Passive Nurserying for the Permaculture Homestead

Free Plants without the Work

Sure, we all know most of the common methods of actively propagating plants, but I’d like to tell you about a strategy you may not be employing to more effortlessly multiply your favorite plants. If you’re already taking cuttings and sowing seeds and maintaining a personal nursery and you’re looking for an added layer of efficiency to your garden game, then I’d like to introduce you to a strategy I call passive nurserying. By the end of this article you will understand 4 techniques for increasing your garden’s diversity while decreasing the amount of effort required.

Technique #1. The Plant Fountain

Have you ever had a vining plant in a pot and realized it was rooting from its stems touching the ground? I had this happen to me with a coral honeysuckle, at which point I realized this plant can be made to spread itself with minimal effort. What we’re talking about is more or less a modified form of ground layering, but more on that later.

The process is simple, you set a container plant in a part of the garden you want it to grow and wait for the stems to touch the ground and root. The plant fountain makes vegetation, roots in place, and is then trimmed so as to move the container to its new location. Bam! You’ve got an plant fountain over flowing!

Here are a few tips to keep your “plant fountain” healthy. The smaller your container is the faster it will dry out, so be sure that you don’t select a container thats too small. I like to use something in the 2-3 gallon range.  It’s helpful to put a liberal amount of mulch covering the container so that it is able to live through dry spells with minimal or no watering.

You can also put a handful of compost where the plant touches the ground to encourage rooting.

You can also do this in reverse. Take a branch of a vining plant and run it though the bottom hole of a container then fill the container with potting medium to take a plant from the garden to the nursery.

A few species you could try this with would be clematis, trumpet creeper, passionfruit, wandering jew, gotu kola, star jasmine, Dutchman’s pipe, and many other perennial vines.

Technique #2. Guild early and often

One need not wait until planting in the ground to begin assembling a guild. We can begin the process of building a plant guild inside of a nursery container. This can be achieved with minimal effort by shaking a few seed heads of your favorite wildflowers over your fruit trees in containers. Another way is to eat passionfruit, and spit the seeds haphazardly at the nursery. Often times the seeds don’t come up until the next spring, which makes for a pleasant surprise of passionfruit babies growing randomly in the mulberry seedlings. The trick is recognizing the seedlings of your friends compared to the seedlings of the weeds.

Some examples would include a tree mixed with any combination of salvia, shiso, passionfruit, assorted asters, amaranth, bee balm, etc.

Once again, the larger the container the more space available for guilding. I could see this technique being less successful in containers less than about 3 gallons in size.

Technique #3 Ground Layering

Maybe you’ve heard of air layering, but have you heard of ground layering? The concept is similar in that you cover the stems of a plant you want to propagate with potting medium, except instead of suspending a ball of potting medium in the air, you take the branches to the ground and encourage them to root there. You simply select a low growing branch, bend it to the ground, remove a ring of bark at the point of ground contact, and weigh the branch down with something like a stone or log and forget it. It’s helpful to also mound up a bit of soil and/or compost at the site of ground contact. Some species this works well with include figs, pineapple guava, goumi, currants, and wax myrtles.

My favorite thing about this technique is that once a stem is rooted, it’s available to be moved for years to come. Unlike air layers and containerized plants which are more “perishable.” I’ve got several fig trees with many ground layers which have been rooted for years, just waiting to be removed and given to a friend.

Similarly when I have a low growing herbaceous plant that I’m trying to propagate, I’ll put a mound of sifted compost covering lots of stems, so as to encourage rooting. Then whenever I’m ready to divide the plant, there’s a particular abundance of stems with roots present. Some plants like mint may not even require this added step, but for a plant like wormwood, longevity spinach, porter weed, or skullcap this is an effective simple strategy to encourage stems to root.

Technique #4 The Ferrel Nursery

We can observe in the landscape that there are some places which serve to nurse baby plants better than others. By allowing key locations in our gardens to remain relatively undisturbed, we can take advantage of sites which present themselves as a natural nursery. Some sites of natural nurseries I’ve observed are the drip line of medium to large sized trees, the north/shady side of a structure, tree lines, and unmaintained edges. From these “marginal” areas plants are encouraged to “volunteer” themselves to develop with minimal input required. By allowing edges to remain unmaintained, combined with gently encouraging species with which you are partnering, can be a productive strategy for growing new plants to move around your garden.

Once again, the ability to identify the plants you are propagating at a very young age is key. It’s easy to pull up or weed eat or machete down a small plant mixed with other weeds if you’re not aware of its presence.

Employing this technique is as easy as gathering as many seeds as you can of species capable of self seeding and throwing them in areas which seem naturally hospitable to young plants. If you’re in the tropics and want lots of avocado or mango trees, then throw as many avocado and mango seeds around the edges of your landscape as you can. If you’re in a temperate climate try persimmons, beauty berry, hardy palms, etc.

For bonus points you can cover some seeds with a touch of mulch, weed around seedlings, and/or put a handful of fertilizer at the base of volunteers.

At any point you can take the seedlings and pot them up, give them to friends, graft onto them, or move them to their permanent location in the garden. As a long term strategy you can allow some well positioned young trees to remain at the base of older trees in anticipation of the older tree’s eventual fall.

By creatively partnering with plants natural abilities to multiply themselves, we can secure a reliable supply of new plants to populate our gardens. These techniques, like everything in gardening, require a patient disposition with a high tolerance for failure. Not everything you do is going to work every time, but by making lots of adjustments over a long period of time and building on your successes, abundance is assured. Another way of putting it, in the words of a mentor of mine, “if you throw enough shit at the wall, something is going to stick.”

