The Young Propagators Society was created with three intentions in mind: to aid the dissemination of propagation knowledge through the generations; to encourage more young horticulturalists into propagation and nursery roles; and to inspire learning of all areas of the natural world. These principles have since become their mission statement, and have guided them as the Society has grown. They issue free quarterly zines, both in print and as downloadable pdfs on their website which has a member space for discussions and blog posts, a job board, and a map of independent nurseries.
This summer they are launching ‘Roots & Radicles’, a series of monthly talks at different venues around the UK featuring speakers from across the world of plants, including, of course, those working in propagation but also conservationists, garden writers, and botanical artists. One of the team, Georgia Ward Dyer, has told us more about their ethos of knowledge sharing and cultural exchange .
Propagation is a Gunnera leaf-sized area of knowledge: it intersects everything from market gardening, cut flower growing and horticulture, to conservation projects, commercial agriculture and more. Propagation methods themselves are just as myriad, from seed (collecting, saving, hybridising) to vegetative approaches where cloned specimens can be grown from every bit of plant tissue imaginable - leaf, stem, root, cell. Our focus is on smaller scale, specialist and scientific knowledge of propagation, but our members are made up of all kinds of propagation enthusiasts, from first-timers growing vegetable seeds on their windowsill, to garden designers, to world experts in the specialist propagation of endangered species.
The joy of propagation is that there is always more to learn. A technique may have taken generations to perfect, with mastery of the propagation of a particular plant built incrementally by networks of people over time. A huge amount of specialised and specific information is out there in technical literature. But knowledge, like plants themselves, shifts and transforms over time - propagation is also about experimentation. What works in a lab is a world away from raising healthy adult plants in a nursery or garden. To paraphrase Ed Bowen of Issima Nursery in Rhode Island in our interview with him for Issue 4:
‘The facts are relatively few, propagation is an art - It’s the ability to extrapolate from the facts that make the propagator’.
YPS is a place for every kind of propagator to share what works for them, which by necessity means it’s somewhere to come with an open mind. Our mission statement explicitly talks about disseminating propagation knowledge through generations - we’re open to the idea that the young can teach the old too! Occasional iconoclasm is what pushes propagation forward, although propagators tend to be methodical in their experimentation. But ultimately, no book is ever going to be able to comprehensively record the full experience of knowing how to propagate - it’s a sensory thing as much as an intellectual or scientific exercise, and relationships between people are at the heart of the exchange of that knowledge.
When co-founders Ellie Pay (propagator at Crûg Farm Plants) and Sophie Cook (Assistant Nursery Manager at Great Dixter) came up with the idea for YPS, it was partly in response to realising that a generation of propagation knowledge was at stake as a result of the current skills gap in horticulture. Hence the second part of the Society’s purpose: encouraging more young horticulturalists into propagation and nursery roles.
Entering the world of propagation, and horticulture more generally, can be daunting - where to start? It can be bewildering to be assaulted from all sides with the ‘right’ way to grow something, especially when this advice is accompanied with warnings and reprimands. The natural world isn’t an obedient one, and failures can be demoralising enough to the novice without adding a sense of personal culpability. Instead, we want to celebrate the full diversity of approaches to propagation. In our zine issues, from one page to the next you’ll find hearty disagreement about everything from the merits of heat benches and rooting hormones, to the best medium for cuttings, to which plants we should be propagating and why. It’s an opportunity to reconsider what kinds of wisdom we count - our zine is free, but that doesn’t mean what can be learnt from its pages is worth less than what’s in a textbook. Membership of the Society is also free - anyone can join.
Everyone should be able to freely access knowledge on propagation skills, and our vision is to create spaces for that to happen in community with others who share that passion. Recognising that not everyone has equal access - and then changing that - is at the heart of our horti(counter)cultural ambitions. This isn’t just about what we do in the present; for example in our regular feature ‘Naturalis Historia’, we celebrate the stories of people who have been overlooked in botanical history. It feels natural to centre this ethos at the heart of YPS because it’s a part of the wider surge of people wanting to educate themselves, questioning who the ‘gatekeepers’ to knowledge are, and finding ways to circumvent that through joining forces.
The third part of our purpose - ‘to inspire learning of all areas of the natural world’ is so significant to this because it’s a reminder that propagation is inseparable from its wider cultural and environmental impact. Whether it’s growing vegetables, ornamental flowers, or propagating for conservation, we should always be questioning the systems we’re contributing to sustaining. People are increasingly starting to think about shared borders between, for example, horticulture and agriculture - seeing it as an ecology made up of complex intra-relationships. There’s a long distance to travel to overcome our anthropocentrism about plants - historically, the development of our knowledge of and respect for plants has depended on them being perceived as either useful, beautiful or ‘curious’. But, although there is a growing awareness of the damage wrought by our passion for plants (whether the destruction of peat bogs, the impact of pesticide use, or of ‘invasive species’ spread unthinkingly by Victorian plant fanatics), learning about and loving plants can also be the first step towards caring more about this natural world. This is also why through our zines, online content and forthcoming events, we are not solely focused on sharing technical advice about how to propagate, but we also celebrate the cultural context of our relationship with plants, through poetry, art and considered reflection. Whether it’s what gardeners can learn from ants; measuring environmental change through carbon-dating moss; the legacy of Romanticism on diversity in horticulture; how to think like a seed; or the folklore of the humble stinging nettle: all of these add up to realising that what, how and why we propagate can all change the world.
Photographs by Sophie Cook