Stem and root cuttings FAQs

How do I go about selecting the right plant material for cuttings?

Cuttings should always be taken from clean healthy plants which have strong vigorous growth. The type of cuttings you can take will generally depend on what facilities you have to root them.

Softwood cuttings are taken in the spring and root most readily if given heat from below. Semi-ripe cuttings (those prepared from the current year’s shoots) are a little more tough, being woody at the base and soft at the top, and they will usually root well in a cold frame. Hardwood cuttings are taken in the autumn and winter months and will root slowly outdoors in the open ground.

Why are most cuttings taken below a leaf joint?

The area of stem around the leaf joint (node) is much harder and more resistant to rot, so it is usually suggested as the site for taking very soft cuttings. It is also the point at which root-inducing chemicals are most effective.

Is it possible to take cuttings of Magnolia grandiflora?

The magnolias are not the easiest trees and shrubs to propagate, but the simplest way is to take cuttings of semi-ripe wood in the summer. Such cuttings should be about 75-100 mm (3-4 in) long, preferably with a ‘heel’ of old wood. While it is best to root these in a heated frame, they will probably root outdoors if you give them a sheltered place and a soil which is both well-drained and yet not likely to dry out.

Can I store cuttings for any length of time before inserting them?

Yes, but be sure to collect only strong, healthy cuttings from pest-and disease-free plants. Place the cuttings immediately into a labelled polythene bag. Keep the bag in a cool place such as the salad drawer of the fridge. Here the cuttings will remain fresh for a few days.

Why is it necessary to wound cuttings to encourage rooting? I always though this treatment would attract disease.

Wounding the base of woody cuttings is beneficial especially with those which are difficult to root, such as rhododendrons. It seems to stimulate root formation, and the cut area allows the roots to emerge from the stem more readily. For the greatest benefit the cuttings should be treated with a hormone rooting compound after wounding.

Last year I got very few cuttings from my pelargoniums, which were bedded cut in the garden. How can I encourage more growth so that I can produce more plants next year?

Take your first cutting in the summer from non-flowering shoots or from those which have just flowered. This will encourage the plants to bush out and produce a second flush of cuttings at the end of the season. Lift the plants before the first frost and pot on any which are healthy and not too woody. Bring these into the greenhouse to gently force more shoots for cuttings in spring. The plants produced from cuttings in the summer will be quite large by March and can be robbed of more cuttings which will produce small rooted plants for bedding out in June.

I have a large rubber plant which is starting to lose its lower leaves. Is it possible to propagate it to get several plants or is the only way to air layer it for one?

To get several plants, cut the softer part of the stem (avoiding the extreme tip) into 25 mm (1 in) pieces each with a leaf attached. Roll each leaf into a tube and secure it with a rubber band. Dip the cut stem base in a hormone rooting powder and insert your cuttings individually in small pots filled with a sandy compost. Support each cutting with a cane through the centre of the leaf roll to keep it upright. Place all the cuttings in a warm, humid environment until they are well rooted. At a soil temperature of 21-24°C (70-75°F) rooting will take four to six weeks.

I have read that some cuttings should have a ‘heel’ of bark at the base. What are the advantages of this?

Semi-ripe or half-ripe cuttings are often taken with a ‘heel’ of older wood. Although older wood is slow to produce roots, it dries out more slowly than younger shoots and will not rot so easily. You can also root these tougher cuttings in a closed cold frame rather than in a heated propagator.

I want to propagate a large berberis in my garden so that eventually I can make a people-proof hedge around my house. What is the most reliable method to propagate it?

You can take half-ripe (firm but bendy) cuttings at the end of the summer from side-shoots of current year’s wood. Cut the shoots 150 mm (6 in) long, each with a plug of hardwood at the base, so that it resembles a mallet, and trim off the soft tip. Insert the cuttings around the edges of pots of sandy compost and root them in a closed cold frame.

The following spring, line out the rooted cuttings in nursery rows outdoors. Grow them on for a couple of years before transplanting them to their permanent positions.

Some conifer cuttings I took during the summer have produced a hard, nobbly base but no roots. What has caused this, and will it affect rooting?

