Propagating indoor plants

‘Propagation’ sounds very technical – yet getting two plants to grow where only one grew before is, in some cases, extremely easy if tackled in spring or autumn. One housewife who bought an Achimenes for a few pence turned out the dried-up remains months later, found 40 tiny tubers, put them in pots of compost in a warm place and had masses of blooms. She did the same again next year; and thus in two years got over 200 Achimenes! A massed effect of just one kind of plant can be very decorative.


It is not only tubers like Achimenes that produce ‘offspring’. Cacti and succulents have offsets, too; so do Mother-ofthousands, Spider Plants, Bird’s Nest Fern, Bromeliads, some Ivies, Mind-you-own-Business, Trade-scantia, Zebrina, and many others. Gently separate the offspring from the parent, and put in another pot of damp compost. Protect from the cold (a plastic bag over the top will do) and await results.


Some plants can be propagated by taking a single leaf and putting its stem into a pot of compost, sheltered by a plastic bag over the top. You can do this with Saintpaulia, (African Violet) Mother-in-Law’s-Tongue, Pepper Elder and Dragon Plant (cut one leaf into several pieces) among others. Begonia rex leaves are treated differently. Lay one flat on compost, pinning it down with matchsticks or hairpins in several places. Small plants will start from these places.


In the case of many other plants, a piece of stem with several leaves on it is needed for propagation. Cut it slantwise just below a node, the little bump to be found below a leaf, a few inches from the top of the stem. Examples are Busy Lizzie, Pelargonium (Geranium), Wan-dering Jew, Aluminium Plant, Fittonia, Campanula, Fuchsia, Fat-Headed Lizzie, Fig, Coleus, Ivy Arum, Japanese Aralia, Jasmine, Kangaroo Vine, Sola-num, and others. It is always worth trying this method with any plant. A stem of Ivy will also produce a new plant provided it has some root on it. Cover with a polythene bag, and leave in a warm shady place until the stem has rooted well.


Some plants get quite bushy in a single season, and can be unpotted and gently pulled in two parts to plant separately. Also any others which look overcrowded or show signs of dying. In the middle.

Give the plant plenty of water with fertilizer for a fortnight beforehand and keep it out of the sun to reduce transpiration. Cuttings, leaves or offsets can be taken the day before

A plant that is getting too dense and bushy will be improved by taking away its inward’growing shoots and by removing dead leaves and flower heads

With a sharp blade cut top 3 inches off a strong shoot leaving a minimum of stump. Cut at angle so water will run off and just below a node (a little bump in the stem)

Remove all but the topmost leaves.

Dipping the end of the stem in hormone rooting powder helps vigorous, healthy growth but is not essential. Plant without delay in damp compost

Peat pots make useful containers as they can go into other containers later.

Cover cuttings with a plastic bag. They should not be exposed to sunshine and need little water until transplanted

When roots show through peat pots it time to plant them into larger pots of compost (John Innes No 1or 2) care

Before buying any plant decide exactly where you are going to stand it, and select one that will like the conditions it will get – sunny or shady, warm or cool. Few plants tolerate extremes or abrupt changes of temperature, so do not put them near fires or radiators, in draughts, or on window ledges where they may be sunburnt by day and chilled by night. All but a few need as much light as you can give them.

If you are going to mix several plants in one container, check also that they have the same needs where watering is concerned – or keep each in its pot within the larger container, and water each plant separately.


Most plants can be left, at least for their first season, in the pot in which they were bought, unless it is very small. But you may want to transfer a new plant to a trough or other container with other plants. (Even if left on its own, the plant may later outgrow its original pot. In any case, with time the nutrients in the original soil will be used up.)

A plant can be damaged in the course of transplanting it. It is usually best to do this in the early spring if possible, or autumn. First, the day before moving the plant to another container, water the compost thoroughly and leave it to drain for half an hour. The larger container should meanwhile be scrubbed clean if it needs it: a little permanganate of potash in the water will help to sterilize it. If a porous container is to be used, it should be soaked for a whole day first, otherwise it will take water away from the compost. Put ^ inch of compost in.

