots, no plant life. 

At the second session of Applied Permaculture we learned about making and caring for roots.  Interestingly, this is not just about putting a seed in some good soil, or sticking a little stick into some clean water and seeing if roots will sprout.  There are rather a lot of little, practical bits and pieces that make your endeavor much more likely to succeed (or fail).   I collected some of the things we went over below to help myself to remember them, but also to give an idea of the specificity of it all.   Eventually, many such little micro-skills collect to become a body of expertise, similar to say, learning to play violin – which is also lots of little micro-skills that accumulate into music making.

David Homa has encyclopedic knowledge of plants, their varieties, their specific needs, and specific uses.   Me, for now, I can remember a few specifics, but more general principles.  I can then use the principles to look up specific knowledge in books or the internet.    As a general insight, I learned there are different ways of making roots happen: for example, you can use seeds, you can use cuttings, or you can mound plants (lean new branch to ground and cover with soil).  But even within each of these avenues, there are specifics – like what size cuttings to take, where to put them, and what to put them in (see below).  If you want to make new plants and roots, you need to know or look up these avenues and specifics.

It’s a lot of information, but I can see how it can build up (different from pruning, which is still a mystery).  It was fun to be back up in Maine, and to see my classmates again – Richard, Erin (2), Marion, Stephanie, Soon Yuk, Nicole, David – and David’s cosy dining room with the permaculture books on it, and organized stacks of paper for this session.

Nicole evaluating where to cut an elderberry branch.

Bits of specific root magic info:

For seed starting, you don’t need nutrients, you need something pretty sterile and that absorbs water well – vermiculite, perlite, spagnum moss, possibly a small bit of compost mixed in.   You also want to make sure you get out any larger bits and use only fine material.  Seeds have their own nutrient packet to start growing roots with, and later, when a few leaves have appeared, you can provide  more nutrients with compost tea.   For making compost tea, collect compost, or fresh leaves into a large fabric “tea bag” (say a gallon large) and put it into a large bucket of water, which you aerate with a simple pump, but only for up to 8 hours or so, otherwise it starts to stink like a dead body and is no good.   For taking cuttings for rooting, it really depends on the plant whether you can take cuttings, but also, how to take the cuttings.  Elderberries: a cutting pencil thick, less than 12″ long, and with 2 or 3 leaf bud pairs, put in water or water with a willow-tea dilution, and leave in a dark place for a week before bringing out to light.  Chokeberries: a thinner cutting and leaving some shoots off the end, less than 12″, and, put these in full strength willow-tea, and in light but out of sunlight.  Willow: very thin branch with shoots, can be longer, put in light but not sun, and they have so much root-power you can use plain old water.  You can use a handful of willow branch pieces to make willow-tea rooting medium for cuttings that need more coaxing like chokeberries (or, if you are in a very un-zen un-permaculture hurry, skip making tea and throw the branch pieces in the chokeberries’ cold water to steep).

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