Last summer, like a bee lured by a thousand flowers, I took cuttings of anything that caught my eye. Some flouncy hydrangeas, growing in a friend’s woodland garden, that I loved for their lime-green blooms. A plump clump of chocolate cosmos, precious for the beauty of its soot-red flowers and sumptuous perfume.
Ninebark (physocarpus) for its handsome, rusty-orange and plum foliage, black elder (sambucus) for its rose-pink flowers (essential for making pink elderflower cordial), some silver-leafed wormwood (artemisia) for its elegant, semi-evergreen foliage, and many, many roses.
Giddy with the loaves-and-fishes magic of it all, I snipped cuttings of hard-to-get varieties of toadflax (linaria), phlox, persicaria, delphiniums, dahlia, erica, and pearly everlasting (anaphalis). Almost all went into black three-litre plastic pots filled with the same free-draining seed-and-cutting compost lightened with plenty of horticultural grit and then topped with a generous sprinkle of vermiculite. The only exception was the cosmos for which, knowing that it really hates to sit in any kind of winter wet, I used an extra-gritty mix.
Placed in a slightly shaded polytunnel where they were protected from direct sunshine and kept slightly damp, they waited out the rest of the summer until pressure of space meant they had to tough it out outdoors.
And tough it out they did. New, fresh growth and baby roots pushing their way through the base of the pots this spring were sure signs that nature had yet again worked its magic. Somehow those short sections of stems I’d snipped from their parent plants had defiantly achieved what seems logically impossible, miraculously channeling the energy and hormones contained within their plant tissue to the very bottom tip of their stems – the part buried in the compost – that I’d wounded with the sharp blades of my secateurs and knife. The result, one that astounds me every time I witness it, was roots. Tiny, baby, and oh-so vulnerable roots at first, but viable. By mid-spring of this year they were baby plants ready to be potted on.
Producing new plants in this way is a method of vegetative propagation that’s as old as humanity. It’s also wonderfully easy, an almost sure-fire way (so long as you follow the basic steps) to get plenty of beautiful plants for free, as well as to get your hands on hard-to-get or historic varieties not readily available in garden centres. Try it this summer and see for yourself. But first, a few tips.
Growing plants from cuttings
1. When: Late spring-midsummer, when plants are brimming with growth hormones, is the time to take softwood cuttings and herbaceous cuttings. Midsummer-early autumn, as those soft stems begin to toughen, is traditionally the time to take semi-ripe cuttings while late autumn-midwinter is the time to take hardwood cuttings. The younger/softer the plant material, the faster it will produce roots. Softwood and herbaceous cuttings of some species can root in a matter of weeks while hardwood cuttings typically take several months.
2. Which bit of the plant? Always make sure to select strong, young, healthy, non-flowering shoots, using a clean, sharp craft knife or secateurs to cut them early in the morning just below a node (the point where the plant's leaves join the stem).
3. How long? Softwood and herbaceous cuttings should typically be about 10cm/4 inches long, semi-ripe cuttings a little longer (10-15cm/4-6 inches), while hardwood cuttings are typically 15-30cm /6-12 inches long.
4. Quickly does it: From the minute you snip them off their parent plant, speed is of the essence when it comes to preparing cuttings . To prevent them drying out after picking, pop them in a sealed plastic bag with a few drops of water. As soon as you can, use a small, sharp knife or scalpel to neatly slice any side stems or lower leaves away from each shoot and then pinch out the soft tips before plunging the cuttings around the edges of a three-litre pot filled with a good-quality, pre-dampened seed-and-cutting compost lightened with horticultural grit or vermiculite. Alternatively, some gardeners swear by pure perlite as a cutting mix, but make sure to dampen this well before use as the dust is an irritant. Insert to a depth where two-thirds of the cuttings are buried in compost. Finish off with a light top-dressing of grit or vermiculite, then water well. Alternatively plant outdoors into fertile, friable soil in a well-prepared, weed-free spot.
5. What about rooting hormone? Some gardeners like to dip the ends of their cuttings in rooting powder or gel before inserting them into the compost, some don't. It's by no means essential and most cuttings will root without it, but it can help with some tricky species.
6.Always add a label: It's all too easy to forget exactly what you've taken cuttings of, so make sure to label clearly (the plant name or a description plus the date) using a waterproof pen.
7. Lock in humidity: To prevent their soft leaves from drying out before they develop roots, it's a good idea to cover softwood, herbaceous and semi-hardwood cuttings with a clear plastic bag (if in pots), or with clear upturned plastic bottle cloches/into a cold frame (if outdoors). If you're using the pot method, an electric propagator or heated propagating bench also helps speed up the rooting process. But make sure to continue to keep the compost damp (not wet). Once you spot signs of rooting, start gently ventilating the cuttings to avoid problems with disease. Eventually remove the bags/cloches/cover altogether to gently harden them off and accustom them to less protected conditions.
8. Where to put them: Cuttings do best in a bright, warm, sheltered spot but out of direct sunshine. Too sunny/windy and it puts them under stress. Too cool/dark and they're inclined to rot before they root. While they're rooting, a layer of horticultural fleece will help to protect them from wind and intense sunshine.
9. Prevent disease: While the rooting process is taking place, it's important to regularly remove and bin any decayed or fallen leaves to keep your cuttings healthy. If any individual cuttings show obvious signs of decay, pull these gently out of the pot.
10. Be patient: An occasional very gentle tug is a good way to tell if cuttings have rooted, but don't overdo it. Some species are naturally slow to root, so give them time. And don't expect a 100 per cent strike rate (although it's great when that happens). Anywhere between 50-80 per cent is a good result.
Ten easy plants to grow from cuttings this summer? Hydrangea, shrubby salvias, pelargoniums, osteospermum, fuchsia, penstemon, argyranthemum, dahlia, lavender, chrysanthemum.
This week in the garden
At this time of year, self-sown seedlings of flowering plants often pop up in borders, paths and in crevices in walls and paving. So go gentle with the hoe and keep your eyes peeled. Many of these self-sown seedlings can be gently lifted and either replanted in a more desirable position, or potted on to give to friends or donate to plant sales. Others are often perfect right where they are, and if left to grow on, will add an extra flourish of colour to the garden or allotment.
As vegetable beds, flower beds and containers begin to fill up with young transplants, it’s crucial to keep them well-watered and protected from slugs and snails until they’ve developed strong, independent root systems and are big enough to easily fight off attack from pests and disease. When watering, always water gently and down low around the base of plants to prevent wetting their foliage and flowers (the latter increases the risk of disease), as well as to avoid accidentally displacing soil/compost and exposing vulnerable root systems. Take appropriate precautions against slugs and snails and if you spot obvious damage around a particular plant, search nearby for the perpetrators which are most likely hiding in foliage or under pots/stones.
Dates for your Diary:
Tomorrow, Sunday 22nd May (9.30am-5pm), Airfield Estate, Dundrum, Co Dublin: Irish Specialist Nursery Association Plant Fair with a wide variety of nursery stalls selling trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, clematis, and garden paraphernalia, see airfield.ie
Also tomorrow, Sunday 22nd May (2pm), Patthana Gardens, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, a demonstration on planting pots and containers for summer by owner and plantsman TJ Maher, with plants also for sale, free on admission to the garden, see patthanagardenireland.com
From Thursday June 2nd-Monday June 6th, Phoenix Park, Dublin 8: Ireland's biggest annual garden show Bloom returns to Phoenix Park with a wide variety of show gardens, a new outdoor nursery village and many other attractions , tickets from €25, see bordbiabloom.com for details and to pre-book tickets.