The Art of Hydroculture Propagation
Indoor gardeners, especially those like myself whose continued lack of foresight keeps them shackled to their miniature Brooklyn apartments, are the keepers of a binary struggle. The dilemma is simple: how does one reconcile the joy of a home full of plants with the practicality of fostering and maintaining a miniature jungle? Since botany, you’ll agree, is the closest thing to real live magic, a house or apartment full of plants fairly makes it’s caretaker something of a wizard. Yet even wizards have limits, and the desire for more plants/sorcery must be curtailed. The struggle, as they say, is real. While simply a stop gap measure until your Kew Gardens inspired Palm House is completed, there is indeed a solution to this problem.
When it comes to having your plants and growing them too, hydroculture propagation is both elegant and efficacious, and allows the gardener to expand his or her collection without overcrowding. The idea is this: plants want to make more plants. In general, they’re pretty good at it. Plants, especially the tropical ones, have figured out a few ways to approach this perpetual endeavour. For our purposes, we’re interested in a plant's asexual reproductive habits and to get started, we have to think like our leafy comrades.
Let’s take a look at the humble Pothos (Epipremnum aureum). Perhaps the most common houseplant and a favourite among foliage seeking weekend warriors, Pothos or Devil’s Ivy is native to French Polynesia but, at this point, can be found anywhere with a jungle. This radiant green climbing vine is an expert at making more of itself, even by the high asexual reproduction standards set by scandent plants.
Let’s suppose a passing animal rips from a tree a portion of this jungle creeper and stomps it into the wet forest floor. For many plants, trauma the likes of this would mean the end– but not for the Pothos. Contrarily, the plant will not only survive but thrive. Root nodes, like little brown nubs, located along the entire length of the damaged tendril spring into action and begin to grow and expand into bonafide roots. Soon a whole new root system, and thereby a whole new Pothos plant, are formed. Fascinating!
Hydroculture propagation uses this same concept of asexual reproduction and applies it to a closed system. To get started, you’ll need to first establish a propagation station. These come in all shapes and sizes, most are handmade and the functionality of it is really determined by what you’re looking to achieve. Your propagation station can be as complicated as a wooden frame that sits on your sill, a wall vase like the ones we make, or simply a collection of cleaned jelly jars. At the end of the day, all you need is a vessel, water, and cuttings from the right plants, so be true to yourself as a gardener and grower of things.
There are no hard and a fast rules for selecting the right plant for this project, but there are some guidelines to follow, as some plants are naturally more suited to growing in water than others. In general, tropical plants sans woody stem are a fairly safe bet, with the vine-y types being the surest thing. Pothos, Wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebrina), Philodendron Brasil (Philodendron hederaceum), Ornamental Sweet Potato, and English Ivy (Hedera helix) are all great vines for starting out. If vines aren’t your thing (totally get it), Chinese evergreen (Aglaonemas), Spider Plant babies (Chlorophytum comosum), Umbrella Papyrus (Cyperus alternifolius), Inky Fingers (Plectranthus scutellarioides), Bamboo and even some species of Dracaena do well in water without the use of a rooting hormone powder.
Before you take a cutting, fill your future hydroculture vessel with tap water and let it sit overnight. This naturally dechlorinates and oxygenates the water which will help the plant survive and take root. Don’t use distilled water as tap water contains minerals healthy for the plant. Incidentally, this is also the way you should water your air plants and various epiphytic species. Just sayin’.
Cuttings take to rooting best when they are in a vegetative state, or state of overall growth, versus a flowing state and are looking to be pollinated, so keep that in mind when selecting plants or a section of plant. Find the growing end of the plant you’d like to propagate– that is to say the part of the plant that has the newest and most active growth– and cut away the piece with a clean, sharp knife. The cutting should be no less than four inches long and have no fewer than three leaves. The cut should be made just below a leaf node if the plant is a vine or shrub. For plants like the Umbrella Papyrus, simply cutting off a fresh stalk will suffice. Remove the lower leaves of the plant leaving at least an inch of bare stem. Place immediately in clean, dechlorinated water.
Boom! Done! Depending on the species, rooting could take place over a period of days or a period of weeks. Occasional light feeding once the plant has established roots as well as cleaning when that pesky algae inevitably arrives will ensure a happy, healthy plant until it gets too large or you want to switch it out for another.
Maintaining a hydroculture platform in your home garden is a diversely rewarding endeavour. It's a living exhibit and it showcases what I find most interesting and satisfying about plant life while providing a deeper understanding of nature as a whole. To watch as both roots and leaves grow and change is to witness a physical incarnation of survival, adaptation and tenacity. Plants, after all, have sculpted and continue to shape the world around us. With that notion in mind, holding in your hand a contained version of that planet building power is quite meaningful. Botanical conquest, ultimately, goes both ways.