Updated: Jun 19, 2018
The art of propagation is as old at the earth and from the beginning of civilisation humans have harnessed the power around them to propagate plants. Success usually depends on being able to provide the right environment for growth. Each plant has a set of needs and no two plants will multiply at the same rate with the same success. The same plant even at different times of the year will not have the same success rate.
In this blog I will set the scene and to a large extent manage expectations. Understanding how to take cuttings and care for them for each species is not something which can be learned in a few paragraphs. It is something best learned in chunks so over the course of this year I will break all the methods down into bite size sections using example plants.
The process of taking cuttings is quite simple; it’s the aftercare which is a little more tricky. Just to make things as complicated as possible there are several methods of taking cuttings:
Softwood Usually taken in spring from the first flush of growth. These have a very high potential to root but their survival rate can be very low as they tend to lose water and wilt very quickly. They are also very susceptible to rot.
Greenwood A little older than softwood cuttings. They are still green but a little firmer so easier to handle and not as prone to wilting so the success rate should increase.
Semi Ripe These again are a little older than softwood cuttings. Still green but a little firmer and buds will have developed. These can often be taken with a heel to increase the chances of success.
Hardwood Taken from dormant wood often taken in the late summer/ autumn. They are slower to root but as they do not dry out to fast the success rate is much better.
Leaf Cuttings When detached from the mother plant whole leaves can be used to make new plants. They will have dormant buds at the leaf base which will start to grow given the right conditions. Some plants can also be propagated by part leaves.
Root cuttings Plants which produce thick fleshy roots and suckers can be propagated using just the roots.
The success rate of taking cuttings will depend largely on giving cuttings exactly what they need to form roots quickly, not dry out and also not rot.
Always choose a healthy mother plant to give offspring the best chance of success. Cuttings taken from a very young plant will not have as good success rate as from an established plant at the end of the growing season. For this reason I take most of my cuttings in late summer/early autumn. Before the winter equinox sets in they have had a good few weeks to develop some small roots and then I over winter them in a greenhouse which also means that in the darkest depths of winter I am not tempted to keep having a look and prodding them too much. They can go to sleep knowing that they will be undisturbed and soon enough in the warmth of the greenhouse will develop some nice health roots in springtime.
Ensure that all of your tools and pots are thoroughly clean to prevent the spreading of disease. Sterilize all equipment before you start including secateurs, knives, scissors and pots.
You will need to choose the appropriate place for your cuttings; this may be in a container or in an outdoor seed bed. Either way it is vital that you use an appropriate growing medium. Woody cuttings such as roses can be left in an outdoor bed but it is wise to take most other cuttings into a pot so they can be moved when needed and their conditions strictly controlled. If outdoor beds are used ensure that the soil is sufficiently free draining but does not dry out to much - it must be rich enough to retain some moisture.
Before taking cuttings it is also a good idea to water the mother plant thoroughly so that the stems can have a big drink before being cut. I usually do this a few hours before hand. Do not take too many cuttings at once, just enough to fill your first pot. You can then come back and repeat the procedure as many times as needed. If you do need to take a large number of cuttings at once place them into a poly bag to prevent them from drying out and insert them as quickly as possible. Do not leave cuttings in the sun, even after they have been inserted, they will loose too much moisture and wilt.
If taking cuttings in the UK in late summer/early autumn you will find that the temperature is ideal. They can be potted up and left outside in a shaded spot or in the shelter of a cold frame. If you are taking cuttings in cooler weather then you may need some bottom heat to encourage the growth of new roots. The ideal temperature is 15- 25 degrees for bottom heat with slightly cooler air temp to encourage root development before the leaves start to grow too much.
Cuttings will root at different rates, some in as little as 3 weeks and other will take months. If a cutting has not rooted but you can see that it is not dead it may just be a little dormant, maybe you have not provided bottom heat this may kick start it into the process.
I am currently nursing lots of cuttings which I took in the first week of September last year. Many have roots and a few of them are being a bit lazy. I think I may need to get a heated mat out to give them a kick start soon.
Stay tuned to my blog and instagram account for more information on propagation throughout the season: