Softwood Cuttings: How to Expand Your New Garden.
A common gardening dilemma: Your neighbor has geraniums that are just the right color for your patio, but you’ve never seen anything like them at the nursery. Or you visit a friend who has splendid azaleas, but she can’t remember what variety they are. What can you do?
The answer is simple: Just ask your friend if you can take cuttings from these plants and start your own. All you need are a few branch tips. Wrap them in moist paper, then hurry home and set them in a special potting mix.
You can take cuttings of new growth (called softwood cuttings) from late spring well into summer, beginning as soon as the spring growth is firm and sturdy. More mature cuttings will also root if you take them later in summer or early fall. Cuttings will produce plants exactly like those you took them from, whereas seeds may produce plants that are unlike their parents.
In choosing cuttings, look for normal, healthy growth; avoid fat or spindly branches. Softwood cuttings root best if you can snap them off cleanly from the parent plant. If they crush or bend, the wood is too old. If new leaves are still forming at the tip, the branch is too young for a cutting. Keep all cuttings cool and moist (not wet) until you can plant them.
ROOTING SOFTWOOD CUTTINGS
Fill a flat or pot with a blend of half sand and half premoistened peat moss, firming it down slightly so that the surface is a half inch below the top of the flat. Open a container of rooting hormone powder and place it beside the flat. One by one, remove the cuttings from their moist wrapping and make a clean, slanting cut with a razor blade or sharp knife just below a leaf or bud, If the leaves are very large, snip off about half of each leaf with scissors. Strip off any lower leaves so only the stem will be buried in the planting mix. Dip the stem in the hormone powder and tap it gently to remove any excess. Use a pencil to poke a hole in the sand and peat moss mixture and set in the cutting, firming the soil around the stem. When you’ve finished planting the cuttings, cover them with transparent kitchen wrap, a plastic bag. or a jar. Remove this cover once a day for a few minutes to allow air to circulate, then cover again.
If you can keep the temperature of the soil mix at 75 or 80 degrees, the cuttings will root more quickly. When new growth appears, the cutting has rooted. Gently lift one out, carefully removing some of the soil until you see roots. Then transplant the cutting to a slightly larger container to give the roots more growing room. Never move any plant from a tiny pot to a very large one, Use a size that allows for an inch or two of new soil around the root ball. When the new growth is full and sturdy, you can set the plants in the garden. Plants that cannot be set out when they’re ready because of very hot or very cold weather may have to be transplanted to still another larger container to keep them from becoming rootbound.
SOME PLANTS TO TRY
The following list is by no means complete, but softwood cuttings from these plants will root fairly easily.
Perennials. Perennial alyssum, arabis, auhrieta, begonia, candytuft, chrysanthemum, dianthus (carnations, pinks), delphinium, geranium (includes ivy geranium, pelargonium), penstemon, sedum.
Woody plants. Azalea, bougainvillea, ceanothus, daphne, fuchsia, gardenia, heather, hihiscus, honeysuckle, hydrangea, ivy, lavender, oleander, plumbago, pyracantha, star jasmine, thyme, willow, wisteria.
A MINIATURE GREENHOUSE
If you fail to root softwood cuttings using the usual methods, try planting them in a plastic bag filled with perlite. You can use this miniature “greenhouse” for rooting house plants, perennials, shrubs, or trees.
Put two handfuls of perlite (a material available at nurseries) into a medium-sized plastic bag and wet it thoroughly. Then turn the bag upside down, keeping the neck loosely closed while you squeeze out the water. The perlite should be damp but not wet.
Prepare the cuttings as described and put the bare stem into the perlite. Then close the bag (to root succulents, leave it open) and put it in a spot that has good light but no direct sun. For air circulation, open the bag briefly each day but don’t lift or disturb the cutting. It may take from a week to a month for the cutting to root. To test its progress, gently pull up on the cutting. If the perlite moves, there are roots running through it. Lift out the cutting and transplant it into a small pot or directly into the garden if weather permits.
ROOTING FUCHSIAS IN A BAG
Although the following method was developed for rooting fuchsias, it should work equally well for other cuttings taken from quick-rooting plants, such as ivy geranium or thyme. This method offers the great advantage of being able to handle a large number of cuttings while keeping them out of the way.
Fill a large, thick, plastic bag with a moist mixture of half sand and half peat moss. Use a strong cord to tie the bag closed, then hang it in a lathhouse, under a shaded and protected overhang, or in any other well lighted, wind-free place.
With a nail or ice pick, punch rows of holes in the bag from top to bottom, about 1 1/2 inches apart. Then poke the stems of the cuttings into the holes using each row for cuttings of the same type. You won’t need to water the sand and peat moss mixture (the plastic keeps the water in), but it doesn’t hurt to mist the cuttings occasionally with water from an atomizer.
When the cuttings show new growth, move the bag to a work area and slit it between holes so that you can remove the cuttings without disturbing the new roots.
BOTTOM HEAT SPEEDS ROOT GROWTH
Softwood cuttings root more quickly if soil temperature remains constant at 75 or 80 degrees. If your house has radiant heating in the floors and you have only a few cuttings, you can just put them in an out-of-the-way corner and let the house heat do the job.
For a larger number of seedlings or cuttings you can use the age-old practice of laying a bed of fresh manure several inches thick in a coldframe and setting the flats or pots on top. As the manure rots, it produces heat.
A third way to keep soil temperature constant is to use an electric coil heater. Most nurseries carry two different types. The best known is simply a long flexible coil that you wind around under your planting flats. Different lengths of coil, or differences in materials, determine the price, but you should be able to find a coil heater for under $20. The other type of heating unit consists of a flat with the coil built in. These flats are about the size of an ordinary wooden flat and cost about the same as the more expensive coils.
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