By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Gardeners are always looking for ways to increase the number of plants in their gardens at an affordable price. Those big potted shrubs at the nursery are always so tempting, but they can take a really big bite out of the household budget. If you are looking for something that will grow to a large size fast, or you can’t wait for that newly released cultivar, go ahead and splurge on the nursery plant. But if all you want is more of what you already have in your garden (or that lovely specimen in the alley behind the grocery store or in your neighbor’s yard!) then learning how to propagate plants using softwood cuttings might be just the thing you’ve been looking for.
As you probably know, there are many different ways to propagate perennial plants. In an earlier article entitled, Garden Time: Multiply Your Herbs & Flowers, I discuss how to propagate plants through layering and division.
Division works well for smaller plants whose root system is not particularly deep or woody and layering works well for plants and herbs that creep or whose stems naturally root where they touch the ground. However, not all plants can be propagated using these two methods and that’s where softwood cuttings come in.
Many types of plants, including shrubs, small trees, perennial flowers and herbs, can all be propagated by rooting softwood cuttings. Woody herbs such as bay, lemon balm, rosemary, sage, savory, and tarragon, as well as herbaceous (non-woody) herbs such as mint and catnip all respond well to this method.
The term soft wood is a little confusing because although it is definitely soft, it is not woody – at lest not yet. I like this definition of softwood given by plant propagator, Susan Grillo, “Softwood is the term used to describe the stage of growth on a deciduous woody plant that’s neither the new, green growth at the end of a shoot nor the stiff, woody growth near the base of the stem. The softwood lies between the two. The best way to know if a shoot has reached the softwood stage is to bend it. If the softwood snaps, the shoot is ready to be taken as a cutting. If the shoot is very flexible and doesn’t snap, it’s too green. If the shoot is not flexible at all, it is too far gone.”
Here in the Ozarks, June and July are often the best times to take softwood cuttings. If you are unsure if your plants are at the right stage, simply bend one of the stems in half. If it snaps cleanly, it’s ready.
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Once the stems are ready, gather up your potting materials and have them ready. You will need:
- Soilless potting mix that does not have fertilizer added to it.
- Several 6”-8” pots or containers.
- A sharp pair of pruning shears.
- Your choice of rooting hormone.
- A safe, bright, and humid “nursery”.
Start by gathering your materials and selecting a location for your new nursery. You will want a secure place away from curious pets and nibbling rodents to keep your cuttings as they root. The area should have plenty of bright, but indirect light (no direct sun just yet), and a slightly humid environment.
Humidity goes a long way in reducing water stress on new stem cuttings with leaves. If you only want to root a few cuttings, plant them in pots and keep the humidity high by loosely covering them with a clear plastic bag.
If you plan on rooting a lot of cuttings at once, you might want to try planting them in a clear, 12 inch deep storage tub that has a snap on lid. Simply drill a few holes in the bottom of the tub for drainage and fill with 6 to 8 inches of potting soil. Once all the cutting are planted, loosely cover the top with the lid and vent as needed by turning it at an angle.
Have everything ready before you begin gathering cuttings. Fill your pots or containers with pre-moistened soilless potting mix, lightly compacting it with your hands so that it doesn’t shrink when watered later on. Next, make drills in the soil with a dibble or the eraser end of a pencil. Make sure these are wide enough so the cuttings can easily be slipped down into them.
Once your soil is ready, prepare only enough cuttings as you can plant in the next 30 minutes. To reduce stress, take cuttings early in the morning when leaves are fully hydrated and the temperatures are fairly cool. As you work, drop the cuttings into a bucket of water and shade them with a lid or some damp paper towels. It is very important to keep new cuttings away from direct sunlight, which can damage them.
Cuttings root best when they include the natural tip of the stem, have at least two leaf nodes toward the bottom half of the cutting, and are between 3 and 6 inches long. Make a clean cut one inch below the last leaf node. Carefully cut off all the leaves from the lower two-thirds of the stem, leaving only three or four leaves at the top. These wounds are where the rooting usually takes place. If you want to use one long stem to make several individual cuttings, make sure to cut the bottom or “down” end at a 45 degree angle and the top end straight across so you always know which end goes into the soil.
Prepare the stems by clipping off the lower leaves. Dip each cutting in rooting hormone as indicated on the label or in willow water and carefully slip them into the pre-made drills taking care not to scrape the rooting hormone off the cuttings while doing so. Set each stem at least 3 inches deep and 4 to 6 inches apart, water well, and cover. Place pots or flats in your pre-arranged nursery area and keep the soil slightly moistened until roots begin to form, which can take 4 to 8 weeks depending on the type of plant. During this time, the soil should never be allowed to completely dry out.
No matter how hard you try, only about 70% of your cuttings will successfully root. You will know that your cuttings have begun to set roots when new leaves begin to form. Once that happens, begin allowing the soil to dry slightly between watering and slowly move the flat into sunnier and sunnier areas for two or more weeks before transplanting to larger pots or to a permanent location in your garden.
Now that you know how to root softwood cuttings, you don’t have to spend a ton of money to have a garden full of gorgeous plants!
© 2014 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
Learn how to grow and use the world’s oldest, safest, and most medicinal herbs with this easy step-by-step guide! From starting seeds to preparing home remedies, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs is a treasured resource that you will turn to time and time again.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.