In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
February, 2004
Regional Report

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In addition to being efficient, this propagation pot makes a great conversation piece!

Making More Houseplants

I'm not a fair-weather gardener, and I really do enjoy working in my garden during winter's rain and wind – once I don my cold weather gear and actually get out there. But I am also keenly aware of the fact that working soggy soils can ruin their structure, and pruning too soon can interrupt dormancy and produce frost-tender growth much too early in the season.

So what's a gardener to do in the month of February? For the health of my garden, I focus my attention on indoor plants. When I tire of watering, training, and grooming my houseplants, I take cuttings. Houseplant cuttings usually root in just a few short weeks, and if I end up with more plants than I have space for, they make delightful "Happy Spring" gifts for my friends.

Although many cuttings will root in water, I've obtained consistently better results by rooting them in moist vermiculite. Even difficult-to-root plants respond well to this rooting medium, and all of the cuttings started this way seem to make the transition to potting soil in much better condition.

Making a special propagation pot for rooting houseplant cuttings is an easy, not-too-expensive project, and it's one you can share with children or grandchildren.

Making a Rooting Pot
For best results, be sure to start with fresh, new vermiculite and clean, new pots. Reused pots can be a source of disease contamination unless they have been soaked in a bleach-and-water solution, scrubbed thoroughly, and rinsed carefully to remove all traces of bleach.

Here's what you'll need: a 6- or 7-inch-diameter plastic pot with drain holes, a 2-1/2-inch clay pot, vermiculite, paper towels, and a small cork. You will also need a sharp pocket knife or paring knife.

Vermiculite is a natural product -- expanded mica. The mica is mined and then heated to a very high temperature. This causes moisture that is trapped in the layers of mica to expand, and it puffs out like popcorn. It is then graded as to size and sold for different purposes. Larger chunks are used for insulation. The smaller sizes are used in greenhouses as a soil amendment.

Vermiculite is readily available in most garden centers, but you can substitute perlite if you already have some in the potting shed. I've had equal success with both products so I use whatever I happen to have on hand.

Line the bottom of the plastic pot with some paper toweling to prevent the vermiculite from dropping through the drain holes. Then pour in the vermiculite, almost to the top of the pot. Next, plug the bottom of the clay pot very tightly with a cork. If you can't find a small cork, green florist's clay will work just as well.

Push the plugged clay pot into the center of the vermiculite so that the pot sticks up just a bit above the vermiculite, then water the vermiculite thoroughly. Excess moisture will drip through the drain holes. (This might be a little messy.) Fill the clay pot with water, too. After this first time, all you'll need to do is keep water in the center well. Because clay is porous, it will allow water to seep through into the vermiculite. As the vermiculite loses moisture, it is instantly replaced, provided you remember to keep that center pot filled with water. The moist vermiculite makes an excellent rooting medium, with just the right balance of moisture and air for good root development.

Taking Different Types of Cuttings
Now that you have your propagation pot ready, you can take your cuttings. Most houseplants grow in a branching pattern with leaves angling off from main stems. Find a growing point where there are young, new leaves, and make your cutting 3 or 4 inches back from that tip. Cut about 1/2 inch below a node -- the area where the petiole (leaf stem) or leaf blade joins the main stem. The node is an area of actively dividing cells.

The cutting should be pushed into the moist vermiculite so the node is just below the surface. New roots will form at this point. Sometimes you have to remove the lower leaves in order to put the node into vermiculite. Be sure to do this because leaves will rot if they're buried in moist vermiculite.

Some plants, such as African violets, do not branch but instead have a thick central stalk with leaves arranged in a whorled or circular pattern around it. For plants with this habit of growth, you can simply remove a single, medium-sized leaf and petiole. Trim the petiole so it is only an inch long. Then poke the petiole into the vermiculite so there is contact between the underside of the leaf blade and the moist vermiculite. New plantlets will form at the base of the leaf blade.

Sansevieria, also called mother-in-law's tongue, is another example of a non-branching plant. You can take several cuttings from one of these long leaves. Each section should be 3 or 4 inches long. Place them carefully to be sure you get the bottom of each cutting into the vermiculite. If they're turned inside down, they won't root. New plantlets will form at the base of the cutting.

After you've placed several cuttings into your propagation pot, place it near a window where it will get an hour or two of direct sunlight each day. After several weeks, pull gently on the cuttings. If you feel resistance, you'll know they have rooted. Scoop them out of the vermiculite gently and transplant them into small containers of potting soil. That's all there is to it!

Now that you know how easy it is, you can spend the next few weeks gardening indoors, increasing your stock of houseplants.


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