Career takes root in starting new plants


By Hannah Tucker

Chelsea Maupin is obsessed with plants, but you need to see her apartment to believe it. Small succulents perch on the windowsills. A bookcase in the living room is dedicated to green things of all shapes and sizes. Potted plants line the perimeter of her deck.

Perhaps this obsession is hereditary. She grew up gardening with her grandmother, who taught her the basics about caring for plants. But when she arrived at Purdue, Maupin became fascinated with the science behind her grandma’s techniques.

“When I was little, Grandma would have me pinch off the tops of all of her mums,” said Maupin, a senior sustainable food and farming systems major from Kokomo, Indiana. “I wasn’t really sure why I did that, but she said it makes them bushier and that’s good, so I did. When I learned about apical dominance in class, I got to share with my family that the plants have a hormone response, and when you pinch the tops off, the lateral shoots grow. I thought that was so cool.”

Another scientific thing Maupin learned in class was how to propagate, which just means using a piece of a plant to grow a new one. It started as a class assignment, but it grew to be a hobby. She began snipping off pieces of plants wherever she went.

Photo by Hannah Tucker Chelsea Maupin, a senior sustainable food and farming systems major from Kokomo, Indiana, checks on herbs growing in the Purdue Student Farm greenhouse.

Photo by Hannah Tucker
Chelsea Maupin, a senior sustainable food and farming systems major from Kokomo, Indiana, checks on herbs growing in the Purdue Student Farm greenhouse.

“Growing plants is addicting,” she said. “It’s so easy, and I have a lot of fun watching them grow.”

Maupin started collecting plants from all sorts of interesting places. While studying abroad in Europe, she came across a potted plant someone had dumped along the road.

“I just picked the leaves up which had broken off and propagated them,” she said. “It feels like you’re cheating because it’s so easy. You just have to know a little bit about how plants grow.”

Working with plants is more than a hobby for Maupin. She has used her propagation skills in numerous research projects at Purdue that focus on ways to make agriculture more sustainable. One example of this is her work with tomato grafting.

Older varieties of tomatoes, called heirlooms, are really tasty. But they are also more prone to disease than conventional crop varieties. This is where grafting, a form of propagation, can help. In grafting, you take an heirloom tomato plant and attach it to the root stalk from another variety that provides more disease resistance. What you get is a plant that produces great-tasting heirloom tomatoes, but can resist diseases like a conventional variety — the best of both worlds.

Maupin spent her summer researching tomato grafting. She tracked how many tomatoes the grafted plants produced. She worked with four farms in the Lafayette area, and she spent a lot of time at the Purdue Student Farm, where she recorded how many fruits each tomato plant produced.

“I looked at a lot of tomatoes that summer — almost too many,” she said with a sigh. “The research was hard work, but it’s worth it to find ways to help farmers produce heirloom tomatoes more economically.”

Maupin’s experience in tomato grafting showed her how important it is to find simple innovations that improve agricultural production. Although she may not spend the rest of her life counting tomatoes, the experience helped her realize that she wants to dedicate her future career to sustainable farming.

“Sustainable” is a buzzword in the agriculture industry today, and many people define the word differently. To Maupin, it means finding low-input ways to produce food in an inclusive, community-oriented setting — much like the “plant-sharing” community she’s found through her houseplant hobby.

Maupin and her friends often exchange plants or propagate from each other’s plants. With her friends as resources, Maupin expands her plant collection without having to purchase plants or seeds at a store. She wants to extend this sharing mentality into developing countries that could benefit from low-input community farming systems. Although she isn’t sure exactly what this looks like or where it will take her, she’s willing to move her plants back to her mom’s house and go wherever there is a need.

“Between study abroad, internships, and travel, I don’t stay in one place very long,” she said with a laugh. “There are places all over the world I would like to visit. And that’s one thing that I love about houseplants —I don’t have to stay in one place to enjoy growing plants, and sometimes they can move with me. I will have something to grow wherever I go.”

Ready to grow your own plant collection?

By Hannah Tucker

The technique that Chelsea Maupin uses to grow new plants from cuttings is an easy and inexpensive way to start or grow your plant collection.

It involves cutting a stem from a plant, dipping it in rooting hormone, and keeping it watered until new roots start to grow. Once the roots grow, you can transfer the plant to a larger pot.

To learn how to start your own plants, see New Plants from Cuttings (Purdue Extension publication HO-37-W).

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Purdue Horticulture and Landscape Architecture

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