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Propagation by Cuttings: Robin’s Secret Handbook

WARNING: Propagating Plants is very addicting!

Propagation by cuttings means:

Taking a section of the plant such as a modified stem, leaf, or root used for vegetative propagation that forms either adventitious shoots, adventitious roots (stem and single node cuttings), or both (root and leaf cuttings). According to PlanetNatural.com.

That’s the technical wording for propagation by cuttings. All that means is to take a part of the plant and making it grow into a new plant.

propagation box with 1000's of plant cuttings1000's of baby plants growing roots.

Propagation box with 1000's of plant cuttings taken when plants are dormant in the winter.Propagation box as above but taken when the plants are dormant.

Types of Plant Propagation

There are 2 types of plant propagation, asexual propagation or sexual propagation.

The most popular ways to reproduce plants are through asexual propagation. This includes:

  • stem cutting
  • Air layering
  • Budding
  • Grafting
  • Division

Sexual propagation is done either from pollinated flowers or using the seeds from that plant.

I’m going to talk about asexual propagation by cuttings during the summer. This is my favourite way to propagate plants in my plant nursery.

There are 3 types of stem cuttings. Softwood cuttings are done in the summer, semi-hardwood cutting are done in the fall and hardwood cutting we do in the winter when the plant is dormant.

This is something I have done for years in my plant nursery and I am going to teach you how to do it too.

I’ve gone into a lot of details in this guide on propagation by cuttings along with giving you my secrets on how I do my cuttings.

NOTE: not every cutting will root. There could be a lot of reasons why they don’t but don’t dwell on it. Think about all the cutting that you have rooted. 

Cutting Propagation: Gathering the Basics

Having everything ready before you make your first cut makes it a lot easier. The stem cuttings start losing moister as soon as you clip them from the parent plant and will dry out pretty quickly. 

It’s a good idea that while you are taking your stem cuttings to have a bucket with about an inch or so of water in it and put the cut ends of the plant in the water. This will prevent your stem cuttings from drying out if you have to walk away for a few minutes. When you come back they will still be fresh and ready to use.

NOTE: when you over winter your rooted cuttings you will want to protect them from the strong winter winds.  Keeping them on the south side of your house or garage where the sun won’t get them and they are hidden them from the wind is good.

When they start to branch out in the spring you will need to trim the tips of each branch to get them to produce more branches. If you don’t trim them you will have very few branches that won’t look nice when it gets bigger

Propagation by cuttings Essentials:

  • Sterile Pruning shear or sharp knife (you can sterilize them with rubbing alcohol)
  • Either very good draining soil or coarse sand (I use silica sand from Home Hardware. More on silica sand below). Some people use straight perlite to root their cutting but you would need a misting system for perlite as it dries out fast.
  • A container with holes in the bottom for draining the extra water out. It will need to hold about 2-3” of soil/sand
  • Water for wetting the cuttings and soil
  • A white plastic bag (the white kitchen garbage bags work great) big enough to go over your container with the cuttings inside
  • About 4-6 #2 HB pencils or short sticks to put in the corners of the container.  This is for propping the bag up so the bag doesn’t touch the cuttings. The reason I specified #2 pencils? You should always keep them on hand as this is the best thing for writing on the tags when doing the propagation by cuttings method. 
  • Rooting hormone (optional) – you should be able to pick it up at any garden center. It doesn’t matter what brand you use or if a powder, gel or liquid. They all work the same. If you don’t have it you can propagate your plants without it.
  • A plant tag or something to use for labeling that you can write the name of the plant on.
  • And your cuttings from which ever plant you want to propagate.

The rule of thumb is to start taking your stem cuttings 6 weeks after the buds start to open. In our USDA zone 5 (or Canadian zone 6) it’s about the middle of April. 

Usually by the beginning to middle of June is the perfect time to start taking your stem cuttings. You will need to test the wood as it needs to be able to stand up on its own and not flop over.

You can continue to take cuttings until about the middle to end of March.

In April and May the new growth starts to grow and the wood is too soft to use in the propagation by cuttings method.

Propagation by Cuttings: First few steps

The first few steps of the propagation by cuttings method are the easy part. Put a couple of inches of soil or sand in the container, whatever you have available, and wet it down. Make sure the water is draining out the bottom.

I have and sometimes still do use cheap plastic tubs for the Dollar store and drill holes in the bottom. You can also use a colander or a plastic pot that already have drainage holes in them. Just about anything with drainage holes will work.

I use coarse sand that I get from Home Hardware for my cuttings. It’s sandblasting sand that is made from silica sand and it’s about $30 for a 50lb. bag. You can reuse the sand many times so it’s worth the money.

Silica sand is actually quartz that over many years with the help of rain and wind turns into sand. There are a lot of nutrients in it that is very good for your plants and the reason why I use it.

Propagation by Cuttings: Making Your Cut

Making the cut just below the leaf node.Showing where to make your cut.

So now you are ready to make your first cut. With your sterile pruning shears, cut the tip of the plant about 3-4” long just below a node. You need about 3 nodes or leaf buds to work with. The nodes is the joint where the leaf comes out of the stem.

It’s a good habit to do this because when you take a longer branch when the plant is dormant and cut it into several cuttings, the cut end with the node against the cut is the end to stick in the soil. The other end should have some dead wood above the node that you can hold on to when sticking it in the soil.

