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Propagating Plants from Softwood Cuttings

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One thing a growing garden needs is plants, and lots of them! To buy enough plants to fill a regular backyard garden can be quite an expensive affair…
But, thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way, since nature provides for us freely and abundantly, and when we work with nature, it becomes quite effortless, and inexpensive too!

Plants naturally reproduce themselves, and they are more than capable of doing this without any help. We can take advantage of some of the mechanisms by which plants can reproduce themselves to produce an abundance of plants for our gardens.

Many herbaceous plants (plants that do not have a persistent woody stem) and even many woody stemmed plants can be reproduced if a “cutting”, a short length of the stem or a branch that is cut off, is put into moist ground in a partly shady cool spot. In time this cutting will sprout roots and become a new plant that is an exact genetic clone of the plant the cutting was taken from.

Softwood vs. Hardwood Cuttings

At this point you may be wondering what the difference is between taking hardwood and softwood cuttings.

When discussing propagating plants by cuttings, the question inevitably comes up – why not grow from seed?

The Difference Between Cuttings and Seed Grown Plants

The difference between growing plants from seed and growing plants from cuttings is genetic variation. As just mentioned, cuttings are identical genetic clones of the parent plant because this is vegetative, or asexual reproduction, as genes only come from one parent. Seeds can produce plants that are different from the parent plants because seeds are produced by sexual reproduction, they receive genes from a male and female to form. As they are a cross from two sets of genes, many fruit trees are nottrue to seed”, that is, their seeds will produce a different variety of tree from the parent. For the botany purists, yes, there are some exceptions, but this is generally the case.

For example, the seeds from a particular variety apple will not grow to be the same variety as the apple tree they came from. The seeds will produce a wide variety of different apple tree types.

So what you may say? Well, consider that not all the varieties of apple would taste good, some may not be palatable or edible at all!

Why do plants do this, mix and match their genetic material and constantly change? Simply, to adapt to different conditions and enhance their chances of survival and reproduction. Now it should be clear why all commercial fruit tree varieties are grafted, the roots may vary slightly but the top parts that are grafted on top of the rootstock all come from the same original parent plant.

The other great things about cuttings is that the plant produced from a cutting has the same genetic maturity as the parent plant. So, if a plant takes three years to produce fruit when it’s grown from seed, a plant grown from a cutting will be mature if the parent plant is, so a new plant produced from a cutting of a three year old plant will fruit in the same year. This saves a lot of waiting around…

Genetic variation isn’t as big an issue with most herbaceous plants, but you can maintain the variety if it has favourable characteristics, and it’s a great way to produce hardy, mature plants in a hurry.

Now that we’ve covered the basic theory, lets get down to a practical example of how to propagate plats from cuttings:

Procedures for Rooting Softwood Stem Cuttings

Step 1 – Select suitable cutting
Most herbaceous (softwood) stem cuttings are best taken during the growing season of a plant, from spring to summer, and the best time is early morning, when the plant tissues contain the most water.

Cuttings are usually about 10-15cm (4-6”) long, from current or past season’s growth. Cut below a leaf joint. If possible, choose strong, healthy, disease-free shoot for a cutting, preferably from the upper part of the plant.

Step 2 – Strip off lower leaves
Remove the leaves from the lower one-third to one-half (1/3 – 1/2) of the cutting to leave a bare stem.

This allows the lower portion of cutting to be inserted into the propagating medium, and also reduces the amount of leaves from which moisture can be lost. If too much moisture is lost, the cutting will dry out. Remember, the cutting doesn’t have any roots yet to pull up more water to replace any it loses!

Step 3 – Cut stem below a leaf node
Cut the stem about 6mm (1/4”) below the lowest leaf node on the cutting.

To identify the leaf nodes, look for the areas where the leaves grow out from, so this will be an area where you removed the leaved from earlier. If the area has no leaves, it may have buds where new leaves will grow.

Species difficult to root should be “wounded” as this helps encourage rooting. This involves making an additional light cut on either side of the cut stem at the base to expose more of the cambium.


Step 4 – Dip cut end into rooting hormone (optional)
Treating cuttings with rooting hormone can increase the chances of stimulating root growth. This is more critical in plants that are more difficult to root.

If using root hormone powder, be sure to tap the cuttings to remove excess.

Step 5 – Prepare propagating medium and insert cutting
Fill a pot with propagating medium and water the propagating medium to moisten it.

Insert one-third to one-half of the length of the cutting into the propagating medium. Keep the cuttings vertical and space cuttings far enough apart from each other so they don’t shade each other out so that all their leaves can receive light.


Step 6 – Add more cuttings if propagating
Since cuttings don’t always ‘strike’ (grow roots), it’s best to add a few cuttings into your propagating medium to increase the chances of success.

Step 7 – Label the cuttings to identify them
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of labelling plants when propagating by seeds or cuttings.

You might think you know what the plants are when you’re preparing them, but if the cuttings take a few months to grow roots, and you prepare cuttings of other plants, what are the chances of telling them apart?

Step 8 – Cover the cuttings to retain moisture
Set the cuttings in a bright, warm location, away from direct sunlight

In order for cuttings to survive, they need to retain moisture inside of them. This is because the leaves can lose moisture via evaporation, but there aren’t any roots to take up more water to replace what is lost from the leaves.

The way to keep the cuttings alive is to maintain the humidity (moisture in the air) around them, while at the same time not keeping them to damp, otherwise they will rot and go mouldy!

To do this we lightly water the cuttings again. Then cover the cuttings with some kind of clear plastic that will hold the moisture in and then place the cuttings in indirect light, .

Shown below is a propagating pot, the top “butterfly” can be twisted to expose the air holes in the lid to let air in when the cuttings start growing, to allow them to adjust to lower levels of humidity and “harden off”. This pot is part of a “Aquamiser” Propagation and Seed Raising kit.

You can also put regular pots of a smaller size into a plastic propagation tray, these sell for a few dollars and last a while, available at most nurseries and garden stores. Note the green air vent “butterfly” on the top of the lid. This also lets you open up the vents holes in the lid to let the heat out if it gets too warm, or when the cuttings start growing and need more air flow.

Here are a few other possibilities. Here, I’ve used a regular plastic drink bottle cut in half, and pushed it slight;y into the propagating mix into the pots so it holds and seals the moist air in. The tops work better as you have a lid that you can open. I’ve put them next to the Aquamiser pot for comparison.

Incidentally, you can accommodate taller cuttings simply by cutting the bottom of the plastic bottle off only, leaving a taller humidity cover. They also work in the garden to protect seedlings from snails, just remember to take the lid off if you use them in the garden in direct sunlight!

Step 9 – Cuttings have rooted when they show new growthThe time taken for cuttings to “strike” (produce roots) varies, it depends on the type of plant, and the environmental conditions – heat, light, season. Some plants root readily while others can take what seems like forever. If the cutting still looks alive, be patient!

Newly rooted cuttings should not be transplanted directly
into the garden. They need some time to adapt and “harden off”.

Transplant them into larger pots, and provide them with some nutrients. Avoid the urge to overfeed them, fertilize them lightly. Their roots are still quite delicate.

By growing the new plants to a larger size, you help them establish a stronger root system, which makes them much more resilient, and increases their chances of survival when you finally transplant them to their permanent location.


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