"Taking cuttings"

This is an excellent time of year to take cuttings of your favourite plants.
Sunday, 14 March 2010     

Iresine cuttings ready to be struck

The wonderful cooler days we have had lately put my mind to taking cuttings from my plants - and this is such a good time of year to do so. There is still enough warmth for them to prosper but the fierce heat of summer is over (hopefully), as this is often detrimental to successful propagation. The cuttings we take at this time of year are semi-hardwood cuttings, and are probably the easiest to strike of all.

After many years of gardening, I still find it amazing that we can take a piece of a plant, stick it in pot and grow a new plant. Imagine if it were so easy to clone ourselves, our children, our friends or our animals! It could lead to many interesting situations - well, at least reproducing our plants is harmless and has lots of benefits.

It is a cheap and easy way to provide new plants for your garden, and taking cuttings of your favourite plants is also an insurance against losing your main plant for some reason. Some cold-sensitive specimens may not make it through winter; other plants become very woody with age and lose their vitality, and it is wise to have a new one coming along. Sharing plants with friends helps in this way, too, as we can always go back and ask for a piece of whatever it was we gave them if our plant conks out. Also, growing a plant from a cutting given to us by a friend is sometimes the only way to obtain an unusual plant, with fewer specialist nurseries around these days.

The generous freemasonry that exists between gardeners in this way is in fact to me one of the highlights of gardening. A tiny sprig handed over casually by another gardener may grow into a magnificent shrub some day, enhancing your garden and forming a tangible reminder of your friend each time you stop to admire it. My garden contains plants given to me by a number of people who no longer walk this earth, and I treasure these above all others in my garden, remembering the shared love of beautiful flowers that formed wonderful bonds of friendship.

There are many ways of taking cuttings: some people simply poke the cutting into the ground, water it and somehow they survive. Others take a very technical approach, with misting systems and heated benches for potted cuttings. My own method is fairly hit and miss, but I have enough success to keep me using it. I use a propagating mix that is free draining but that also holds some moisture: which sounds a contradiction in terms, but vermiculite or a combination of clay-based kitty litter and hydrated cocopeat are suitable. It's best to take cuttings in the morning (though I usually just take them whenever I think of it - whatever time of day). A length of around 12-15cm seems to be a rough guide; strip off some of the lower leaves and remove or halve excess foliage. Keep the cuttings moist and in a plastic bag until you pot them up - don't delay too long!

I usually trim the base of the cutting to just below a node. For woody shrubs, you can 'wound' the cutting, by cutting a small slice of bark (about 1-2cm long) from one side of the stem: this is said to help root-formation. Some people dip their cuttings in hormone powders - others swear by honey or even Vegemite! I am usually too lazy to do any of these, but I do think they increase the success rate. Use an old pencil to make a hole in the potting mix, to avoid damaging the tissue at the base of the cutting. Place the cuttings round the edge of the pot (this is supposed to be important), firm them in with your fingers, add a label (even if you think you will never forget what they are, believe me, you will) and water well. Some people say that watering with a dilute seaweed compound helps at this point. For softwood and semi-hardwood cuttings of many plants, I use a homemade humidicrib made out of a large clear-plastic lidded tub. I drill holes in the bottom of the tub (so that water can drain out) and put my pots of cuttings into this tub, site it in the shade and put the lid on. I lift the lid off every day to give some ventilation and check the plants, removing any obviously dead cuttings! This humidicrib seems to help the strike rate for many plants, but I don't use it for silvery-leaved or hairy-leaved plants, as they tend to rot off in the humid environment. For cuttings of these sorts of plants, just put the pots in a shaded position and give sufficient water.

Once roots form (I check every so often by tipping the pots upside down and sliding the mix out carefully) the plants can be gradually exposed to the real world by increasing the ventilation in the tub. The plants benefit from a mild dose of water-soluble or controlled release fertiliser at this point. Eventually, they can be potted on into their own individual pots of regular potting mix, and fertilised regularly.

The phrase 'taking cuttings' also has a darker side - that of people taking cuttings without permission. I can well empathise with the plant lust that drives this behaviour but we must try to restrain ourselves when visiting an open garden or a botanical garden, no matter how tempted we are. The rules are a little murkier when a bit of a desirable plant is hanging over the edge of the front fence of someone's garden; some regard such cuttings as fair game, and I have to confess to occasionally indulging in such 'community pruning' on my morning walks. But the best thing to do is simply to ask, as most true gardeners are only too willing to share ...

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