When it comes to plant propagation, the mind immediately goes to planting seeds, watering the soil, and watching their gradual growth. But why limit yourself to only one cultivation method when there are so many options?
To cultivate a plant by cuttings, cut a section about six inches long from a healthy plant. Remove leaves on the lower half of the cutting, add rooting hormone, and place it in a soilless potting mix. Cover with plastic and keep moist, warm, and avoid direct sunlight until the plant has taken root.
Trying new cultivation methods is a fun and easy way to expand your gardening expertise with materials that you probably already have.
Why Propagate with Cuttings?
But, if you’re looking for more reasons than simply increasing your know-how: plants grown from cuttings grow much more quickly than seeds.
Propagating with cuttings requires a little more initial work to make sure the cutting takes root well, but overall you’ll end up spending less time on them before getting the fully grown plant than you would with seeds.
An intro to plant sex
This isn't as salacious as the it sounds, but it's important to understand when propagating plants.
So, sometimes using seeds just isn’t an option. For hybrid plants, the seeds produced don’t grow true to the parent plant, or they might be sterile altogether.
This brings up an important characteristic of this method of reproduction: when propagating a plant by cuttings, you end up with a plant that is genetically identical to the parent plant.
Plants can undergo both sexual reproduction and asexual reproduction. So, here's where we get to, well, the plants and the bees.
We’re not going to go too in-depth into anatomy or biology here. But, to take flowering plants as an example, sexual reproduction is done through pollination. That causes fertilization, and eventually the ovules grow to become seeds.
Then, the seeds are released and the next generation of plant babies are made.
Plant genetics & plant propagation
See, I told you it wasn't as salacious as it sounded. But still, knowledge is power.
And even a basic understanding of genetics helps with plant propagation--whether you're using cuttings, seeds, or any other method.
The key part is that the genetic makeup of the seeds is a combination of the male gametes and the female gametes. During the fertilization stage, they fuse together.
You get the idea: chromosomes cross over, a red flower and a white flower make either a red flower or a white one, depending on which trait is dominant.
Except, not always. You may remember, back from your early morning biology class, the name Gregor Mendel. His friends call him the “father or modern genetics.” He learned by studying pea plants.
One thing he discovered was codominance. Back to the red and white flower example: if codominance is in play, the resulting flower will be red and white spotted.
And, though Mendel did some great work, he didn’t get around to incomplete dominance. With this, a red and white flower would combine to make a pink flower.
So, a lot can change in a plant that’s formed from sexual reproduction, whereas one formed from asexual reproduction will be exactly identical to its parent.
In practice, that means that if you have a plant with favorable traits, propagating by cuttings is a great way to keep those traits alive and potentially move the plant itself somewhere else.
(Plus, if you love something, why not make another?)
And, of course, there’s the scientific benefit--in research, being able to control the varying factors of an experiment is needed for the best results, which might include a plant’s DNA.
Maybe the next Gregor Mendel is using this propagation method in the lab right now.
How to Propagate with Cuttings
Okay, maybe you’re bored with the science stuff. So let’s get to the gardening part.
Before getting started, make sure to have the parent plant to take the cutting from, the potting mix you’ll be using, pruning shears or a knife, some kind of covering to place over the container, and the rooting hormone.
Process: making the cuttings
To preface: there are different types of cuttings and different locations on the parent plant that can be used for propagation, but we’ll get into the specifics later. The general process is the same all around.
Before even taking the cutting from the parent plant, you’ll want to set up the potting mix that the cutting is going to start in. This should be soilless, made of vermiculite, perlite, sand, peat moss, etc. Have the medium moist--not too wet--before placing the cutting in it.
As for actually taking the cutting, make sure the pruning shears or knife you’re going to use is perfectly clean and very sharp. If the blade isn’t sharp enough, you’ll be left with a mangled end that won’t grow well.
Now, at an angle, take a cutting about four to six inches long from the parent plant.
If you decide to use a rooting hormone, this is the time to apply it. These come in liquid, gel, and powder forms. In any case, take out some from the container to prevent any contamination, and apply it to the base of your cutting.
