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Larry Sagers
Herbaceous plants for propagation U of U Greenhouse

While most of us are still relaxing for the winter or are reading our seed catalogs, one expert greenhouse operator is very busy. She is getting her plants grown to beautify myriad flower beds up on the hill come this spring.

For the past 18 years, Marcene Younker, the greenhouse coordinator for the University of Utah, has tended the greenhouses. She and her crew plant and maintain all of the flower beds on campus and also care for the landscapes at the president's and vice president's homes.

As a native of Cache Valley, she got her start in horticulture at Utah State University. "I got interested in horticulture when I took a home horticulture class at USU. I fell in love with the idea of that being a career.

"I moved to Salt Lake City away from USU but I discovered USU classes being taught in Farmington that I took. I eventually moved back to Cache Valley to get my horticulture degree."

Her focus at this time of year is to get her plants up and growing. She has many choices of how, what and when to propagate, but she favors perennial plants.

"I operate the greenhouse and propagate the plants many different ways. I propagate from seeds, from cuttings and from divisions," she says.

"Most of the flower beds are mostly perennials. I spot plant those beds with annuals to give me more summer color. There are still a few beds that are only annuals and there are a few that we plant for spring color with pansies and bulbs."

Because of her extensive experience in plant propagation, I asked her to share advice on how to start plants. She shares her knowledge to help homeowners get their plants off to a good start.

"Most homeowners do not have enough light to propagate plants easily. That means they will have to build a light table of some sort to be successful.

"Next, you have to have to the right temperature. For most seeds you need to have soil temperatures of 70 degrees. Perennials can be a little cooler but plants like begonias need to be much warmer. Some perennials are even trickier because they need a combination of cool, moist conditions followed by warmer temperatures."

The final difficulty is the right growing mix. Younker buys commercial mixes and she starts her plants in a germination mix that has very fine particles. She then switches to a coarser mix that has larger particles of bark, perlite or pumice to improve the drainage.

Propagating plants is interesting because of the many different ways to start the plants. Younker showed some variegated, scented-leaf geraniums and other plants that have been part of the university plantings for many years.

"I have been taking starts of these plants as long as I have been here and the plants were already here when I came. Each year, I take some out of the flower beds and pot them up and use them for stock plants the following season," she explains.

She also propagates coleus and many other tender annuals that way. For perennial ornamental grasses, ground covers and other plants, she saves stock plants that she divides into smaller sections to create more plants for her gardens.

One of her favorite perennials to grow from seed is agastaches, also known as anise-hyssop. She prefers to grow it and other drought-tolerant plants because they survive better.

"There are always problems with construction and maintenance so I don't grow anything that has to be watered extremely often. The drought-tolerant annuals that I like to start from seed include gazanias, portulaca and vinca."

I asked what her most frequent problems were, and she answered. "The biggest problem is students walking in the beds or riding their bikes through them. Letting their dogs run in them is also a problem."

For that and other reasons, she stresses simplicity in her designs. "Simplify your plantings. Flower beds take a lot of time. They are high-maintenance. You want to keep them simple so you have time to do other things."

That's good advice from someone who takes care of 18 greenhouses and dozens of flower beds. Take some time to visit the beautiful campus this year and enjoy the beautiful flower beds, the magnificent trees and other beauty surrounding the university.

Garden tips

USU class at Thanksgiving Point. Growing your own plants from seeds or from cuttings can be a rewarding hobby. Learn about fertilizers, growing mixes, seed varieties and transplanting, as well as insects, disease and other environmental problems in your greenhouse. Classes start on Feb. 7 and can be a morning session from 10 a.m. to noon or in the evening from 5 to 7 p.m. Cost for the four-week course is $40 per person.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.