Care of Cuttings

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Care of Cuttings - Tomato HP Logo

Tools and Cleanliness

Many species of plant can be propagated from pieces cut from the stem of the plant with a sharp knife.  Knives and other cutting tools used for propagation should always be sterilized by dipping in methylated spirit or a diluted bleach and water solution.

Where to Cut

The best place to cut is just below a stem joint, or where a leaf or bud joins the stem, taking care to remove cuttings so as to not spoil the plant's shape.  It is usually best to try to arrange for the cutting to have at least one more stem joint higher up.  Most cuttings work well if taken as pieces with two to three pairs of leaves.  Any leaves should be removed from the bottom stem joint, but it is counter-productive to rub off any buds in leaf nodes.  Ensure you leave at least 2 pairs of leaves!  The cutting should be potted up in a heat-sterilized gritty potting medium, pure sharp sand, fine grit or vermiculite.  In some cases, cuttings can be potted up immediately after cutting, but for succulents, allow the cut end to dry for a day or two to let the damaged tissues seal, reducing the chance of fungal attack.  It helps to dip the cut end in some hormone rooting powder or liquid, particularly if the mixture also contains a fungicide.

Take wood from vigorous, healthy branches, preferably from the upper part of the plant.  Avoid weak, spindly growth.  Make the cuttings four to six inches long.  Make a slanting smooth cut with a sharp knife.  Cut directly below a node to help callus the cut surface and reduce the entrance of disease organisms.  Remove the leaves from the lower half to one-third of the cutting.  Insert the cuttings one to two inches deep into the rooting medium.  For cuttings with long internodes, be sure to insert one or two nodes into the rooting medium.

Cuttings will root faster and form a better root system when treated with a commercial rooting hormone. Dust the base of the cutting with the rooting compound before it is inserted into the medium. Rooting compounds are available in powder or liquid form in small, inexpensive packages from most garden supply stores.

When and What to Cut

Cuttings are best taken at the beginning of the growing season, usually in the Spring except for those plants that grow during the Autumn or Winter.  The cuttings should be kept in a well ventilated bright place at about 20oC/65-70F, but not exposed to direct sunlight which places the cuttings under too much stress.  Remember it is important to retain humidity while your cuttings are rooting.

Cuttin6.gif (360x147 -- 10440 bytes)There are many types of stem cuttings.  One shoot can be cut into a number of sections for rooting.

Softwood cuttings are taken during the summer months when plants are still growing.  They are called softwood because new growth is still flexible and non-woody.  Take softwood cuttings from the new growth.  Cuttings become more difficult to root as the wood becomes older.  However, very tender growth is not sufficiently hardened to withstand removal from the mother plant.  Cuttings are sufficiently mature on many shrubs when the stem snaps easily instead of bending under pressure.

The best months to take softwood cuttings are June, July, August and September.  It is not advisable to take softwood cuttings in the spring when the new growth is tender and succulent.  New flushes of growth must mature beyond this succulent stage.  Most narrow leaf evergreens, such as the junipers, root best when cuttings are taken after the first frost of fall.

Tip or shoot cuttings are similar to soft wood cuttings taken from herbaceous plants such as tropical or house plants.  These plants do not usually develop woody stems.

Green wood cuttings are from the soft tip or stem after the spring growth has slowed down.  The stem is somewhat harder and woody than the soft wood cutting, but not yet brown and woody-looking.

Semi-ripe cuttings are taken during the late summer after the annual growth has slowed down.  The stem is harder than soft wood or green wood cuttings - it's starting to look woody.

Hardwood cuttings are taken during the fall or winter. These are dormant woody sections of young stems.  (See Scions below.)  These are very hard and look like wood - often with an outer bark.

Rooting Media

Soilless Mix

The rooting medium must support and hold the cutting in place.  The medium must provide aeration and high humidity at the base of the cutting.  A sterile medium helps the cutting avoid disease infections.  A good all-purpose rooting medium is a mixture of perlite and peat moss.  Perlite is a sterile artificial ingredient that provides good aeration and peat moss is a natural organic component.  Course fibrous peat moss is the most desirable.  Peat moss and perlite are available at garden centers.

Ground pinebark is occasionally used as a propagation medium.  Pinebark milled with 20 percent fines (particles less than 1/40-inch in diameter) is most effective.  Pine bark can be combined with sand, perlite or peat moss.  Vermiculite is a popular propagating medium. It is a light-weight expanded mica product that absorbs several times its weight in water.  The coarse particle size ensures good aeration if it is not packed firmly.  Many plants root easily and very profusely in vermiculite.

Fill beds, flats or individual pots with the prepared rooting medium.  Beds and flats hold the greatest number of cuttings in the least amount of space when working with outdoor plants.  However, the rooted cuttings must be uprooted and transplanted.

Cuttings in individual pots require more space but can be moved or transplanted without disturbing the root system, and are required for houseplants.

