When my husband and I started gardening on my family’s Maryland farmstead more than 13 years, ago, we inherited the trees planted over the past century by my parents and grandparents.
A copper beech that had outgrown its corner of the yard. Towering tulip poplars and pin oaks. Chinese chestnuts, now covered with creamy flowers shaped like fireworks and smelling of sweet nuts. A black cherry tree, dangling its luminous fruits just out of reach; last month we stood on tiptoe, popping them into our mouths, the sweet delicious juice running down our chins.
We will miss these old souls when we move in the fall, to a smaller place farther north, near bays and marshes. And though we can’t take the big trees, we can take seedlings of the tulip poplars, sassafras and cedars that pop up along the hedge. When the weather cools in late summer, I’ll sink a nursery spade — one with a long, sharp, narrow blade — in a circle around each baby tree. The goal will be to not break the taproot as I lift each seedling into a gallon pot, fill it with soil, and set it in a semi-shaded, protected spot.
I will also dig up sprouts of Madame Lemoine, the French double white lilac with a spicy scent that my grandmother brought with her, from her own farm, a mile up the road, when she married my grandfather.
Sprouts, or shoots of lilacs, which arrange themselves around the base of the shrub, are connected to the mother plant by an underground stem, or stolen. I use a sharp blade to cut this umbilical cord, dig around the shoot, and lift it from the ground. I put these in pots deep enough for their roots, filled with a mix of compost and soil.
My grandmother also brought her mother’s fragrant damask rose to this farm. It’s a pink quartered type that never gets a spot of mildew or black spot, so I want to carry it to my own new home.
Layering is the easiest way to propagate an old rose. Choose a long, supple cane that bends low to the ground, and dig a little shallow trench where it touches the soil. Then bend the cane, just enough so that it so that it cracks open ever so slightly, without breaking in half. Place it gently in the trench, cover it with moist soil, then pin the cane to the ground with a piece of wire or coat hanger, bent like hairpin.
The cane should root in a month or so, when you can sever it from the mother plant, and let it grow on its own, until moving it in the early fall.
Taking cuttings of old roses is trickier. (Ken Druse’s “Making More Plants,” is a great guide for propagation, too detailed to fully explain here.)
I was introduced to the art 20 years ago, on a rose-rustling adventure with Stephen Scanniello, a rosarian and garden designer. We took cuttings from heritage roses flourishing on neglect in century-old New Jersey cemeteries. The roses that survive in such places, without pesticides or additives, are hardy plants. They can be spotted in old neighborhoods, too, so ask permission and take a few cuttings.
It helps, of course, to rose-rustle when the plants are blooming, so you can bury your nose in their velvety blossoms, to see if they’re worth the trouble. But if you know the rose, even if it has finished flowering, July is a good time to take cuttings.
Look for long canes of new growth, about the diameter of a slender pencil. Using a pair of sharp, clean pruners, cut the stems into 6-inch sections, remove the leaves from the bottom half, and trim a few from the top, so the cutting doesn’t transpire too much, but can still photosynthesize, while forming new roots.
I had fairly good luck my first time with Scanniello, sticking the cuttings into quart-size plastic zipper bags half-filled with moist light sterile potting soil and leaving the bag slightly open to let in a little air.
I just set the bags in the semi-shade of bigger pots, out of direct sunlight, and checked them daily to make sure they had not dried out. (Mist them if they do, but don’t let them get so wet that they rot.)
Plastic bags have the advantage of letting you see when the roots form. At that point, you can transplant them to little pots, until they grow into sturdy plants and can be set out in the garden. I had about a 25 percent success rate, so take a lot of cuttings.
This year, instead of bags, I used four-inch plastic pots filled with half soilless mix, half perlite. I used a pencil to make a hole in the soil of each pot. I took each cutting, trimmed on the diagonal, and tapped its base into a bit of rooting powder, then set it into the hole. The big challenge is to keep the plants humidified, so I put my pots into a shallow wooden box rigged with bent coat hangers and draped a plastic dry-cleaning bag over the whole thing.
You can also set each pot into a gallon-size bag with a zipper, but you have to rig some way to keep the plastic from collapsing onto the leaves. I’ve heard of people planting the cuttings right in the bags and hanging them from a clothes line in dappled light. Others simply stick the cutting under the mother rosebush in moist soil.
So it goes, trying to carry plants dear to the heart to a new home. Some, such as the opium poppies (Papaver somniferum), are easy to collect from seed.
A friend named Rosemary gave me a sweet little box of seeds for Christmas one year, more than 30 years ago. She told me to sprinkle them over the snow in February, in a part of the garden that had bare ground in warm weather. (A lawn, for instance, would not work.) By early spring, she said, tiny little lettuce-like leaves would appear, which explains their other common name, lettuce poppies.
“But don’t weed them, or thin them,” Rosemary said. “They’ll sort themselves out, and the strongest ones will bloom.”
By May, I had a sea of purple papery flowers, mixed with a few bright red ones, bobbing their heads over my kitchen garden. Now, I tie a little piece of red yarn around the biggest reds and the darkest purples, because once they drop their petals, I won’t remember what color they were. The pods look like little salt shakers, full of black seeds. They are ready to harvest when the pods turn brown, but you have to beat the goldfinches to them.
I will take sections of perennials, too: a favorite frilly mint that is delicious chopped into salads, the fuzzy spearmint my father grew to crush into mint juleps (it makes the best mojitos), a shovelful or two of my grandmother’s perennial sunflowers, which bloom with their airy yellow flowers in late August through September. My sea of plastic pots increases daily.
“How are you going to take all this stuff with you?” my husband asks.
“You’d be surprised what I can fit into my old Subaru,” I say. “How many boats can you pull behind your Honda?”
You can take a lot with you, if you want to.
Raver is a freelance writer who has gardened on an old Maryland homestead for 15 years.