Developing an average home garden can easily use thousands of dollars worth of plants. Some people propagate plants to save money; others propagate them for the fun of it; and yet others turn their backyard into a small but profitable sideline business: growing and selling plants.


WHAT YOU NEED
You probably already have most of the items in your garden shed that you need for propagating plants: secateurs, sharp knife, wheelbarrow, hoses and sprayers, and punnets and pots. You will also need to purchase seeds, disinfectant, propagating and potting mixes, and hormone preparations.

You will need a clean bench for preparing the cuttings and sowing seeds, a protected area for the cuttings and germinating seeds, and a larger outdoor area for hardening off and growing on the potted plants. 

Later, you may decide you need more sophisticated equipment such as a greenhouse with a heated propagation unit and misting system, a plastic poly house and shade house. 


PROPAGATION MEDIA
Most backyard propagators start off using commercial propagating mixes. These are readily available from nurseries and hardware stores. Later you may decide to make your own mix. A simply prepared propagation mix that can be used for both germinating seeds and striking cuttings is 1 part moist, finely sieved peat moss to 3 parts of coarse, washed river sand (which is commonly sold as propagation sand).  


GROWING PLANTS FROM SEED

Flowering annuals are the easiest plants to start off with because they germinate quickly from seed. Only use fresh seed and refer to the packet for sowing times.

The seed is sown into plastic propagation trays or punnets. Other plastic containers such as margarine containers can be used for home production, but make sure you make sufficient drainage holes.

Larger seeds can be sown directly into small pots. Generally two or three seeds are placed in each pot. When the seeds have germinated the strongest seedling is left and the others removed.

Containers should be thoroughly cleaned before use. Wash off any dirt in warm soapy water. Then soak the containers in a solution of household bleach (20ml of the concentrate to 1 litre of water), and give a final rinse in clean water. 


How To Sow Seeds

Fill the container with propagation media until it is nearly full. Level the surface and firm the mix lightly, but not too hard. 

The seeds are sown evenly over the surface of the tray. A pepper shaker is useful for sowing smaller seeds – simply mix the seed with fine white sand (so you can see the seeds and where you have sown the mixture). Avoid sowing too densely as this encourages disease, and seedlings don’t have sufficient room to grow strongly. 

Next, cover the seed with fine sand or propagation mix. Only cover to a depth equivalent to the thickness of the seed. Make sure the container is labelled, showing the date and name of the seed.

Water the tray with a fine spray from above, or place the tray in shallow water until you can see water rising to the top of the propagation mix. Carefully lift the tray out and place it on a bench so that excess water quickly drains away.  

The trays are then placed in a protected position, ideally on a bench in a greenhouse or in a cold frame. Make sure they are not exposed to bright, direct light and avoid placing seed trays directly on soil as this increases the likelihood of disease problems. Most trays will need watering at least once a day, more on hot days. 

Watch out for fungal diseases - these might appear as rotting stems, small patches of dead seedlings, and leaf spots. They must be treated urgently, as they can rapidly spread. Drenching with a fungicide such as Fongarid will often help. Other methods are to increase ventilation around the plants, reduce watering, avoid watering later in the day and disposal of infected trays before the infection spreads. 

Transplanting
The seedlings are transplanted or “pricked out” into individual containers when they have at least one pair of leaves. Carefully lift out the seedlings with a flat narrow tool such as a knife or dibble stick (a sharp pointed stick) and place into a container partly filled with potting mix. Try to ensure that roots are not twisted or bunched up as you fill the media around the roots. This is particularly important for plants that have a strong tap root system. The transplanted seedlings should be watered as soon as possible.


PROPAGATION BY CUTTINGS


Many of the plants in your garden can be reproduced by cuttings. The most common type is the stem cutting, which is simply a segment of stem containing several nodes. Softwood cuttings are very fleshy and work well for plants like impatiens. Semi-hardwood stem cuttings, ie. cuttings taken from wood that has begun to harden after a flush of growth, can be used to propagate a wide range of evergreen shrubs, including camellia, azaleas, hebe, diosma and many natives. They are usually taken in late summer to autumn. The cuttings are 5-15cm long, with the lower cut made just below a node.  Half to three-quarters of the lower leaves are removed. Many semi-hardwood cuttings will root in 1-3 months.

Tips For Taking Cuttings

  • Always use sharp, disinfected cutting tools (ie. secateurs).
  • Dip the base of the cutting into a hormone preparation (liquid, powder or gel – available from nurseries and garden centres). This helps speed up the rate of root initiation.
  • Take cuttings in cool conditions, and prepare them immediately, otherwise store them in cool, moist, dark conditions.



POTTING MIXES
Potting mixes are best purchased from a reputable commercial supplier. Alternatively a coarse washed river sand and peat or peat substitute (eg coir fibre) can be made up at home. 

A suitable fertiliser mix will need to be added to the mix. Generally slow release fertilisers (e.g. Osmocote, Nutricote) are used. 

Aftercare of  Seedlings & Cuttings

The transplanted seedlings and cuttings can be placed in a tray (or other suitable container such as a polystyrene fruit box), and placed in a protected position (eg. in an unheated polyhouse, under shadecloth) out of direct sunlight. Watering is still critical. The plants can gradually be exposed to more light as they grow and ‘harden up’. Most should be ready to pot up into larger containers or into the ground in 1-3 months. Keep a close eye out for pest and disease problems, and if sighted treat with a suitable control method as soon as possible.


IF YOU WANT TO SELL YOUR PLANTS

The main options are markets, nurseries, direct to landscapers and through mail order.

Markets – you are largely selling to impulse buyers so you need to have plants which catch browsers’ attention. In most cases, plants with flowers will sell readily (even second grade plants that have a few flowers tend to be easier to sell than thriving plants with no flowers!).  Attractive or innovative stall presentation can also draw buyers to have a look at your plants.

Shows - garden shows, plant festivals, agricultural shows, alternative living exhibitions, and the like, are all potential venues for you to set up a stand and sell your plants. 

Landscapers/nurseries
- you need to sell at a competitive price and have quality, disease free plants. Reliability is also critical. A good strategy is to find a market niche and specialise in supplying plants that are hard to get elsewhere.

Mail Order
- you must choose plants that travel well, eg. bulbs, seeds, perennials, winter dormant plants. This means that sales can be seasonal, for example, if you’re selling bulbs you may be rushed off your feet during autumn. There are also legal considerations, for example you may need a license to sell from some states into others and there are restrictions on what you can send interstate through the mail.


WHAT SORT OF INVESTMENT & PROFITABILITY CAN BE EXPECTED?

If you want to make more than just pocket money, you will need to consider the scale of your venture. While it is possible to run a viable commercial operation from a quarter acre property, you will need to specialise in a certain area such as tissue culture, growing rarer orchids or intensive propagation. This may involve acquiring more technical skills and investing in high-tech equipment (which can be very expensive).
Otherwise just enjoy your hobby and the (almost) free new plants for your garden!



We can help with Reading or a Course
See our principals book:

  • Starting a Nursery or Herb Farm by John Mason
    This book was specifically written for those people wishing to start a small business and offering ideas on how to get it up and running. Covers topics such as alternative methods of operation, equipment and materials, dealing with plant health problems, techniques of propagation, budgeting and marketing.   see www.acsbookshop.com