When I first started gardening, the term “plant propagation” scared the heck of out of me. To be honest, I was so afraid to do it, that I didn't even really understand what it was.
Now that I've spent the last several years turning my homestead landscape into a garden of eating, I know first-hand just how simple propagating plants from stem cuttings can be. It also saves me so much money I can't even imagine not doing it!
Supplies You'll Need to Propagate by Stem Cuttings
It doesn't take much equipment to start new plants from stem cuttings. Here are the basic items you'll need.
1. Good scissors or pruners to use to take cuttings.
2. Garden tool disinfectant (e.g. 1 tablespoon bleach in a gallon of water) to disinfect your scissors and pruners before and after you make each cut to avoid accidentally transmitting disease between plants.
3. A moist towel and collection container to keep your cuttings from drying out until you can get them planted.
4. Potting containers to use to start your cuttings. You only need about a square inch per cutting to begin. So you can put multiple cuttings in each container.
5. A plastic bag that fits over your potting container to keep humidity high during the rooting period.
6. A low-fertility planting mix. Sand, vermiculite, seed-starting mix, or fertilizer free potting soil work well. The essential factor is that the planting medium must be low in fertility, so the plant is forced to grow roots to search for nutrients. Your planting medium should also be disease and pathogen free.
7. Labels to identify your cuttings if you are starting multiple plants at once.
8. Cuttings from mature healthy plants.
9. In some cases, you'll also want rooting hormone. You can buy this for a few dollars at the garden supply center. Or you can make your own.
Homemade Willow Tea Rooting Hormone
To make your own rooting hormone, fill a half gallon container with young willow stems and leaves. Cover with boiling water and allow to steep for 24 hours. Drain solids and use the tea as your rooting hormone.
To use, soak your cuttings in this tea for several hours before planting. For slow to root cuttings, you can also use a mixture of half water, half willow tea to water your cuttings until roots emerge.
Store this tea in the fridge for up to 4 days.
Why Propagate Plants from Stem Cuttings
When you take cuttings of plants and root them, you are essentially cloning the parent plant. So, if you are at a friend's house and see a beautiful hydrangea or currant bush that you wish you could have at home, you can! (With their permission of course, and taking care not to harm the parent plant).
There are tons of plants that you can propagate by cuttings. Shrubby plants are often easiest to start by stem cuttings. Also, some shrubs don't produce true-to-type from seed, so cloning by cuttings might be the only method for making new plants similar to the parent.
Herbs like lavender or rosemary grow faster from cuttings than seeds. Evergreens and some trees also grow well from cuttings. With a little effort and patience, you can grow your garden of eating for almost no cost with the help of stem cutting propagation.
Note, in general, plants that have hollow stems, or that don't perk-up when placed in water after being cut, aren't good candidates for stem cuttings. Also, most annuals are easier to propagate by seed.
Examples of Plants to Start by Stem Cuttings
The lists of plants you can start by stem cuttings are almost endless. To get you started, consider trying some of these plants to build your skills and your garden quickly.
- Herbs: rosemary, lavender, thyme, sage, true hyssop, stevia, savory, mints
- Fruits: kiwi, raspberry, grape vines, blackberries, currants, blueberry, figs, honeyberry
- Others: hydrangea, willow, holly, rose, lilac, forsythia, barberry, weigela, viburnum
Things to Know Before you Propagate by Stem Cuttings
To propagate by cuttings, it's helpful to do specific research for the plant you want to root. In particular, you'll want to find out whether the plant roots best with soft-wood, semi-soft wood, or hardwood cuttings.
Additionally, you will want to find out if the rooting hormone is necessary. Rooting hormone is a stimulant that encourages slow-growing plants to develop roots faster than they otherwise would. Some cuttings are difficult to establish without the use of rooting hormone. Many cuttings, though, just don't benefit from it.
Truthfully, since it's so cheap and easy to start plants from cuttings, I often snip plants at random and try to root them with and without rooting hormone. Then I keep notes about what works and what doesn't so I know for next time.
In general, vigorous growing plants tend to root from all three cutting types and without rooting hormone. Slower growers tend to be easier from soft or hardwood cuttings and require rooting hormone.
Some plants are patented and can only be propagated with permission or payment of a royalty fee. It's unlikely that plant patent owners will hunt you down and sue you for cloning a few plants for personal use. Still, it's a good idea to do a quick internet search to make sure the varieties you are cloning don't bear the registered patent ® or patent pending marks.
Note that a ™ or trademark is just legal protection for the name of a plant and not the plant itself.
Soft-wood, Semi-soft wood, and Hardwood Cuttings
Cuttings are referred to as soft-wood, semi-soft wood, or hardwood based on the time of year cuttings are taken and the condition of the stems being cut. For many plants, all three cutting types work. However, some plants root faster with certain cutting types.
1. Soft-wood Cuttings
Most plants root well using the soft-wood cuttings that occur in spring. As new growth begins, it is usually soft and is a different color than mature leaves and stems. This brand new growth is not quite hardy enough to use for cuttings and will be prone to mold.
Just as that new growth starts to show signs of age, though, such as turning from green to brown, it's perfect to use for stem cuttings. At this point, it still has lots of growth hormones in the stem. It is also durable enough to resist rot while it roots.
2. Semi-soft Wood Cuttings
Many plants also root well using the semi-hard cuttings that were new growth in the spring but have hardened-off a bit by fall when those cuttings are harvested. These cuttings often take longer to root. But cooler temperatures usually make mold problems less likely to occur.