Process: how to care for cuttings
The cuttings need to be treated gently for some time, so when you put them in the potting mix, first make holes for them, then fill in the space around it after placing them inside.
Next up, cover the pots in some capacity. You can do this by putting the entire pot in a plastic bag and sealing it (after making sure it has air inside), or a plastic storage box and lid, or, if you want to look very fancy, a bell jar.
From here on, you’ll be waiting for the roots to develop. Keep the pot somewhere warm, but out of direct sunlight, opting for a location where it will get about equal parts light and shade.
To develop the roots, the cuttings need relatively high humidity. Wrapping the pot in a plastic bag helps with this, but you want to make sure that there isn’t any mold growing, either.
Occasionally allow some fresh air into the container, then replenish the lost humidity by spraying some water onto the cutting and wrapping it back up.
Every couple of weeks, check for leaf/flower growth. Carefully pluck the flowers off, because they can take some of the energy that we want focused on root growth.
Some plants will only take about two weeks to develop roots, and others will take longer. Check about once a week. If you’re using a clear container, you should be able to see the roots develop. To test if it’s ready, gently pull on the plant--if it pulls right out, then replant it and give it some time. If you feel a fair amount of resistance, then it’s probably ready to be moved.
With a trowel, carefully transfer the plant to a new, larger container with fresh potting soil and perlite. Over time, acclimate the plants to the outdoors, and when the best season for the particular plant arrives, place them in your garden.
Rooting in water
There's a quick caveat to the all-inclusiveness of the process as stated above: you can also root some plants in water.
Not all types of plants can handle this environment. Being in that much water, woody plants (trees, bushes, some vines) tend to rot before growing roots. But there are plenty that will like the water just fine, including most houseplants and herbs.
Similarly, take a four to six inch cutting from the parent plant. The part where a leaf attaches to the stem is called the node, and you want to cut a little below that point.
Again, remove leaves or flowers near the bottom of the cutting. When you put the cutting in the container, the leaves that are left should stay above the water, but the node should be underneath.
Finally, add some water to the container you’re going to use (it can be a regular cup, a mason jar, a small bucket, whatever you need).
Make sure the water is room temperature--remember, the cuttings are delicate, so you don’t want it to experience any environmental shocks. It definitely doesn’t need a cold shower. Regular, old tap water should work nicely.
One benefit to this method is that you don’t need to add any rooting hormone. In fact, adding a rooting hormone might even lead to less root growth than without it.
You still want to provide some covering to the container, but it’s also not as much of a problem here because you can only lose so much humidity from something full of water.
However, you will need to change out the water once or twice a week. After the first couple weeks, start to check on the development of the root system. Whenever the roots are at least two inches long (though you could wait until they’re longer), the cutting is ready to be moved to a soil medium.
Factors Affecting Root Growth
Health of parent plant
The entire growth and development of the cutting relies on the health of the parent plant at the time the cutting is taken. If the parent plant is looking lethargic, wilting, or has pests or any plant disease, make sure to take care of that first. Only take cuttings from healthy plants.
Age of the parent plant
The plant that you take cuttings from should, of course, be fully grown. Preference is given to plants that are younger rather than older, though. The younger plants are usually stronger, and if the cutting you take is frail, then the clone plant might never grow to be as big and strong as you’d like.
As you may have noticed, the balance between getting enough moisture and getting too much moisture is delicate at the beginning and might seem difficult to tread. This is part of the reason why it’s important to use a soilless potting mix.
Regular soil holds onto moisture more than the potting mix you should use to develop the roots on cuttings. Plus, soil can contain pathogens and bad bacteria that the cutting just isn’t ready to fight off yet.
Size of the cutting
In general, the size of the cutting should be between four and six inches. This varies slightly, depending on what type of cutting you’re taking and where on the plant it is, but four to six is a good rule of thumb.
If the cutting is too small, it will take longer to grow roots. If it’s too big, it might grow to be awkward and gangly.
Time of year the cutting is taken
As with everything related to gardening, the time of year matters. However, this differs depending on the type, such as herbaceous, hardwood, semi-hardwood, or softwood. We’ll talk more about this later.
