Myth busting

Through a staff member, Plant Heritage Surrey Group was lucky enough to receive money from the charity arm of The Times to train 10 of our members on propagation courses with nurserywoman, author, botanist and lecturer Marina Christopher of Phoenix Plants .


On arrival coffee and delicious apple and walnut cake courtesy of Jo, Marina’s assistant.


Marina introduced herself as a scientist rather than a horticulturalist, so her modus operandi is to ‘Look, Observe and Experiment’, rather than do what she was taught at college.  From the many different ways of doing things she finds out what works and sticks with it resulting in some interesting concepts.


But the heart of the nursery is the grit Marina uses in her composts.  1-3mm grit is used in different proportions for different purposes.  Around each piece of grit is a surface layer of moisture, so the medium is well drained and yet not dry.  Potting composts are 1/5 grit, but this rises to 70% for cuttings.


On sowing seeds
Marina ignores the suggested temperatures on seed packets and doesn’t heat any sowings, tender seeds are just sown later.   All seeds are covered with up to 1/2 inch of grit – even those which are ‘supposed’ to be left uncovered.  This ensures that they don’t dry out – fatal for tiny seedlings, as well as stopping the seeds all washing to the corner of the pot when it’s watered.


On collection and storage of seeds
We were given free run of the nursery to collect seeds.  Marina showed us how to swirl the seeds around a glass bowl and blow gently to remove the chaff.  Then the seeds can be labelled and kept somewhere dark and cool.


On pricking out seedlings
Gasps from the group as Marina tips out a pot of seedlings and cuts the root mass in half.  The roots are too long to be satisfactorily potted on and will only rot and cause disease.  Because of the open nature of the seed compost the seedlings can be pulled out like tissues from a box, with very little damage to the remaining shortened roots, and pricked out into trays.


Marina favours cellular trays, slightly deeper than normal, which allow more flexibility on when they are potted up.


On cuttings
Bottom heat and misting are used for cuttings.   Material can be collected and kept in a sealed bag in a fridge for up to a week.  The usual non-flowering terminal shoots are chosen, but then the cut is made across the node rather than just below it and the shoot, with lower leaves removed and others reduced in size are poked into the 70% grit compost.  If possible don’t use a dibber as pushing the stem into the compost abrades the end and encourages the cells to differentiate into roots.


On rooted cuttings
Again gasps from the group as Marina threw a small tray of cuttings into the air, but they landed with the cuttings on top and ready to be potted onto cells or individual pots.  A bit like tossing a pancake this technique looks harder than it actually is and we were soon proficient and amazed at our own dexterity.


On dividing perennials
A sharp knife is used to cut the plant into chunks and then by finding the line of least resistance smaller pieces are arrived at suitable for potting up.


I have only written about a tiny proportion of what I learned on this course – I know that posts get very boring if they are too long – but there are now 10 people ‘Marina trained’ who will be able to pass on this knowledge to others in the propagation group and propagate plants for our plant fairs.

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Marina is holding a Bulb and Salvia Open Day on Saturday 28th September and cake is promised.  Address is Paice Lane, Medstead, Alton, Hampshire, GU34 5PR.  A treat for all keen gardeners.  And if you fancy going on one of her courses contact her on

4 thoughts on “Myth busting

  1. Very nice post – I like the mention that she uses what she has tried and experimented with. Sometimes the best tips are those you just took the risk to attempt – and it works best! Thanks for sharing.

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