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Pregnant plants

All over my local community garden, the plants are pregnant. Some, like tomato, pepper and aubergine plants, are wearing their pregnancies really well. They are positively glowing with their red, yellow, green and purple bumps. Others, like the pot marigolds who have bravely protected my cabbages from cabbage butterflies all summer, are hiding their pregnancies behind wilted petals and browning seedheads and appear to be rather exhausted by it all.

The angiosperms (or flowering plants) are the most diverse range of plants on Earth and all of them produce seeds contained within an ovary. Inside their mother's womb, the seeds are protected as they mature. When the time is right, the mother plant will give birth but, for now, it must direct most of its energy into developing its precious seeds.

Pregnancy in plants can last from one week to several years, depending on the species. Energy is diverted away from the arduous task of flowering and, though they may continue producing flowers as a back-up plan in case the first batch of seeds fails, their display of flowers will be reduced.

Inside the seeds, embryos develop surrounded by tissue that provides food and gives them the energy they need to break out. As the flowering plant reaches the final stages of pregnancy, the coating surrounding the seed hardens to prepare the seed for life outside the ovary. At this stage, the embryo stops growing and becomes inert so it can remain in a dormant state until the time is right to burst into life. The seed is then ready to leave the protection of its mother's womb. Each seed contains a new life and each seed is an individual, a genetic mix of its parents with its own unique combination of its parents' genes.

Giving a plant everything it needs to help it through its pregnancy will reward us with bigger and better fruits.Regular watering of pregnant plants is essential. Periods of drought will cause the fruits to shrink as they dry up, and swell again when they are next watered, splitting the skin of the fruit. The plants are eating for two or more so, like all living things going through pregnancy, good nutrition is important. Potassium controls the opening and closing of the stomata - pores on the underside of plants' leaves. The stomata open so plants can take in carbon dioxide but, in opening their stomata, plants also lose water. During periods of drought when lost water cannot be replaced, potassium ions are pumped into the cells surrounding the stomata, closing them to prevent further water loss. A steady supply of potassium means that plants can respond quickly to any periods of water deprivation, however short, and a quick response in fruiting plants is essential.

Fertilisers designed for fruiting plants contain higher amounts of potassium. A good, potassium rich, organic feed is home-made comfrey liquid, made by steeping comfrey leaves in water for a few weeks, and stirring them every so often. When it's ready, it will take on its own distinctive smell and can then be diluted by around ten parts water to one part comfrey liquid. My fruiting plants get a comfrey feed around once every two weeks as soon as they begin to flower so they are as strong as they can be during pregnancy.

Sadly, for many of the vegetable plants in my community garden including the ones in my plot, their fruits will be plucked from them before they've had the chance to undergo a natural birth. For most, this marks the end of their lives and the end of their valiant efforts to ensure the continuation of the next generation. Perennials like the figs, grape vines and berry bushes will live on but, exhausted by the rigours of pregnancy, they will be planning on a long rest. Before they do, they must strengthen their root systems to gain a head start when they wake up for a new growing season. This is the perfect time to mulch with homemade compost which will slowly and gently release nutrients to them over time and regulate the soil temperature, keeping them cosier over winter.

I'm currently going through a kind of pregnancy of my own - about to give birth to my first book, The Plant Listener. As the release date approaches, I'm hoping its 'i's' and its 't's' will be perfectly dotted and crossed and it will take a little part of me with it when it ventures into the outside world. For that reason, as I wander around the garden, I'm feeling more than the usual empathy with those expectant plant mothers.

Julie Kilpatrick is author of The Plant Listener. She is a lecturer in landscape design and horticulture and editor of online gardening magazine 'Gardenzine'.

The Plant Listener, available in paperback and on kindle at Amazon.


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