Do not use soil as a propagating medium, because it usually contains a variety of disease organisms.  Soil drains poorly when used in pots and may be infected with nematodes.  Use all materials only once to reduce the possibility of disease infection.

cuttin1.jpg (80x94 -- 1554 bytes)Rooting Plants in Water:

Some plants root so readily from stem or tip cuttings they can be started in plain tap water. The water must be kept clean and well aerated for best results. A bright location out of direct sunlight is best.  After roots are formed plants should be transferred to individual pots, or grouped together in a hanging basket.  

Inserting the Cutting

Place the cutting one to two inches deep in the medium, with one to three nodes below the medium surface.  Firm the medium around the base of the cuttings to hold the cuttings firm and eliminate any air pockets.  Then water thoroughly to further settle the medium.  Do not compress vermiculite particles.

Care of Plant Cuttings While Rooting

Control the temperature

Temperature influences the speed at which cuttings root.  Higher soil temperature produces faster effect.  If possible keep the soil and air temperature between 65-70F.  Temperatures above 70F accelerate fungus and bacterial growth above.  High temperature of the ambient air stimulates the growth of shoots at the expense of roots.  Keep the air temperature lower than or equal to the soil temperature.  You can raise the soil temperature by putting the cuttings on a gently heated surface.  The top of the refrigerator is a famous spot, and also placing on top of a fluorescent light fixture or over heating coils specially made for rooting/seed starting.

Control the light

After planting in media the cuttings need light and water.  For cuttings with leaves light is required for photo-synthesis to develop natural foods in the form of carbohydrates.  Provide shade on bright, hot days to avoid scalding the cuttings if you are rooting outdoors.  Indoors, keep the under fluorescent lights that are on for 16 hours a day.  Cuttings without leaves do not require light for rooting; they depend upon stored carbohydrates.

Control the humidity

Tunnel ... a simple housing to control the environmentTo prevent the cuttings from dehydrating through the leaves and stems the cuttings are often propagated under mist systems in controlled greenhouses or tunnels, in cutting trays covered with plastic.

You can achieve the same effect by covering individual cuttings, pot and all, with plastic supported with bent coat-hanger wire or chopsticks, or by topping the potted cutting with a plastic pop bottle with the top cut off.  Even clear plastic cake covers or an old aquarium will work.  All you need is something that will let light through, and hold the humidity in. 

Control hardening off

After roots form, harden off slowly by reducing the temperature and humidity.  If using plastic coverings, gradually raise the edges over a period of a week or so.  Frequently observe the growing environment and take action to deal with any fungus or insect infestations. You will need to mist the newly rooted cuttings if you are keeping them in a winter heated house.  Before planting outside, harden off in the usual way by taking the plants out during the warm days and bringing the in or covering them on cool nights for about two weeks before planting them in their permanent growing locations.

Care of Cuttings

Uneven moisture distribution during rooting is the most common cause of cutting death.  Never allow the propagating medium to dry out, but do not over-water, keeping it "water-logged."  Good aeration is needed.  Remember, high humidity around the leaves is necessary to prevent them from drying out and dying.

If you use the miniature greenhouse propagating structure described under "Constructing a Miniature Greenhouse" below, you need to water the cuttings only about once a week.  Open structures require more frequent attention.  Do not add any fertilizer to the medium until the cuttings have rooted.

Care of Rooted Cuttings

After the cuttings have produced a root system one to three inches long, transplant them from the bed or flat into a potting mixture.  The time required to form an adequate root system depends upon the kind of plant and type of cutting.  Most shrubs will root within three to six weeks.  Leaving young plants in the rooting medium after rooting with little additional care will stunt them.  If rooted plants cannot be stepped up (potted or moved to a new bed) soon after rooting, apply a water soluble fertilizer at half the recommended rate.  Water with this fertilizer solution every other week.

For your outdoor plants, you should not transplant recently rooted cuttings to a permanent location in the landscape.  Instead, transplant to individual pots or in a bed.  Grow these transplants to a larger size to improve their chances of survival in the landscape.  Give special care to the young plants for one or two growing seasons.  Carefully prepare soil beds with the addition of organic amendments and nutrients.  Water and fertilize the plants carefully the first year to increase the top and root system.

Container potting mixes are available from many commercial sources.  Commercial greenhouse and nursery mixes provide excellent drainage and aeration and are usually pest free.  Commercial mixes are recommended rather than mixes using native soils.  Native soil mixes are formulated by mixing one part peat moss or pine bark, one part sand, and one part topsoil.  For sandy soils, one part peat moss and two parts sandy soil is a good combination.

Nursery bed preparations consist of thoroughly pulverizing the soil and working in three to four inches of ground pine bark or leaf compost.  Plant cuttings 12 to 18 inches apart and only as deep as they were in the propagating bed.  Water thoroughly, then apply a mulch such as pine straw or pine-bark.  This mulch helps the soil retain moisture. Water when the soil surface begins to dry.

