Cuttings, An Essential Gardening Skill

Article written by Saturday6TM blogger Dave Townsend from Growing the Home Garden

Gardeners are obsessed with one thing ... plants. How to grow the plants, how to increase their production, and (my favorite) how to get more of them!  Getting more plants can be as simple as running over to the local nursery and picking out a few choice specimens for the garden. Sometimes the gardener's budget does not cooperate with the desire to bring home those new plants. You've been there, haven't you? That's why knowing how to propagate plants is an essential skill for gardeners to learn.

There are several great ways to propagate plants, including seeds, layering, tissue culture, division and cuttings. There are whole books on all of these propagation areas but for the purpose of this post, let's focus on making cuttings. Cuttings are a vegetative method of propagation where a piece of one plant is used to make another one genetically identical to the original, which can also be called a clone. Cuttings can be taken from various types of wood but is usually best done from the seasonal first-year growth. (i.e., softwood in spring of the first-year growth or semi-ripe in mid to late summer).

While other methods of vegetative plant propagation, like division, layering or tissue culture, can accomplish the same goal, taking cuttings is my preferred method. I've found that cuttings produce a greater number of plants without having to uproot and transplant an already established planting. Not all plants respond well to cuttings and require other methods to propagate. Tissue culture can be difficult; division and layering can't make as many plants (but is necessary to propagate some plants); and seeds don't make a genetically identical plant.

Cuttings can generate whole root systems from just a small piece of a plant. Some plants will grow roots very easily (like willows, which can be rooted in moist soil or even just a jar of water), but others need a little more assistance from the gardener. To root cuttings, you need a sterile soil medium, container, humidity and sometimes rooting hormone. Rooting hormone replicates the natural growth hormones (auxins) found in the plant. (Rooting hormone isn't necessary to root all plants, but I have found that it can speed up the process.) For soil medium, I use either plain sand or an equal part mixture of peat, perlite and vermiculite. Once you have taken a cutting, reduce the number of leaves to about two at the top of the cutting, dip the bottom (cut) end in rooting hormone, then place it in your container of rooting medium deep enough to allow the cutting to remain upright. Then keep it moist until it has rooted. Remember, moist - not soggy. Perennials can root fairly quickly - in as little as a week to three weeks - but shrubs and trees take longer and normally need at least six to eight weeks to root. Sometimes it can take even longer. To help maintain the humidity, you can put a plastic bag tent over your container and mist it with a spray bottle. You want to prevent the leaves from transpiring too much moisture. Sometimes it helps to reduce the leaf size of larger leaved plants to reduce transpiration. Just cut the leaf in half.

What can be rooted from cuttings? A lot! You will have to experiment to find out all the possibilities, but here are some easy-to-root suggestions: hydrangeas, coleus, red twig dogwood, willow, viburnum, salvia, spirea and veronica. Not every cutting will root, so take several at a time. If you end up with more plants than you need, give a plant to a friend or donate the extras to a school garden.