In the Garden:
Middle South
May, 2012
Regional Report

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Rooting hormone is applied to a girdled area with a small brush, while aluminum foil protects a completed preparation from sunlight.

Propagation for Dummies

Though many of my gardening friends are a whiz at propagation, I have to admit that making more plants is not my gift. In fact, you could call me propagation-challenged. I begin with good intentions, but then my concentration wanders or I go out of town, and you know the rest of the story.

Lucky for me I recently learned about air layering, or what I now call "propagation for dummies." My friend Terry Gentry, who guided me through my first attempts at the process, has had great success with camellias, which are notoriously difficult to reproduce with cuttings.

The key, Terry explained, is careful technique and lots of patience. Once the initial preparation is complete, no additional effort is required until roots are produced and the new plant is ready for harvesting from the mother plant.

Air layering works incredibly well with many other difficult-to-root plants too. In addition to camellias, the list includes hollies, azaleas, magnolias, oleanders, figs, apples, pecans, and many tropical and subtropical houseplants.

The process, which involves girdling a stem and encircling the wound with growing medium, is successful because the plant tip is not cut away, allowing water and nutrients from the mother plant to continue to sustain the shoot while roots are growing. The propagation technique generally works best in spring on one-year-old wood, but can also be successful in autumn on the current year's growth.

Here's what I've learned about air layering:

Choose a healthy stem on your chosen plant and remove a 1-inch (or slightly longer) ring of bark roughly 12-inches below the growing tip. The bark can be removed by making two parallel cuts through the bark and then peeling it away to expose the inner woody tissue, or by simply using the blade of the knife to scrape away the outer layers.

Cutting or scraping in this manner removes the bark, as well as the soft cambium and phloem layers, preventing carbohydrates and photosynthates from flowing past the girdled site.

Lightly brush the wound with a rooting hormone and surround it with a handful of moist, unmilled sphagnum moss that has been soaked in water and squeezed to remove excess moisture. If you find it difficult to apply the rooting hormone to the stem, simply sprinkle it on the moss.

Wrap the moss around the prepared stem area with kitchen plastic wrap and secure at each end with electrical tape. Ensure that no bits of moss extend below the tape, as this would allow the moss to dry.

Add a layer of aluminum foil over the plastic, pinching it tight to the stem above and below the moss-bound wound. The foil reflects sunlight, keeping the rooting area from becoming too hot and preventing sunlight from destroying the rooting hormone.

Wait and then wait some more. With a bit of luck, the excess carbohydrates and photosynthates, plus the water in the moss, will cause dormant adventitious buds to grow into roots. After a couple months, remove the foil to see if roots have grown to the edge of the plastic.

When the rooting medium is filled with roots, cut the growing tip away from the mother plant below the new roots and begin to nurture it in the appropriate potting mix. The presence of roots should facilitate quick establishment. However, it's still best to limit sun exposure and keep the plant well-watered and well-drained until the new plant is fully acclimated to soil and is ready for planting out in the garden.

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