This is called callus and usually develops around a wound when favourable conditions for rooting are provided. It appears to be essential in the process of forming roots. The acidity of the soil can affect the production of callus: if there is too much lime, the callus may be hard and prevent roots from breaking through. I wonder if you have been checking for root-growth too often? Each time you lift the cutting, another tiny wound is made which has to callus over before rooting occurs. I suggest you remove the hard callus with a sharp knife and start afresh.

I would like to grow houseplants by the hydroculture method. Is this possible and can I take cuttings from soil-grown plants and insert them immediately in water?

Yes—hundreds of different kinds of houseplants have responded well to hydroculture—even cacti. Vegetables, especially tomatoes and cucumber, can also be grown by this method. Cuttings are taken in the normal way. Stand them in water (supported by an ‘inert medium’ such as clay granules), and root them in a warm, humid environment.

Plants tend to establish quicker by this method; oxygen reaches the roots easily, and there is no competition from pests or toxic substances sometimes present in compost. The main advantage, however, is that it is virtually impossible to kill the plants by over-watering; and since they will thrive for a month or longer without more water needing to be added, they present no worries if you are going away on holiday. Special soluble fertilisers are available for adding when you top up the water.

What are pipings? I have read that carnations and pinks are propagated this way, and would like to try the method.

Pipings are softwood cuttings taken from the very tip of a plant. They are not trimmed with a knife but simply pulled off with a finger and thumb. Each cutting should have two or three leaves and be about 75-100 mm (3-4 in) long. Dip the base of each cutting in a hormone rooting powder, then insert them 25 mm (1 in) apart around the edge of a pot of sandy compost.

Rooting will take 6-8 weeks at a temperature of 16-18°C (61-64T). Carnations and pinks do respond particularly well to this method.

I am worried that a bamboo plant in my garden might die as it has not looked at all well lately: its leaves turn yellow and then fall, and new growth appears to be stunted. Can I propagate the few remaining canes?

You could try taking cuttings if there are any two-year-old canes left; these are found on the outer edge of the plant, and will still be fairly flexible. Cut them into sections 300 mm (12 in) long and insert them in a deep pot of compost. Root them in a warm greenhouse.

What is the difference between softwood and greenwood cuttings? I have read that chrysanthemums are propagated from greenwood.

The difference between softwood and greenwood cuttings is slight. Softwoods are taken from the first flush of growth in spring. Greenwoods are taken slightly later, when the wood at the base of the cutting is a little firmer, so that they will not root quite so quickly; they should be used to propagate only plants such as pelargoniums and delphiniums that root readily.

How do I take rhododendron cuttings? I have several large-flowered hybrids in my new but untidy garden. I would like eventually to replace them all with young plants.

Cuttings can be taken from mid-July to August. Make them 100 mm (4 in) long, remove the lower leaves, and pinch out the soft tip; cut the large remaining leaves in half to reduce their surface area. Make a wound 25 mm (1 in) at the base and dip the cuttings in a hormone rooting powder before inserting them in trays of lime-free compost. Root them in a heated propagator with a bottom heat of 21°C (70°F).

When they are rooted and new shoots are seen to be growing, pot the cuttings into 75 mm (3 in) pots of peaty compost. Grow them on in a frost-free greenhouse, and then in spring harden them off in a closed cold-frame. Pot them on and stand them in a cool, shady part of the garden for the summer. Plant them in their permanent positions at any time between September and April.

Is it necessary to have a greenhouse to propagate junipers from cuttings?

No, you can root these and any of the hardy shrubs in a closed cold-frame—but it will take much longer than if they were in a heated propagator. Cuttings are taken in the summer, before the new growth has had time to toughen. Make the cuttings 50-100 mm (2-4 in) long and dip their lower ends in hormone rooting powder. They may take anything from one to six months to root.

I would like to take some conifer cuttings so that I can increase the length of my existing hedge. What is the best time to do this, and how should I take the cuttings?

