Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Throwing Caution to the Wind: Cuttings and How they Help me Self Sooth

{Originally Posted 08/20/08}

I steal. There I said it. I steal plants, mainly cuttings. What others view as stealing I prefer to think of as sharing. The fact is that there are hundreds of plant species dangling over the fences of property lines, just waiting to diversify your garden. Optionally, you could do a share with other gardeners that you know. I've even toyed with the idea of having a cutting party (not to be confused with self-mutilation parties) where each guest brings a dozen cuttings and you can all swap. Just imagine the number of plants you could get for FREE!

I find the high price of plants abhorrent and don't think that gardening should be only for the super wealthy. Instead of flying into a rage about exorbitant plant costs, I take things into my own hands.
(Just a few of the plants that have been propagated by cuttings)

Likely Suspects
Candidates for cuttings should be healthy and thriving. The timing for cutting ideally falls in the natural growth of the plant, when the plant is putting off new shoots, it is ideal to get in on a piece of the action. However, it will work at other times. For example, in fall when gardens are cleaned out you may find tons of cuttings sitting on the sidewalk ready for the compost. If they have been recently cut, someone else's garden waste may be the key to your new garden.

Many houseplants as well can be multiplied by this cutting method.
Better candidates are those that have herbaceous or semi-herbaceous stems. Woody stems can take much longer to grow roots. Also, very delicate plants with feeble stems may droop as soon as you cut them. But if in doubt, just try it out!

When feeling rugged or just on a whim I will use my bare hands or a little bit of nail added in to nip the bud off of the mother plant. Generally speaking, you want new growth and you want several buds and a base stem of about a ½ inch. Any flowering portions or brand new buds can be nipped so that the energy from the plant focuses into the root production. Other times I will plan ahead for an evening stroll and bring garden shears and a bag. Fingernail clippers or a knife will work to make clean cuts.

So now you have a pocketful of slightly wilted cuttings stuffed into your hoody pocket and you're all hopped up on adrenalin. Now what? Have some tea and dunk the plants in room temp water.

When your guilty conscience has eased itself, take account of what you have. Generally speaking, woodier plants require a little bit more help to root. Root hormone powder can be used. My fellow gardener Amanda has experimented with water infused with stripped willow branches, which has the same growth hormone as commercial root hormone powders.

For softer stems, you may need to make a fresh cut so that the plant is ready to take in water. Softer stems, especially things like coleus will root in water and my roommate has even shown off by rooting from the leaves and stem of a coleus(see photo above). I have many plants that have remained in water for years with no soil and do just fine. (Weekly water changes required.) They look great in my collection of vintage glass containers. If a cutting has rooted but you need to buy some time, you can add a tablespoon of soil to the water to get the plant ready for the influx of nutrients that soil will bring.

A few weeks to a month, given time of year and plant, roots will come. If they don't and the plant just rots at the stem, make another fresh cut and start over or compost and realize that some plants are either not healthy or appropriate for rooting. After there are sufficient roots plant directly into soil and make sure that the freshly planted patient gets plenty of water. Copious hours of direct sunlight not advised until roots are established. Once the plant starts to show signs of new growth, it is released from the cutting ward and allowed to go on its merry way.

Cutting Pot

One day while perusing a gardening book, I came across an idea for rooting plants that is surprisingly effective. Ideas as well can be stolen (ahem!) shared. The most vital factor in successful cuttings is an effective water delivery system to the rooting stems. Too wet and they mold, rot, and/or wither; too dry and they can't even begin to grow. The material that makes this project successful for the perfect amount of moisture is terracotta. Terracotta is porous and allows for moisture to quickly be delivered or taken away from the roots.

  • 2 Pots: 1 small terracotta pot, 1 larger pot, any material
  • potting soil (and worm castings)
  • plastic cover, or plastic wrap if you're in a pinch

The terracotta pot fits inside the larger pot with soil between the two lips so put one inside the area and give yourself about 2 inches of soil all around so that you have plenty of room for cuttings.

Fill the larger pot halfway with soil. Work soil up the side of the pot. We have also added worm castings (from our own worm bins, see Vermiculture post below) mixed in with the soil to give the plants an organic fertilizer boost. Dig a hole so that the terracotta pot sits with the lip of its rim just over the surface of the soil in the larger point.
Hand tamp the soil all around, place the terracotta pot and fill almost all the way with water.
Cover the cutting pot with clear plastic. An inverted, plastic pot base works for this, or store bought pie lids. The pie lids work the best I find, as it gives height for the taller cuttings. It needs to fit the lip of the outside/larger pot in order to create a moist atmosphere inside.

Use a chopstick or other implement i.e. finger to make a hole ½-1 inch deep, place the stem in the hole, and tamp the soil slightly.

Place plants around the ring of soil so that they are not crowded (1 or 2 inches apart). After several weeks, or once you see new growth in the leaves or buds, plants can be moved to garden or pots. Be gentle with the root system. I find that a regular kitchen fork does the trick. Ensure to give them plenty of water at the roots so that they will continue to thrive.
Good luck!