Strip off any lower leaves so you have at least 1 or 2 pairs of leaves remaining. The more leaves on the cutting, the more energy will be going into feeding the leaves instead of going into developing the roots. This applies to flower buds also. You don't want the plant trying to make a flower when it needs to put it's energy into making roots.

If the leaves are large you can cut them in half. You only need a small leaf to take up the sun rays and to help the plant grow roots.

Some people wound their cutting before sticking them in the soil. Wounding the cuttings means to scrape the end of the cutting for a bigger area for the roots to develop. This isn’t necessary for most plants and it a lot more work. 

Just before you stick your stem cutting in the soil dip it in rooting hormone if you are going to use it.

If using the liquid, keep the stem cutting in the liquid for about 5 seconds.

For the rooting powder and gel you can dip it and pull it out again. Tap it lightly on the edge of the container to knock off any extra that is on the stem cutting.

If you are making hardwood cuttings during the winter then you will need to use rooting hormone to help them out. The method for hardwood cuttings is the same but there won't be any leaves on the stem cuttings.

Stick your stem cutting with the cut end down into your soil enough to bury the first node (about an inch or so deep) and spaced them out about an inch apart. 

Propagation box with cutting about an inch apart.Propagation by Cuttings

The roots will develop from the where the nodes are. Some plants like Hydrangeas will have roots coming from the stem also.

Once your stem cuttings are in place, stick the #2 HB pencils or short sticks into the corners of the container and if needed you can stick 1 or 2 in the middle to keep the bag off the cuttings. The pencils or sticks should be taller than your cuttings. 

You will need to label your plant so that you know the name of the plant later on when you go to pot them up. Putting the name and date of the cutting on the label is a good idea.

The leaves will need to stay moist in the propagation by cuttings method until the roots develop as this is their only way to take up water.

The best way to achieve this is with a white plastic bag over the cuttings and pot. Don’t use black or any dark colours to cover your stem cutting as they will need light. But don’t use clear bags either as the cuttings could burn if exposed to the direct sunlight.

Place the pot of stem cuttings inside the bag and mist everything inside. You want to make the inside of the bag humid for the cuttings.

Tie the bag. Tying the bag will keep the moisture locked inside.  Every other day or so check to make sure that there is humidity inside and your stem cuttings will be very happy. Place the bag of potting stem cuttings in a sheltered area out of the sun.

In my first year of propagation by cuttings this is the method I used and it works. 

Place your cuttings in a shady location. You need to keep the cuttings out of the sun so it doesn't dry them out or burn the leaves.

A rooted cutting after a few weeks of being in some sand.A new baby plants with lots of roots.
Rooted cutting side view.cutting with roots.

After a few weeks, gently tug on the stem cuttings to see if they have rooted. If there is any resistance when you tug lightly on the stem cuttings then the roots are developing.  Some plants could take longer, some up to 6 weeks or more, to root so it does take some patience. 

I would leave them until late fall or early spring when the plants are dormant. The roots of these young plants are very tender and you don’t want to break any.

Acclimating the cuttings might be necessary. Acclimating means going from shade to sun slowly, over several days or longer. If you transfer them from shade to full sun the leaves will burn and the plant will get stressed. Over a few days move them from shade to light shade and them dappled shade, and give them some time to adjust to there new light conditions.

Once they have been in dappled shade for a couple days they should be good to being in morning or late afternoon sun but still give them shade during the hottest part of the day. After a couple more days they should be good for full sun.

You can then plant them in your garden or put them in pots and give them to friends and family. 

Or you can start your own backyard plant nursery and make a little extra money.

Remember that if you put the new plants in containers they will need to be watered daily (more when it’s really hot) as they will dry out faster than if they were in the ground. 

If you have any questions about the propagation by cuttings method please let me know.

Softwood, Semi-hardwood and Hardwood Cuttings

The above method of propagation by cuttings is for softwood cuttings done from June until about the end of August. 

Semi-hardwood cuttings are done in the fall from September through the middle of November and the same method as above. The wood of the plant will be a little harder than soft wood cuttings but they root the same way. They will still have leaves that need to stay wet until the cuttings go dormant in late fall. 

Hardwood cuttings are done when the plant is dormant but are done basically the same way. 

When you are making your cuts there will be no leaves on the plants and it can be confusing to know which end goes in the soil once you have cut it into many cuttings. Most plants have the leaf bud sticking upwards and it’s easy to tell which end to stick but there are some plants that the buds are straight out from the stem. 

That is when you need to rely on making your cut right below the leaf bud which will be the end that goes into the soil and the dead wood just above the node is where you hang on to the stem while you are sticking it in the soil.

Plant Propagation Addition

Once you have rooted a few plants and the addiction to plant propagation by cuttings has kicked in, you can look into getting an outdoor misting system.

With a misting system, you can do a lot of stem cuttings and set them up on a timer to water the plants. This is the best way to propagate plants when doing a lot of plants. The big Commercial nurseries use misting systems and so do I.

If you decide to make a propagation box and are interested in getting a misting system, let me know and I can help you out.

1 year old minuet weigela plant potted.1 year old weigela plant potted.
Goldmound spirea potted.1 year old goldmound spirea plant.

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