Take the cuttings between July and September. Select vigorous shoots with a strong growing point, and make the cuttings 100-150 mm (4-6 in) long with a heel of older wood. Apply a hormone rooting powder to the base of the cuttings and root them in trays of free-draining compost in a heated propagator or an unheated frame. When they are rooted, which may take six months, pot them individually into 75 mm (3 in) pots. The following autumn, if the plants are full of roots, transplant them to their final positions.

When is the best time to take cuttings from evergreen plants, and how do I go about it?

Evergreen cuttings are usually taken from ripe wood in early summer and autumn and rooted in a cold frame. They can be anything from 50 to 150 mm (2-6 in) long, depending on the size of the plant, and preferably with a heel of older wood. Strip off the lower leaves, and if there is no heel make a wound about 13 mm I}/z in) long at the base of the cuttings. Apply a hormone rooting powder and insert the cuttings to half their depth in soil, inside a cold frame, that has been forked over, manured, and fertilised a week or two beforehand. Water them well and close the frame completely. Inspect them regularly, and harden them off during the summer to prepare them for planting out the following autumn.

I have tried several times to grow forsythias from hardwood cuttings without success. I usually take cuttings 250-350 mm (10-14 in) long during the summer, and I have tried rooting them both in a frame and in the open ground. The last batch dried up. What am I doing wrong?

It is certainly possible to propagate forsythias from hardwood cuttings in October. One problem, however, is that they have a soft centre, which means they will rot or dry out quite easily. An easy way to overcome this is to seal the ends of the cutting with melted candle wax. Drying out will also be discouraged if you make the cuttings slightly shorter than normal—about 150-200 mm (6-8 in) long—and insert them so that only 25 mm (1 in) is exposed above the ground.

I have been given a tall, spindly plant called dumb cane (Dieffenbachia). It has very few leaves remaining and these are turning yellow. Can I propagate it, or should I admit defeat and throw it out?

First I would suggest you cut the plant right back to encourage new shoots. The stems removed can then be used for cuttings. Cut the leafless stems into 50 mm (2 in) sections, each below a leaf joint at the base and above a leaf joint at the top. Place them upright in a pot of sandy compost. Keep them in a heated propagator until roots are formed and the latent buds develop into shoots. After the cuttings have rooted and are showing signs of growth, move them from the propagator to the greenhouse staging, maintaining a temperature of about 13°C (65°F).

Can heathers be propagated from cuttings? I have tried to root some on several occasions but have not had much success.

Take heel or nodal cuttings about 38 mm (1 ½ in) long in August from non-flowering shoots. Root them in a sandy compost in a closed cold frame. Harden-off the cuttings gradually once they have rooted. This will take about two months, after which they are lifted for potting or planted where they are to grow.

When is the best time to propagate plants from root cuttings?

During the dormant period of the plants concerned. This is usually the winter, but for some (the spring-flowering alpines particularly) the end of autumn is preferable.

I understand that my drumstick primula (Primula denticulata) can be propagated by root cuttings. Could you explain the method?

The root cuttings are taken in December and January from the strongest and healthiest roots. Cut them into 50-75 mm (2-3 in) pieces and lay them horizontally in boxes filled with compost. Cover them with some finely sieved soil and place them in a cold frame or greenhouse, where they will form shoots and new roots. Plant them out in spring.

Other plants that can be propagated successfully from root cuttings include anemones, Pulsatillas, mulleins (Verbascurn), poppy (Papauer), phlox, and eryngiums.

I have just removed an untidy specimen of stag’s-horn sumach from my garden. Now I notice lots of miniature sumachs growing around the same spot. A friend has suggested they are roots bursting into growth. Is he right?

Yes—stag’s-horn sumach (Rhus fyphina) can be propagated from root segments. The severed roots will have been induced into growth and to get rid of them you will need to fork out the young plants as they arise.

Which is the best way to insert root cuttings—vertically or horizontally?

It depends on the roots. Slender ones are best laid horizontally on the compost, as they are likely to break if pushed in vertically. Thicker roots lend themselves to vertical insertion, but you must be certain which is the top and which is the bottom of the cutting. The best way to ensure this is to make a flat cut at the top of the cutting (the end farther from the stem) and a sloping cut at the lower end.

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