Plant Propagation: With Great Cuttings Comes Great Responsibility

When I give you a cutting, it’s more than likely I’m going to remember.

It’s not that I’m obsessed, controlling or critical (that’s a different conversation held when I’m not around), it’s simply that I love my plants. If someone expresses an interest that goes beyond “Hey that’s pretty.” I jump on it, usually offer a cutting or piece, and often follow up later to see how it’s doing.

 

Cuttings take root in Forsythe pots under plastic bags

 

This is of course awkward for those who find themselves in way over their heads. Perhaps they never wanted to learn how to root edgeworthia from late February cuttings but didn’t know how to say no when I put down my beverage and pulled out the pruners.  But, it also means that if you are a little shy in asking, I more often than not, will foist.

Consequently, when I am walking around gardens far, far better than my own, and find myself desperately wanting a cutting or a piece of something, I’m aware that the gardener giving it to me (with better plants, better skills and possibly a better greenhouse), is very likely to remember the transaction next time we meet.Preview (opens in a new window)

The pressure is intense.

An example:  Last fall in the Seaford, VA garden of Pamela Harper, she remarked on Clematis armandii seedlings that had proved themselves to be much hardier than their family members during difficult winters.  Pam is a well-respected garden writer with a collector’s garden and plant cultivars named after her. When I visit, I spend a great deal of time scribbling in my notebook and marking various combinations with hasty photographs.

When she mentioned the clematis, my ears pricked up. I have killed this evergreen vine on two occasions, knowing that although the books say Zone 7, this designation refers to the kindest and gentlest of Zone 7s.  That Zone 7 doesn’t exist here. It doesn’t even exist in the warm courtyard of a nearby friend.

We talked about the possibility of her introducing it to breeders, and I expressed interest in growing it, but in my heart I knew that ‘hardier’ was relative.  I didn’t push for a seedling.

Two months later I heard from her via email that she had potted one up and would hold it for an upcoming visit.

Overwhelmed by her great thoughtfulness I was equally panicked.  Chances were, I would kill this one just as dead as the others – my own ‘warm courtyard’ not being within three years of completion.  So, upon receiving this great gift I immediately gave to a friend with magical skills and a magical greenhouse.  This way I can hold my head up when questioned and answer truthfully “It’s alive,”, but never quite get to the details of its residency.  At some point in the future, I’ll be able to test it for real.

If you’ve ever been the recipient of a precious plant or cutting, you most probably know what I’m talking about.  Some of these plants we truly want to grow, but we may find ourselves distracted or forgetful during the propagation process, or we might not have the right garden bed prepared.

A puny coleus cutting rooting (or rotting) in water.

However, asking for another one because you couldn’t be bothered to walk out to the potting shed for rooting hormone or dig a bit of grit into silty soil is not an easy question to phrase.

That’s why, greenhouse-less as I am, I like to keep two things going during the growing season:

1) A ready-to-go Forsythe pot for cuttings.

2) A concentrated nursery area near the hosepipe for small potted seedlings.

A Forsythe pot is a pot within a pot.  The inner pot is terracotta and is filled with water (no drainage hole).  It continuously wicks that water into a ring of vermiculite or soil between it and the larger pot.  This moist medium is where you stick those cuttings immediately upon getting home with them (often with a light dip of rooting hormone). For added humidity often necessary for woody cuttings, I like to put a plastic bag over the top, held off the cuttings by means of kebab skewers.

Once they are reliably rooted, a nursery area specifically for smaller pots allows them time and care to fill that pot with roots and get big enough to handle rougher treatment, planting out, or sometimes, a winter season.  Keeping that area near a hosepipe means that it is easy to water for me and for anyone else I may have to rely on in times of travel or sickness.

Though I like to tease about this process and the pressure to perform, one can achieve a great deal of satisfaction by making baby plants.  Or baby anything for that matter.  A book I refer to time and time again is Lewis Hill’s Secrets of Plant Propagation (Storey Press, 1985).  It is an older book, but straightforward and to the point.  Some plants are ridiculously easy to root, such as red-twigged dogwood that roots from whips cut in February by simply pushing them into the ground.  Some are harder, like that edgeworthia I mentioned earlier, which likes a continual misting and stories read to it at bedtime.

 

cuttings Forsythe pot

Precious aucuba cuttings in a Forsythe pot. It will be tented to preserve humidity and misted everyday.

 

Right now, I’m focused on six cuttings of rare Aucuba japonica cultivars I received from friends with a world-class garden in the Norfolk area.  I started by lazily rooting them in water, which usually works, and didn’t, and moved on to the Forsythe pot before they became desiccated and worthless.  Even with a skimpy 50% survival rate, I may come out smiling.

Fingers crossed.  I really don’t want to ask for them twice.


By | 2018-08-02T21:04:50+00:00 August 3rd, 2018|

About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.

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