To remove the plant, place your hand over the top of the pot with the stem between your fingers. Turn the pot upside down, and the plant should come out into the palm of your hand, together with the ball of soil round its roots. A shake or a gentle tap on the edge of the table may be needed to free it.

Put the plant into the larger container: be sure the top of its soil ball is ^ inch below the rim of the pot, to allow space for watering. Fill up with compost to this level. Holding the plant steady, tap the pot on the table till the compost settles down (then add more, if necessary). Lightly press it down. Don’t tamper with the soil ball, nor press the compost down hard, as this might injure the roots, and be sure that the compost is not covering much of the stem.

Some people put crocks in the bottom of the container before compost goes in. This is not essential but the drainage hole should be kept unclogged. Occasionally, push a pencil through it if necessary. If there is no drainage hole, then 1 inch of crocks, vermiculite or charcoal in the bottom of the container is necessary.

About compost

Different producers sell very different mixtures. To judge quality, look at the colour (it should be neither black nor too yellowy) and feel the texture (no large stones, worms, clods or weeds and not too sticky). If the bag is sealed, buy only a well-known brand. A good compost is, however, better than any soilless alternatives, for these tend to be very light and resistant to water once they have dried out. John Innes Compost No. 2 is the one most often used for potting plants, containing enough nutrients for many weeks before fertilizer needs to be added. John Innes No. 3 is the richest in nutrients and no fertilizer need be added for the first season, but it should only be used for mature perennial plants: it is too strong for young plants.


You can use pots or boxes of any material that is rot-proof: metal (except zinc or untinned copper), china, glass, plastic, or even wood or wicker if lined with plastic or foil. The shape should relate to the shape of the plant: tall plants are apt to have long roots and need deep containers, spreading ones have spreading roots and need wide containers. Pot-bellied bowls present problems when repotting time comes, and therefore are best avoided. It is difficult to get the plant roots out through the mouth of such a bowl without damaging them. It is more satisfactory to put several pots in one tray or trough rather than to dot them about separately. A grouping looks better, and makes for healthier plants. An inch of pebbles, vermiculite or peat and 1 inch of water in the bottom of the tray gives a humid but not soggy environment for the plants, and makes watering them much easier.

In a really deep trough, pots can be sunk in damp peat or vermiculite. Small ones can be raised to the rim of the trough by perching them on other empty pots stood upside down. Do not cover the bases of the stems, and be sure the larger pots are kept off the floor of the trough by a layer of pebbles or vermiculite. If the pots are clay and therefore porous, watering the peat or vermiculite will suffice; otherwise, water directly into each plastic pot. The latter method is better if you want to mix plants with different watering needs, whatever sort of pot.


Plants that get straggly will need to be trimmed, preferably after the flowering period, and tall ones may need to be lightly wired to a stick for support. Removing dead flowers and leaves is not only neat but it encourages fresh ones to grow. At the same time you can inspect for pests or disease and wipe dust off the leaves with a damp tissue.


If you particularly want plants at some distance from a window, either pair them with others standing near the light and alternate their positions, or install artificial light about 2 feet above them. A warm-toned fluorescent tube is ideal because it does not overheat the plants as filament bulbs can do. It should be switched on for several hours a day, particularly in winter. Conversely, if your plants must stand in a very sunny window, put up a blind or awning outside to protect them during summer.

Using a trolley as a plant stand is a good idea, for it can be moved when conditions get too hot or cold for the plants.


Liquid fertilizers are the easiest type to use correctly. Overdosing can kill a plant. Add to the water, following the maker’s instructions about quantity. Plants should be fed only during their growing and flowering period and not when they are obviously resting. When plants begin to die despite excellent care, it may be that residues of fertilizer (and of lime from hard water) are upsetting them, and if is time to re-pot in new compost.

White Flies are tiny mothlike creatures who suck the sap of plants. The plant growth is weakened and the leaves look mottled and covered with a sticky film. Cure by spraying with insecticide.

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