Make More Plants

The simplest truth is, plant stuff wants to grow. Given the least helping hand, most plants will be happy to oblige in making more of themselves.

It’s late summer, and it’s a good time for propagation. Seeds are dropping out of pods all over the place, and can be collected as easily as placing a hand beneath and catching the outfall.  A labelled envelope helps , but otherwise, seed collecting is the simplest, cheapest means of satisfying the urge to “have some of that.”

Of course, not every plant reproduces itself faithfully through seed, and for some plants, growth from seed is a long, slow process. For many plants, propagation by rooted cuttings is a splendid choice. You’ll need to do a little reading to determine whether the holdings you want to increase are suitable for rooting, and what time of year is best for a given plant. But here is how I spent my morning today:

This is a fine, healthy rosemary bush from which I’m taking a cutting. I’d like to create a low hedge of Rosemarinus to help soften the high earth berm between our house and the road. A two year-old rosemary plant in the earth will attain a couple of feet in diameter. It’s evergreen, it blooms in summer, it smells wonderful, and it pleases bees. But it’s slow to cultivate by seed. Fortunately, rosemary is not difficult to root from cuttings. Some years ago, when I lived in town, a  neighbor handed me some rosemary cuttings over the fence, and, as I was busy just them, I stuck them in the ground for later attention. And then I forgot about them. By spring I had two robust little plants going gangbusters. Because this time I’m hoping my work will result in a goodly number of plants, I’ll be a little more careful.

Tools and supplies I need:

Sharp, clean snippers; rooting hormone; protective gloves; clean pots, and planting medium. That’s it.

Sharp snippers: I want a clean edge to the cut, without mashing and ripping cells.

Clean snippers: I do not want to introduce pathogens into my little nursery. These tiny plants will be working hard enough to make up for the trauma they’re about to experience.

Protective gloves: this year I read the label on the rooting hormone. I am ashamed to admit I hadn’t done this before. I guess I thought it was just ground-up willow branches or something. Well, now, let me say this: there are ingredients in there, and they call for serious action if you transfer it to your skin, to clothing, or (shudder) to your inner parts. Anything that says “Call a poison control center for for treatment advice, and continue rinsing,” has my respect. Disposable gloves are cheap. Get some.

This is a softwood cutting. It’s tender and flexible, being the summer’s new growth from older branches. I’m not limited to softwood cuttings for propagation, but they’re easy to prepare and they respond quickly to the plant’s urge to grow on.

Below, Ive stripped all but the topmost leaves from the cutting. The little wounds where I pulled the leaves off result in places where the plant will try to repair itself. Those nodes will be underground, so the repair will be root formation. Also, I don’t need the plant trying to put energy into leaves, so by removing most of them, I direct its efforts into the thing I want: new roots.

Wearing my blue nitrile gloves I dip the cut end of the little plant in the rooting hormone and tap off the extra.

I use my finger as a dibble to make a hole in the soil, insert the cutting, and tamp it in. Isn’t “dibble” a good word? It means  a small hand tool used to make holes in the ground for plants, seeds, or bulbs, and comes from late Middle English debylle… OK. No more. I get it. But it is an excellent word. Here’s the little cutting in its new home.

And I give them all a good sip of Mother’s own favorite beverage: deep well water.

Just one other thing: as much as I believe these children will remain individuals in my mind, I do know I will soon forget when I set them into pots and even, sometimes, exactly who they are. Labels are a good detail.

Rosemary cuttings take between 30 and 60 days to to strike and result in about 75% successes. If by chance I don’t get all I need, I’ll try again in the spring.

Most references will tell you to keep the young plants under a plastic dome while they root up. I have learned that cuttings taken in summer will cook pretty quickly under a dome in the sun, and will be susceptible to mold if kept in the shade under a dome. I have best luck this time of year with cuttings placed in pots large enough to hold soil moisture for at least a day, and I water them regularly. For springtime propagation, domes provide some protection from the elements. This is a matter of preference. If I had time to open the domes regularly and watch for bad growths, I might use them in summer, too. But propagation is mostly science with a little bit of art in it. You work out what works.

There are many good references on propagation. An easily available one with detailed techniques and a list of plants agreeable to propagation from cuttings, and the best time of year for taking them, is Geoff Bryant’s Plant Propagation A to Z: Growing Plants for Free. I do like the idea of getting plants for free.

(“Free” is an interesting word, too: O.E. freo “free, exempt from, not in bondage,” also “noble; joyful,” from P.Gmc. *frijaz (cf. O.Fris. fri, O.S., O.H.G. vri, Ger. frei, Du. vrij, Goth. freis “free”), from PIE *prijos “dear, beloved,” from base *pri- “to love” (cf. Skt. priyah “own, dear, beloved,” priyate “loves;” O.C.S. prijati “to help,” prijatelji “friend;” Welsh rhydd “free”).)

Yes. That sums it up.

Go make some cuttings.

Published in: on September 3, 2011 at 4:01 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. It’s magic. Pure and simple. Magic.

  2. Abracadabra! Grow, plants, grow! (They seem to be holding their own. So tempting to take a look underground. Don’t want to disturb those little roots a-making, though.)


  3. Are you guys OK? It’s been months since there’s been a post…

    Kathy in Crystal River

    • Thank you, yes, we are fine. I know, I know.

      I’ll see if I can do something for you this weekend!

      And, really, thank you!

  4. I love your blogs and it makes me not only hunger for spring but reminds me of my dad. He always grew his plants from seed or cuttings and started their growth under lamps in the basement. I think that’s where I got my love of gardening. Rosemary makes a beautiful hedge and I also love Russian sage. Keep up the blogs your pictures make me think about the future and how we can all make it better by gardening. I am happiest when working in the soil and watching for the results.

    • Thank you! I always love seeing comments from new names. I read recently that Mycobacterium vaccae, present in soil, stimulates neuron growth and increases serotonin levels when inhaled. Of course gardeners feel better!


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