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The vegetable gardener knows the joy of growing cultivated plants from seed. It is among the most satisfying garden activities. These plants, through generations of human handling, accommodate us generously. They emerge within hours or days of one another, each nearly identical to the seedling beside it, predictable and civilized like cultivated plants should be. After the prescribed number of days has passed, the intended crop appears, and the long-standing relationship between plant and human again bears fruit. One may go further and collect seed from an especially strong plant to improve the strain, and in this way, the cultivation continues. Our relationship with these domesticated plants is essential and sacred, just as our relationship with wild plants should be.

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Cultivation and selection produce plants that serve our purposes and satisfy our needs in the short term. In this case (the short term), we have a good idea of what our needs and purposes are, and set about securing them from the plants we cultivate. Over the longer term, we are not so wise, or at least, we have a more difficult time understanding what our needs and purposes are. We know that a tomato with a particular characteristic meets our need, and we can tell when an individual plant holds promise for a better tomato in the future, but we are not as able to discern the value of a Western Red Cedar or a Slough Sedge. When we set out to grow these plants, we must have a different philosophy all together.  In fact, we do not wish to cultivate these plants at all, but instead preserve their wild nature.

Understanding the nature of a wild plant is challenging, and requires many years of patient observation. Fortunately, it is difficult to imagine a more pleasant endeavor. The mechanism and timing of a plants reproduction must be among the most wondrous things to see. The seed, the miraculous product of this wonder, safely and soundly harbors everything needed to produce a new plant, not a copy of the parent, but an entirely new individual. In our effort to preserve the wild nature of these organisms we cannot distinguish or discriminate based on the qualities of the plants we observe, we cannot select beyond the location of the plant, and we cannot cultivate beyond our effort to mimic briefly the conditions the plant would encounter in nature, before returning it there for good.

Some wild plants seem perfectly happy to accommodate our effort to reproduce them in the nursery. Some require a simple and predictable practice that reliably triggers germination. Still others resist our efforts, and defy us to grow them consistently. To grow one wild plant from seed is the product of hard work and perseverance, to grow 10,000 of the same species at once requires a precise methodology and is the ultimate challenge. By developing this methodology, and daily working to perfect it, we make it possible to produce tens of thousands of wild plants from seed in a nursery setting.

Before we can attempt to organize and train a group of people to execute this task precisely and repeatedly, we must understand what is necessary to do it even once. Each plant has a different strategy when it comes to reproducing itself. Some, such as maple and ash trees, send their seeds fluttering to the ground on a windy fall day. There they collect with the light debris of the season in windrows and piles, well ventilated and near to the cold wet ground, where they wait for the warm days of late winter which initiate a spell of rapid germination. In just a couple of weeks the seedlings will appear in mass, great drifts of them heaped together. Though in these numbers their long-term survival is impossible, a thousand of them need not survive, but only one. It will be enough to produce many thousands of seeds a year, ensuring the persistence of the species if otherwise undisturbed.

The alder trees wait to let loose their seeds in abundance. The tough immature fruit hanging on through the long winter, until the warm dry air of early spring finishes the ripening process and sends seed fluttering to the ground, again in numbers that simply cannot survive. There is a day in spring when the ground beneath the alder trees has millions of germinated seed heavily distributed across it, eventually trampled, nibbled, and dried beyond hope of survival. By observing this process, we learn how to produce these trees by the thousands in the nursery.

Some plants require significantly more effort than this. Forest perennials tucked into the shade must have their seed collected and sown as if it had gently fallen right from the plant to the soil beneath without damage or drying, and with the delicate parts intact. Other plants require us to handle roughly their progeny, scarring and chilling or freezing them for weeks before carefully timing their transition back into the real world. Our ability to master this timing will significantly affect the outcome of our effort.

Beyond all of this is the media we use to incubate the seed, the depth at which we sow the seed into it, and the way in which we water them after. The depth alone is not our only concern, but the density of the media above the seed. After we have placed the seed, and covered it, the way in which we water this combination will determine in the end the position of the seed in the mix. A very fine media, watered with a very fine mist, will create a crust over the seed. Although the depth may be correct, the density of the media will inhibit germination. When the irrigation water and the media create a slurry, the seed will migrate through the column of soil, settling at the perfect orientation. The shape and density of the seed will govern where in the media it finally comes to rest, and this posture will assist germination. Many seeds will not germinate if they are just below the surface of the media, while others will not establish if the seed is on the surface, where the sun can scorch and damage the seed.

We can spend a lifetime investigating these subtle things, much of it creeping around in the damp forest on our knees, seeking out ever more challenging wild plants to grow. To know these creatures so well that we can identify their seed on sight and spot their newly germinated offspring in the duff of the forest floor, is exceedingly satisfying. Looking out over an expanse of wet land, discerning the complex architecture of the communities there, communicates the utter sensitivity of these creatures to our unyielding will. We do not discern in the short-term view of our life, the way in which these plants serve our purposes and satisfy our needs, but when we step back and take a longer view, their service to us is exquisitely clear. If we wish to assist these wild plants, we cannot apply our great human intellect to select from among them and adapt them to our fancy, on the contrary, we must accept them as they are, and adapt our methods of propagation to their wild ways.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to epjmcginley on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 08:37 PM PDT.

Also republished by PacNW Kossacks, Backyard Science, and Community Spotlight.

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