Happy gardening!

-Brock Barker (and Illustrations by Ellie)

Copyright 2022 Atitlan Organics   |   All Rights Reserved

Sarah Wu

Sarah is a clinical herbalist of 20 years, studying and practicing planetary eclectic, regenerative herbalism with a foundation in Wise Woman Reclaiming philosophies. Influenced by global traditions, Sarah focuses on local food-based healing and ethnobotanical traditions. She leads trainings and workshops in herbal medicine, Permaculture Design Courses, Therapeutic Deep Ecology, Social Permaculture, field-to-the-plate holistic nutrition, herbal first aid and Tarot. She is a passionate mentor and educator, who believes in the teacher’s role in unlocking the innate wisdom of the student. Sarah is the co-founder of the Village Witches project, and is a Co-Founder and Co-producer of Envision Festival.

Laura Palmieri

Laura ‘Lala’ Palmieri is a clinical herbalist, a biologist, plant and fungi lover and grower. She offers health consultations to balance body, mind and soul working with medicinal herbs and mushrooms. Her approach to health integrates the knowledge of many ancient traditions and teachers, fusing spirituality with nature, and science with alchemy through the transformation of the elements.

Lala has spent her years in dialogue with Nature, which has fueled her passion to integrate scientific knowledge and the connection with all beings to help humanity. She integrates her practice with cooking, gardening, and exploring ecosystems. She teaches and facilitates herbal clinics and programs in permaculture, herbalism, botany, fermentation, and medicinal mushroom cultivation, with a regenerative earth care approach and techniques that are accessible to most. She and Sarah co-created the Envision and Cosmic Converge Herbal First Aid Clinics, other relief Clinics in Guatemala for the volcano eruption. You will find Lala crafting remedies for her diverse communities in Guatemala and Costa Rica, where she is actively creating a world with integrated healthcare.

Holly Mech

Holly fell in love with yoga because of the sense of connection she felt every time she came to her mat. She began teaching yoga in Chicago in 2011. Her desire to deepen her teaching and personal practice led her to continue her yoga education in California, Bali, Australia and Guatemala. Holly now travels around the world teaching yoga and facilitating yoga teacher trainings. She enjoys helping new teachers sequence yoga classes and incorporate philosophy into their teachings. Her classes are creative and dynamic with an emphasis on making yoga accessible to everyone.

Holly studied English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and frequently draws inspiration for her classes from literature and poetry. When she’s not on the yoga mat she enjoys exploring nature, singing, dancing and working with textiles.

Ashley McDonnell

Ashley’s work focuses on resurrecting our relationship to the natural world through the development of earth based skills that deepen our connection to place while increasing our sense of sovereignty and resilience. Devoted to the arts of permaculture, natural building, herbalism and birth work as her mediums, Ashley explores with humility the diverse modalities that support us in living in right relationship with the world around us. She views permaculture as a practice that not only creates healthy ecological communities but one that helps to reweave the very fabric of who we are as people. Her work is an offering to the future.

Zach Loeks

Hailing from Ottawa, Canada where he and his partner run the 50-acre Kula Permaculture Farm, Zach brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the course. He works as an educator, designer, consultant and farmer, with an emphasis on integrating diversity, conserving soil and maximizing farm ecosystem services while maintaining high productivity.

Last year Zach published The Permaculture Market Garden, which explores ways that permaculture can be scaled up be a profitable whole-systems enterprise. Zach is a leading figure in permaculture, who brings a new and exciting vision of how it can be integrated into the wider community and marketplace.

Rony Lec

Rony is one of the world’s leading experts in permaculture and Mayan ancestral knowledge. Rony has spent the last 20 years teaching and implementing permaculture throughout Central, South and North America focusing on promoting food sovereignty and preserving biodiversity for the survival of Indigenous communities.

Through his extensive work with Indigenous communities on traditional ecological knowledge, seed saving, native plants, local/global food movements, livelihood security, and the interaction between communities and the environment, he has made a key contribution to the empowerment of Indigenous people around the world. Rony is a co-founder of IMAP.

Neal Hegarty

Neal is originally from Ireland. He grew up on a dairy farm and has been around animals all his life. He studied agriculture in Ireland and has worked as a permaculturist for the past 10 years. Neal was the Volunteer Manager at Atitlan Organics for 2 years before co-founding his own Permaculture-based enterprise, Abundant Edge Farm, in Tzununa. He brings a wealth of experience, enthusiasm, and energy into each Intro to Permaculture Course and Permaculture Design Certification Course and we’re happy to continue to collaborate with him!

Shad Qudsi

Shad Qudsi has over 13 years experience in organic and commercial gardening and farming. He is certified in Permaculture Design and has over 3 years experience in permaculture design consulting. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University with a double major in Applied Math and Psychology, Shad and his wife, Colleen, moved to Central America with only vague goals of farming at some point in the near future. In January of 2010, Shad and his wife bought and moved onto a very small farm located in the traditional Mayan village of Tzununa, which on the north shore of Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala. The farm developed into Atitlan Organics and now mainly focuses on greens and chickens, a large edible and useful plant nursery, a food forest, and training and education.  Shad is an enthusiastic teacher who truly believes in the work he is doing. Human resiliency cannot be erased from the landscape and now, it is coming back with a loving grace.