Have you heard of “taking cuttings” from your garden (or someone else’s) and wondered, what does that mean, exactly?
After you read this, you’ll know not only what it means, but also how you can successfully cut and root your favorite plants.
So let’s dive in to Cuttings 101, shall we?
Cuttings 101 – What Are Cuttings?
Cuttings are a piece of a plant that is removed from the plant with the intention of using it to grow an exact genetic copy of the mother plant.
When you take a cutting, the purpose is to put that piece of the plant into an environment that will cause the plant to adapt to its newly separated reality and form roots so that it can take in new nutrients and water.
As a side note, could you imagine if you could grow another you just by removing a piece of yourself? It’s astounding to imagine that a living thing can replicate itself in this way (with a little help from our opposable thumbs, mind you).
Many people take cuttings to preserve a particularly well-producing plant, or to help extend their crops through a period of poor weather for that plant.
For instance, initial planting in Spring, then take cuttings when it starts to get scorching hot in the Summer, allow the cuttings to root for the Summer and then replanting in the late Summer or Fall as temperatures start to cool off for another round of production!
Taking cuttings to propagate is also a tactic of organic growers, because they know that their plants haven’t been treated with artificial chemicals and thus they can be assured of the organic rating of their cuttings for the next generation.
Cuttings 101: How Do I Take A Cutting?
There’s very few requirements for taking cuttings from your plants in order to propogate them. But I definitely have some tips to make the best of your cuttings.
- Clean Your Cutters. I can’t stress this enough. Clean your cutters with alcohol and allow them to air dry before you begin to cut, and between plants, so you don’t spread or introduce disease.
- Choose a stem with good terminal growth buds on it. Terminal growth buds on stems are a growth structure that causes the stem to grow longer (which is what you want your cutting to do, eventually). It is found at the apex or top of the main stem, and also at the very end of any branches off of the main stem. Cutting the main stem will make your plant not grow any taller (if you’ve heard the phrase “topping trees” it’s cutting off the highest point of the main trunk so that the tree grows no taller) and forces it to branch out, so be careful of this when you’re taking cuttings from your plants.
- Cut at an angle. Your stem cuts should be at an angle to give more surface area for water intake and potential for root development.
- Your Plants Should Be Healthy and Disease-free. I think it goes without saying, but you should choose healthy stems that don’t have fungus or bug eggs on it. If only one leaf looks unhealthy you can probably get away with it, just know that it’s possible to still have fungus or other diseases present on your plant with no visible symptoms at that moment.
- Make the cuttings at least 5-6″ of stem if possible. About 3″ of the stem should be placed into the dirt/growing medium, and the top 2-3″ of stem should above the dirt.
- Remove leaves from the lower 3″ of stem before placing into the growing medium. Leaves are not a structure that does well either under water or under ground, so removing the leaves from the parts that will be submerged will help your plant focus resources on the task at hand – growing roots.
- Move fast. Cuttings work best when fresh most of the time, unless you’re talking about succulents or plumerias (which are a whole different topic!), so make sure you have everything set up before you take your cuttings!
Cuttings 101: What do my cuttings need to grow roots?
Many plants will root in water, such as pothos, the mint family, and tomatoes, and others do better in wet sand or vermiculite. Try several cuttings in both so you can experiment for yourself!
Simple jars filled with clean water and a tiny bit of water-soluble fertilizer will do as well. If you do a lot of propagation, you can purchase propagation stations that include such things as a pump and an air bubbler that will help keep the water oxygenated and keep algae from growing.
A Forsythe Pot is a great choice for rooting cuttings that uses a porous inner pot (like terra cotta) and a non-porous larger outer pot (like plastic) with a layer of vermiculite or sand in between. The inner pot is kept full of water, and the cuttings are placed firmly into the sand or vermiculite. The water is wicked into the growing medium by virtue of osmosis through the terra cotta, keeping growing conditions perfect for starting roots.
If your cuttings fail to root, you might need rooting hormone. Rooting hormone is a powdered substance that you dip the tip of your freshly-cut cutting into, and then place it into the soil. It helps the plant realize that it’s time to grow roots through the hormonal chemical reaction that you just caused by adding rooting hormone to the cut end.
As a side note, I’ve also found that fresh Aloe leaf squeezed onto the fresh cut end of the stem works pretty well as a rooting hormone, if you don’t have the powder lying around.
Cuttings 101: When Should I Take Cuttings?
You can usually take cuttings of vegetables, vines, and non-woody ornamentals most any time, but the best times are when they are in a period of active growth. Plants like your evergreen shrubs, for instance, go a bit dormant in the cooler months, and there’s not a lot of concentration on growth during that time of year. Thus it’s harder to get the plant to root and much easier for the stem to die off after cutting.
There is a strategy to some cuttings, especially in vegetables: cutting just before the season starts to wind down or when you know that the time of fungus and pests will probably be overwhelming your plant soon. Taking cuttings at that point, moving them to root in an area that wouldn’t have those fungi or pests, protects those healthy stems and allows them to root in peace. Then when the conditions are better, you can move the cuttings, now rooted, back into the garden to give you another crop of edibles, all without having to plant new seeds.
Cuttings 101: Any Tips for Planting My Water-Rooted Cuttings Back Into Soil?
Yes, as a matter of fact, I do have a couple of tips for that!
First, when you dig your hole for those roots and stem to go into the dirt, dig it much deeper than the roots would need. Hold the plant by the stem and allow the roots to dangle into the hole, making sure that you’re holding the stem at a level so that the where the roots emerge from the stem is below opening of the hole and below the level of the ground, so that your roots will be fully underground.
Then, with a watering can or hose nozzle allow water to gently pour into the hole while you slowly adding the dirt to cover the roots (or if you don’t have a helper, hold the plant with one hand and alternate a handful of dirt and then some water until the hole is full. This allows your roots to stretch out and not be confined to a small hole.
My second tip is to make sure you monitor cuttings that were made in water, once they’re planted in dirt, because will need more irrigation than usual until they adjust to their new environment. You’ll need to watch them for wilting during the day and give them a little more water love for a few days until they can stand on their own and adapt to taking water out of the soil directly.
Taking cuttings of your favorite plants, and your best food producers, is a great way to ensure future success in your garden. You already know you love them and they grow really well for you, so why mess with a good thing? You can propagate your favorite producers season after season and continue to love them, in perpituity. For plant lovers, what could be better?
What’s been your experience with taking cuttings? Have you been challenged by the process? What’s your favorite plants to take cuttings from? Let me know!
Until next time, Keep Growing!