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Making New Plants From Soft and Hard Wood Cuttings

Q. I may have missed it, but I don't see any info on propagating plants with hard & soft wood cuttings in the A-Z Garden answers section of your website. I'm looking forward to trying this for the first time, specifically some soft wood propagation of roses, clematis, miniature butterfly bush & miniature lilac. Do you have any tips on doing this? Thanks!

    ---Judi; Cincinnati, OH
A. You didn't miss much Judi—up till now, rooting cut roses from bouquets has been the only such article at our site. This is due to a combination of cowardice and lack of experience. I have started my own plants from seed successfully for 20 years, have divided endless perennials (including quartering up the world's largest hosta with a chainsaw) and have layered many plants, some even intentionally. But other than roses I have never rooted cuttings. My landscape is already pretty crowded, and every Spring, foolish companies ship me boxes of new perennials to 'test'. If I tried to make even more plants my wife would likely follow through on her threats of having me committed.

But such plant propagation is a fun thing to try, so I cracked some books to add to my rose rooting experience and will attempt to deliver a short primer on the subject. Please don't use me/this as your only source (unless you have a good sense of humor and need new material), and whatever you choose to do, don't try and root your cuttings in water alone. Yes, it looks cool to see Medusa's hair fill the bottom of a jelly jar; but that tangled mass of ghostly roots will not enjoy their move from Aqua-Land to Land-Land. To survive in soil, plants should develop their roots in something that has the texture of soil.

Softwood cuttings: In the Spring, two to four weeks after all risk of frost has passed, cut off new healthy shoots that are about six inches long with several obvious little bud nodes visible on the stem. That was easy, right? Good, because everybody does things a little differently from this point on, and virtually every 'regular' source will tell you to use rooting hormone on your cuttings. Luckily, softwood rooting time is also when there is an abundant supply of fresh willow growth handy, from which we will make willow water to use instead of that unnatural powder.

Fill a five gallon bucket with lots of fresh new willow cuttings, add cool water, let it steep for 24 hours in the shade and pour the liquid into jars or bottles, which you will store in a cool dark place. Use this tea—rich with NATURAL rooting hormones—instead of plain water during your propagation adventure.

Let your freshly cut stems sit in some willow water for about an hour while you get everything else together. Some sources will tell you to root your cuttings right in the ground (after adding a lot of soil free mix to create a happy little rooting zone). I prefer using a large pot that contains nothing but soil-free mix and a smidge of compost.

Either way, don't jam the cuttings in. Push the 'soil' aside, remove all but the topmost leaves from your cuttings, gently position them a few inches deep—make sure there are a couple of them little budding nodey things underground—and recover the bottoms gently with 'soil'. You can also make a hole in the mix for your cutting with a stick or pencil and then gently fill the soil in around the cutting after insertion.

Water well with your willow water. Mist the cuttings with your willow water. Then rig up a plastic bag or place a big jar or cloche overtop to retain moisture. You want it to be humid in there. Keep it out of direct sun, keep the medium moist, mist daily and be patient; this part will take six to eight weeks.

When you see new growth (or can't stand the suspense anymore, peek underneath and discover roots where those buds once were), pot each cutting up in its own pot filled with half soil free mix, half compost. Ditch the humidity tent but keep the soil somewhat moister than you would for regular plants; dappled sunlight would now be ideal. Then, about a month or two before your first expected frost, carefully install your cuttings were you want the new plants to grow. Then be patient again; it will typically be several years before the new plants are mature enough to flower.

For hardwood cuttings, everyone mostly agrees that you take six inch to foot long sections after the plants have gone completely dormant for the winter. Then the advice is all over the place. One option is to bury the cuttings in a trench that you've prepared with lots of soil-free mix. In cold climes, bury them deeply—right at or below the frost line. In warm climes, a shallow grave. Either way, mark the location well. Then dig them up in the Spring (when some might already have developed little roots), position them straight up in their trench, water them with willow water and think good thoughts. That fall, move any winners to their permanent homes.

Now, be warned that there are as many different ways to do these things as there are gardeners doing them. ("The only thing two gardeners will agree on is that the third gardener is wrong.") And some plants will respond better to certain tricks and tweaks than others. So collect advice from several different sources, including advice geared specifically to the plants you want to propagate. Then experiment with several different methods, and above all, be patient. Rooting cuttings is such a slow process it makes seed starting look like a rocket ship taking off.

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