Garden plants can be propagated in many ways. But one of the easiest methods is taking stem cuttings, placing them in water or a growing medium until they develop roots, and then planting the rooted cuttings into pots or the ground. Unlike propagating by seeds collected from the parent plant, propagating by cuttings ensures that the new plants are genetically identical to the parent plant. (With hybrid plants, seeds may result in plants that are different in appearance.) For successful, healthy cuttings, there are some general steps to follow.
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Equipment / Tools
- Razor blade or scissors
- Pencil or stick
- Existing plant (parent plant)
- Plastic bag
- Soilless potting mix
- Rooting hormone
- Containers for planting
Choose a Plant for Cuttings
Select a healthy parent plant from which to take cuttings. Avoid plants with diseases or lots of drooping or dying foliage. The best specimens for cuttings will have plenty of new growth. Moreover, the presence of flower buds or blooms is not important. In fact, too many flowers can actually hinder the ability of a cutting to root itself. Finally, the parent plant should be large enough that taking cuttings will not harm it.
Prepare the Container
Fill a clean pot or container with soilless potting mix to hold the stem cutting for rooting. A soilless mix drains better than garden soil and provides moist conditions. Don't use ordinary garden soil, as it might contain pathogens that can kill the cutting before it ever takes root. You don't need a large container. Once the cutting takes root, you are going to repot it anyway. A 4- to 6-inch deep pot is usually sufficient.
Many cuttings will root in plain water. However, transferring a water-rooted seedling to soil is not always successful.
Find the Best Stems for Cuttings
Choose green, non-woody stems for cuttings. Newer growth is easier to root than woody or older stems. Look for a stem with a node—a bump along the stem where a leaf or flower bud attaches. This point is where new roots will emerge.
Take the Plant Cutting
Use a pair of scissors or a razor blade that has been sterilized in alcohol to make a clean cut just below a node. The cutting doesn’t need to be long, but it should contain at least two leaves and one node. A cutting that is 4 to 6 inches long is usually sufficient. Longer cuttings sometimes dry out when placed in growing medium.
Prepare the Cutting
Place the cutting on a flat, hard surface, and make a clean slice through the middle of the node with a sterilized razor blade. This scarifying of the node will increase the chances of roots emerging from this spot. Also, remove all but one or two leaves. The cutting needs some leaf growth to continue photosynthesis, but too many leaves will sap energy from root creation. If the leaves are very large in proportion to the stem, cut off their top halves.
Apply a Rooting Hormone (Optional)
Some plants root easily, but a rooting hormone can help others by stimulating the cutting into sending out new roots. Fill a container with water, and place some rooting hormone into another container. Dip the node end of the cutting into the water and then into the rooting hormone. Tap off any excess hormone; too much actually hinders its success. Discard the excess hormone. Once it comes in contact with a cutting, it has been activated.
Bore a Planting Hole
Use a pencil or similar pointed object to poke a planting hole into the soilless potting mix. Making the hole slightly larger than the stem diameter will prevent the rooting hormone from being wiped away when you embed the stem in the pot.
Plant the Cutting
Carefully place the cutting into the hole you made in the potting mix, and gently firm the soil around it. You can fit several cuttings into one container, but space them so the leaves do not touch one another.
Cover the Pot With Plastic
Place the container with the cutting into a plastic bag. The bag will keep the humidity high and hold in heat. But don’t seal the bag completely because some airflow is necessary to prevent fungal rot. Keep the container in a warm spot in the house, ideally in an area that experiences filtered light. Don’t put the cutting in full sunlight until new leaves begin appearing along the stem.
Monitor the Cutting
Until roots form, keep the soil slightly moist but not so wet that condensation forms on the inside of the plastic bag. Check regularly for signs of rot, and remove any suspect cuttings as soon as you spot trouble. After two to three weeks, begin checking for roots by tugging gently on the cutting. When you begin to feel resistance, it means roots have developed. At this point, you can transplant the cutting into its own pot or the ground.
When to Take Plant Cuttings
Stem cuttings can be taken and rooted at almost any time during the parent plant's active growth period. It is a good way to add additional plants. And in cold climates, it can also be used to keep prized tender plants alive through the winter for replanting in the spring. For example, you can take cuttings of tropical coleus plants in the fall before frost arrives, root them indoors, and then transfer them to pots. By springtime, you will have vigorous potted plants that can go back into the garden.
Tips for Taking Plant Cuttings
You can take cuttings from herbaceous plants with fleshy stems, as well as from woody-stemmed plants, such as roses and shrubs. But the technique is typically more successful with fleshy-stemmed plants. Both outdoor garden plants and indoor houseplants can be propagated in this way. Some failures are common, so don't let this discourage you.