Rooted cuttings are very susceptible to cold injury.  Therefore, grow them in a cold frame for the first season.  Cuttings rooted in the early summer are transplanted to an open cold-frame.  In the fall, cover this cold frame with sash or plastic sheeting.  Cuttings rooted in late summer or fall can be transplanted immediately from the propagating medium to a closed cold frame.  Propagation flats can be placed directly inside the cold frame.  Cuttings in flats are then transplanted in the spring.  The cold frame need not be elaborate.  The sides can be constructed of cement blocks or scrap lumber. The cover can be polyethylene plastic over a wooden frame.

Shade the nursery bed during the first season (including winter), particularly if the bed is in full sun.  Shade can be provided with snow fencing, lath, reed matting, or burlap attached to a wooden frame.  For houseplants, even sun-loving ones should not be put in direct sun immediately, but should be gradually moved closer to the sunny window over a period of 2-3 weeks.

Most gardeners over-fertilize young plants, injuring the root systems.  Apply two cups of a balanced fertilizer, such as a 6-12-12, per 100 square feet (10 feet x 10 feet) in March and May and again in July.  Water the fertilizer in after each application.  Do not allow beds to become dry after fertilizing.

For houseplants, water with a fertilizer solution at 1/2 the recommended strength.

A Special Word about Rooting Roses

myfairyroses.jpg (200x133 -- 7037 bytes)Most varieties of roses can be started from cuttings, but some root more readily than others.  Strong-growing pillar, climber, polyantha and hybrid perpetuals are often increased by cuttings.  The resulting plants are usually satisfactory.  Hybrid tea, floribunda, grandiflora and similar classes of ever-blooming roses can be started from cuttings.  However, they develop more slowly from cuttings than when propagated by budding onto more robust root stock.  Stalwart "The Fairy" rose shown, is a real trooper that is very easy to root from cuttings.

For successful propagation, take cuttings from the new growth in late spring or summer after the flowers have shed.  Cut this new growth into 6 to 8 inch segments with several cuttings from each stem.  Remove all leaves from the lower third of each cutting.  Follow the procedure outlined for general shrubs for placing cuttings in the miniature greenhouse structure.

Another way to propagate roses is to use hardwood cuttings.  Take hardwood cuttings in autumn, remove all leaves, and cut into 8 to 10 inch lengths.  Plant the cuttings in a well-protected, sunny place with only the top bud above ground.  When freezing weather approaches, mulch the cuttings with several inches of pine straw to keep them from freezing.  Rooted cuttings should begin growth the following spring.

Constructing a Miniature Greenhouse

Success in rooting cuttings depends on (1) uniform moisture in the rooting medium; (2) high humidity in the air surrounding the cuttings, and (3) maintenance of a warm temperature around the base of the cuttings.  One of the simplest ways to provide the proper conditions for rooting cuttings is to construct a "miniature greenhouse."  The structure provides high humidity in the air around the cuttings, and eliminates the constant otherwise necessary to provide proper moisture in the medium.

The Propagation Box holds the medium, cuttings and cover.  The box should be small enough to be moved when filled with media.  A box 16 inches by 21 inches is suggested.  A sawed-off apple crate can be used, with several cross supports nailed onto the bottom for extra support.  Allow ample drainage from the bottom regardless of the kind of propagating box used.

A box 16 inches by 21 inches will need four or five wire supports, each about 40 inches long.  The wire should be about coat-hanger size.  Small stapling nails are ideal for fastening the wire to the sides of the box.  Use two nails to firmly fasten each end of the wire to the box.

Use a Plastic Cover made of a sheet of poly-ethylene plastic 39 inches by 51 inches.  Attach the plastic to one side of the box, then pull the plastic down snugly over the wires and attach it at the four corners with clothespins.  After the cuttings have rooted, open the plastic at both ends for one or two weeks to reduce the humidity and harden off the young plants.

Use a Rooting Medium to fill the box and firm it to within one-half inch of the top.  Equal amounts of peat moss and perlite make a dependable medium.

The Best Location for a miniature greenhouse is in the shade, because high temperatures will injure the cuttings.  A desirable location is under a shade tree that allows very little direct sunlight penetration or in a spot that gets direct sunlight only in the early morning or late afternoon.

Watering is necessary to keep the medium moist and to provide high humidity.  Much less irrigation is required for cuttings rooted under the plastic cover than for cuttings rooted in the open.  However, if the medium under the plastic cover dries out, the cuttings will die just as if they were outside.  The plastic enclosure helps to recycle moisture evaporating from the medium.

The Propagating Structure Can Be Used All Year.  Most cuttings of ornamental plants will root easiest if they are taken in June, July and August.  However, cuttings of many kinds of plants, including camellias, can be placed in the structure in the fall and a good root system will be produced by the following spring.

Good results can be obtained by rooting softwood rose cuttings in the miniature greenhouse beginning in May and continuing through summer.

See Plants to Propagate for a lists and descriptions for the best propagation methods for popular plants.

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