In the Garden:
Upper South
May, 2006
Regional Report

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Propagating trees and shrubs from cuttings is remarkably easy and satisfying, albeit some patience is required.

Go Forth and Multiply

As a society we thrive on immediate gratification, even with the somewhat gentle art of gardening. But then, who can blame someone with a new house on a barren lot for wanting to buy large trees and shrubs that grow fast? The old-fashioned way, of course, was slow and steady. My mother's observation on starting with small trees is that she liked to watch them grow. Even she, however, couldn't resist planting a few silver maples, much to my chagrin in having to deal with their brittle, weedy, moisture-robbing nature 50 years later.

To her credit, though, most of the plants in her yard were acquired by a slower but satisfying means -- taking cuttings, digging up "starts" from suckering shrubs, and transplanting seedlings. In striking the middle ground, the core of your plantings will most likely be purchased, but think about the satisfaction that can come from including some plants that you have inexpensively propagated yourself. This is the perfect time of year to propagate many trees, shrubs, and vines from cuttings.

Softwood and Semi-Hardwood Cuttings
The succulent new growth that has occurred this spring is known as softwood; it is still relatively soft and succulent because it has not had time to mature and become woody. Cuttings taken from softwood usually root quickly and easily, but they are apt to readily wilt, so they require close attention to watering and humidity.

To determine if a plant branch is ready for cutting, try to snap off a 3- to 6-inch tip. If it bends, it is not ready, but if it breaks, then it's time. In a few weeks, the new growth will have matured a bit. At that point it's called "semi-hardwood." Semi-hardwood cuttings take a little longer to root but are less apt to wilt.

Taking Cuttings
Cuttings can be taken just from the tips of branches or an entire branch can be removed then cut into 4- to 6-inch lengths, with the bottom of each cut just below a node, or where the leaf joins the stem.

When cutting up a branch, be sure to remember which way is up. Remove the lower leaves and dip the bottom into a rooting hormone product. There are a number of these products available, but the easiest to use are the powders usually found at garden centers. A homemade version can be made by soaking willow stems in water.

Place a small amount of hormone in a dish. (Never dip the cuttings into the bottle as the contents could become contaminated.) Shake off the excess, use a pencil or chopstick to make a hole in the moistened rooting medium, insert the cutting, and press the soil around the stem. Use regular potting mix or a 50-50 mix of peat moss and perlite or vermiculite. You can put all your cuttings in a single pot, placing them several inches apart, or in deep seed-starting trays with individual compartments.

Short of having a misting system, the best way to maintain humidity is with a plastic bag or a tall plastic cover designed for standard-sized trays. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. Place the pot or tray in bright but indirect light. Using a heating mat made for this purpose helps speed rooting. Roots usually develop in a month or so. Once the roots are at least 1 inch long, they are ready to be potted up into individual containers.

Of course, this is the condensed version of propagating trees and shrubs from cuttings. Much research has been done and dozens of volumes written on the best way to propagate each plant. Although there are nuances, the majority of our most familiar trees and shrubs will respond favorably with this simple procedure. If you find yourself bitten by the propagation bug, check your library and visit Web sites to learn more. Don't be surprised if you're soon finding yourself with more plants than you ever thought possible.


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