3. Hardwood Cuttings
Deciduous plants are often propagated from hardwood cuttings taken in winter while the plants are dormant. I have the best luck starting hardwood cuttings just as the plants begin to bud out.
In preparation for rapid spring growth, plants send growth hormones out through their stems. By taking cuttings right before plants would typically begin leafing out, you can harness this energy for faster propagation.
How to Take Stem Cuttings
Now for the fun part, let's collect some cuttings! You can do this from your yard just to get the hang of it. Or, head over to an established garden to get cuttings from plants you don't already have. (Make sure you have permission to take cuttings before you start snipping!)
1. Cutting Etiquette
Most of us gardeners prefer that you cut plant stems at an angle rather than straight across. Similar to having a slanted roof, rather than a flat one, that angled cut ensures that rain runs off the cut. This helps minimize fungal risks for prone plants.
It is also very easy to transmit disease from one plant to another through the use of garden tools. Disinfect your scissors or pruners with a solution of 1 tablespoon bleach to 1 gallon water before you make your first cut. Disinfect again between plants.
Only take cuttings from healthy plants. Check for signs of stress such as discoloration of the leaves, dry stem tips, and excess insect damage before cutting.
2. Avoid the Flowering and Fruiting Stems
Plant stems that are flowering or fruiting are usually not suitable for cuttings. This is because those stems are putting all their energy into flower and seed production. So, there won't be as many natural hormones in the plant to encourage root growth.
Take cuttings before or after the flowering and fruiting time frames. For some plants, such as grape vines or roses, not all the stems are flowering or fruiting at the same time. You can still take cuttings from the stems that are not currently in production and get good results.
Also, some vigorous growing plants will still root while flowering. But it will take longer and often the resulting plants will grow slower at the outset.
3. A Note on Nodes
In general, you'll want to make sure your cuttings have at least 4-6 nodes. Nodes is merely a fancy term for the spot on the stem where the leaves grow.
4. The Long and Short of Cutting Length
You also want your cutting to be at least 2 inches long and closer to 4 inches if possible. For some plants, it's hard to get 4 inches of soft-wood.
Munstead, for example, is a compact lavender that only puts on a couple of inches of growth per year. So, my cuttings from those plants are usually a little less than 2 inches. Meanwhile, grape vines often have a couple of inches between nodes, so those cuttings might be longer than 4 inches.
How to Cut Stems for Plant Propagation
Now, let's get down to the business of making new plants.
1. Disinfect your tools
Dip your scissors or pruners in your disinfectant before cutting.
2. Make the cut
Make the stem cut about a ¼ inch below the bottom node on the section that will become your stem cutting.
3. De-leaf your cutting
Remove the leaves from the bottom half of your cutting. Make sure that section includes at least two nodes.
Some people remove the top leaves too. Personally, I like to leave them on because many of my plants root so fast that the leaves survive and begin growing again.
4. Keep cuttings moist
Wrap the leaf-less ends of your cuttings in a wet paper towel or cloth to keep them moist as you collect more cuttings. Do not let your cuttings dry out. Ideally, you'll want to use them within few hours of harvesting.
5. Tip on Labeling
If you are taking cuttings from multiple plants, make sure you label the cuttings in case you can't remember what they are. This is especially important with hardwood cuttings as there is no leaf growth to remind you what you cut.
How to Start Plants from Stem Cuttings
Now, that you've got your cuttings, let's get them planted so they can start to root.
1. Prepare a pot with planting medium
Any container with drainage holes that can hold a few inches of planting medium will work for this purpose.
Water your medium thoroughly before use. This compacts it a bit so it will hold your root cuttings upright. It also prevents your cuttings from floating up after you set them.
2. Apply rooting hormone
If you are using a powdered rooting hormone, pour some out into a separate container. Dip the bottom node of your cutting into the powder.
Tap your cutting gently to shake off extra powder. You only want a fine coating of the powder on the stem. Discard the unused rooting powder that you dipped your cuttings into to prevent cross-contamination.
If using willow tea, soak cuttings for a few hours in advance of rooting.
3. Poke a hole in your planting medium and plant
You can use a pencil, chopstick, or dowel stick to poke a hole in your planting medium. By poking the hole first, you prevent the rooting hormone from rubbing off as you insert your cutting into the planting medium.
You can put multiple cuttings in each pot. Just make sure to leave a 1-2 inch diameter around the base of each cutting for proper air circulation to prevent mold problems.
4. Cover your cuttings with a plastic bag
In general covering your cuttings, loosely, with a clear plastic bag while they root is a good idea. This preserves moisture and adds warmth to expedite the rooting process, while still allowing for airflow.
In hot, humid environments, this step may not be necessary and may increase the risk of mold. It may also add too much heat. Use your own judgment about whether to use plastic.
5. Water as often as needed
Starting roots by cuttings can take days to months, depending on the plant, and the type of cutting. Never let your planting medium dry out or become water-logged during this period. So only water when needed.
6. When plants have rooted, pot or transfer them
Once you have a few roots, you need put your new plants in soil that contains the nutrients they need to grow. These newly rooted plants should be treated like just like seedlings or transplants.
They will need some weather protection and regular watering until they are established. Mulching around the base of the plants will also help develop more roots quickly.
Once you know how to start plants from cuttings, it's a great way to expand your garden. You can also use this skill to grow plants to share with friends and family and give as gifts.
When you get good at this, you can make a little extra money by offering plants for sale at a local farmers market. Most states do require that you have a plant license. So, make sure you check with your agricultural office to comply with applicable regulations.
Live long and propagate!