Advanced Growing

Plant Tissue Culture: For Gardeners as well as Geeks?

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Plant Tissue Culture: For Gardeners as well as Geeks?

The mother plant. Ahhhhhhhh! There she is, standing tall, majestic and benevolent. She’s the heart of it all, providing cutting after cutting and crop after crop of glorious fruits, vegetables, or flowers. Let us all kneel before her, salivating with gratefulness and …

{Cue needle scratch sound on record.}

”YOU DON’T NEED A MOTHER PLANT!” cries a dissenting voice.

Whaaat!!!? Who dares declare this heresy? Why, it is Mr. Billy Graham! (Not the preacher.) We begged him to step forth and elaborate … and he did!

tissue culture lab

Now then, now then, settle down you feisty Gardeners. I know that a lot of you are very attached to your precious mother plants. After all, you’ve probably been hacking away at them for a good few seasons now, right? You love taking your cuttings! Of course you do! You’re badder than bad with that lil’ scalpel of yours!

Don‘t get me wrong – I’m not knocking it. Taking cuttings has every right to be so popular with urban gardeners because it’s such lo-fi technology. As long as you have a plant that’s reasonably easy to take cuttings from, it’s a technique that works well for most growers. Lop off a bit of branch, dunk, plonk, propagator lid on, wait a week or so, hey presto. One rooted cutting ready to go.

But what if there was a system that provided you with all the rooted cuttings you could ever need, and gave you back your mother room? That’s right, I’m talking about freeing up that space for other activities! Like … another flowering room for instance! And you no longer have to take care of a mother plant all the time, come rain or shine, and let’s not even begin to think about all the lighting and other energy consuming resources you would no longer need. You know, come to think of it, a mother room is a pretty demanding beast.

What is Plant Tissue Culture?

plant-tissue-culture-laboratory
Plant Tissue Culture: For Gardeners as well as Geeks?

A plant tissue culture laboratory technician.

So what am I talking about? Plant tissue culture! Professional nurseries do not grow big rooms full of mother plants. If a crop is not grown from seeds, it’s more than likely to have been produced in tissue culture. You don’t always hear about it because only a few labs are necessary to grow the plants for all those greenhouses. You would be surprised how many of the plants you find all around you arose from tissue culture. Expensive equipment has prevented growers from setting up anything but the largest laboratories. So am I really serious about doing this sort of stuff at home? I most certainly am, thanks to new home tissue culture kits. These little gems have eliminated the need for expensive hoods and autoclaves. So yes, if you’re a plant enthusiast, you can now achieve lab quality tissue culture in your home.

How does it work in practice?

Let me start by saying this: tissue culture combines mother plants, cloning, and rooting in a single system that’s 10 to 100 times as efficient as ordinary cloning. Tissue culture growers produce hundreds or thousands of clones a month, or as few as they wish, from the multiplying and rooting of plants in jars. There are only a few basic steps that are easy to understand.

Small pieces of plant tissue are grown on gels made to multiply or root the plants. The first bunch of plants are grown with branching hormone to make them multiply like crazy. The secret is in the gel made from very special ingredients. I guess you could say it’s like “hydroponic jello” and is made from agar, nutrients, vitamins, sugar and hormones and a special preservative to eliminate the need to work under an expensive hood.

The sugar feeds the plant energy and the hormones make it grow the direction you want. Use the branching hormones to make a few plant pieces grow into full jars of new plants every month or five weeks. Plants are taken from the multiplying jars and divided to give a few hundred new plants. Most of them will be your new plants.

Dip them in rooting gel and plant away or root them in tissue culture and continue feeding them in sugar in larger jars. The tissue culture cuttings will grow tall and burst with roots in only a few weeks, and they will do it faster. Rooted tissue culture clones are ready to plant just like clones from a professional cloning machine. The remaining small plants are replanted into new multiplying jars to grow and fill all over again. The system takes on a “two shelf” operation. The jars on the top shelf multiply a few plants into many plants. The lower shelf gets them taller and puts roots on them.

Shelf Life

dragon-tree-plant-tissue-culture

 

And another great thing:  the clones are ready when you are. The plants in the jars have everything they need for months of growth and the containers they are grown in are easy to ship and transport. Tissue culture plants have been left on the counters of stores for months with no care, watering, or special lighting – that’s right … nothing. The sugar and nutrients provide the energy. Kit plants are given light for faster growth and speeded up by cutting and transplanting them more often.

It only takes a few plant pieces to get it all started. It begins with plant nodes and tips just about ¾” long with the branch bud ready to grow out. An ordinary cutting of 4 to 6 inches provides 3 to 6 node cuttings for tissue culture meristem culture. The node is trimmed with about ¼” above and below the node and the same for the petiole, or leaf stem. The pieces are washed in alcohol, bleach water, then rinsed, trimmed, and planted in a jar.

What equipment is needed?

So what does it take to be able to do all of this? Mix jars of gel just like gelatin, heat and cool, trim plants using scalpels and forceps, and grow the plants in a small clean location. Remember when taking clones seemed like a lot of scientific techie stuff? Now it’s second-nature, right? Well I think it’s the same with tissue culture. The skills will become second nature after only a few uses. It’s easy when you give it a go and practice a few times. Imagine what indoor hydroponics sounded like to a dirt and sun farmer when they heard about it for the first time! “Cover the walls, put up sodium lights, and use this nutrient solution in these rockwool cubes, pH adjust …. Etc.” This is no different and there’s already a breed of pioneering urban gardeners out there who have mastered tissue culture propagation and have a whole bank of genetics on a single shelf, rather than a room for a mother plants.  If you’re serious about preserving a whole array of interesting plant varieties, then plant tissue culture is definitely worth investigating!

Heath adds …

Plant tissue culture is used in commercial plant production because it’s possible to turn one plant into thousands, relatively easily. Imagine how great it would feel to take a single rare orchid and turn it into 10,000 plants? Woohoo! Orchids R Us babyo! Plant tissue culture is also useful for plant species that don’t root well and for germinating some types of seeds e.g. agave which have very specific moisture content requirements.

The tiny plantlets grown in tissue culture are extremely delicate when they emerge and it takes time and patience to harden them off sufficiently for the ‘real world’ of the growroom. I reckon that tissue culture will be of more interest to the very serious hobbyist / semi-professional rather than small-scale hobbyist growers. (I think they will be hard pressed to replace their mother plants, $20 propagators, rockwool cubes and scalpels with a Petri dish and agar but hey, you never know!) It’s great to see that these kits are out there for those growers who are serious about plant propagation.

And, plant tissue culture makes it very easy to transport your precious plant genetics. Anyway, as always, don’t forget to let us know your thoughts and/or experiences by posting a comment below.

Many thanks to Billy Graham for introducing us to this interesting propagation technique.  For more information please visit: planttc.com.

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