Time of the day the cutting is taken
Yes, even the time of day is important here. Take the cuttings from your parent plant early in the morning. When taking plant cuttings, you want to pick the time of day when the plant’s natural rooting hormone is highest in the ends of the plant, which is in the morning.
Two large categories of plants are herbaceous and woody. The time of year that you take cuttings from a parent plant, as well as where on the plant you take the cutting from, depend on whether the parent plant is herbaceous or woody.
The first one we’ll talk about here is herbaceous. Herbaceous plants don’t have hard, woody stems, and one of their defining features is that their above-ground growth dies down during the fall.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they completely die out. Herbaceous plants can be biennials, perennials, or annuals, which partially depends on the zone that it’s grown in. Some plants are perennials in one zone, but might be annuals in a location where the frost is more extreme.
A biennial lasts two years. During the first year, the biennial’s growth dies down during the winter, but the underground portion stays alive. Then, the plant springs back for one more growing season.
Some common herbaceous biennials include onions, carrots, and lettuce.
Like biennials, the underground portion of perennials don’t die during the winter, allowing them to regrow the above-ground portion in the spring. A short-lived one might survive only three years, but perennials can repeat this process for up to fifteen years.
Common herbaceous perennials are daisies, mint, and sage.
Lastly, the annuals. After flowering, these little guys don’t survive the winter. If you want more of these flashy flowers in the spring, you’ll have to replant them. Popular herbaceous annuals include begonias, marigolds, and geraniums.
We know what you’re thinking: softwood trees have soft wood and hardwood trees have, well, harder wood. Unfortunately, it’s not always true, so we have to look at some of the other ways that these plant types are distinguishable.
One way is that softwood plants come from gymnosperm--which are non-flowering. They are conifers, which means that they are also needle-bearing. They don’t lose their needles when winter comes, making most softwood plants evergreens.
Pine trees, cypress trees, and cedars are all softwoods.
In direct contrast to softwoods, hardwoods come from angiosperm--which are flowering. Hardwoods are deciduous trees. There are some species of broad-leafed evergreens which fall under the hardwood category, but the majority of hardwoods are deciduous.
In the fall, these trees are the ones changing color and then going bare in the winter. Then, in the spring, they come back with new leaves.
Some of the most common hardwoods include oak trees, maple trees, and elms.
There are three locations that you can take cuttings from on the parent plant: the stem, leaves, or roots. Choosing where best to take stem cuttings depends on the plant type.
Keep in mind that you should take the cuttings from the current or past season’s growth. You can almost always take stem cuttings and have successful reproduction, but it’s best to take cuttings when the parent plant is not in full bloom.
Herbaceous stem cuttings
Because herbaceous plants have a fleshy green stem instead of a hard, woody one, propagating herbaceous plants with stem cuttings is pretty easy. Taking stem cuttings is great for houseplants and lots of outdoor garden plants, too.
When taking stem cuttings from an herbaceous plant, simply follow the general process. There’s not really anything extra that needs to be done. For plants that have a high tolerance for water intake, you can decide whether or not you’d like to root them in water.
Take a four to six inch piece of stem from the parent plant, preferably from the upper part of the stem. If there are any flowers on the cutting, remove all of them; if there are leaves, remove them from the bottom half.
Herbaceous stem cuttings tend to root well, so you probably won’t have much trouble getting them to grow. Plus, they also tend to root fairly quickly, so keep and eye out for the growth!
Woody stem cuttings
There are three different types of stem cuttings that you can take from woody plants, and they depend on the maturity of the plant.
And don’t get too confused here--the terms “hardwood” and “softwood” refer to types of plant, as discussed earlier, and as types of cutting based on the plant’s maturity.
For hardwood cuttings, you should take stem cuttings from woody plants between late fall and early spring--when the plant is dormant. As you can probably guess, this is the stage when the wood is very firm and can’t really bend.
This method/maturity level works for deciduous shrubs and can be used for many evergreens.
Again, four to six inches long works, but for this type, you can actually take much longer cuttings as well. Make sure it has a thickness of about half an inch.
The cutting should be taken from just below the terminal bud--near the tip of the stem. Remember to cut at an angle. Then, with a straight, flat cut, remove the tip of the cutting, just above the bud.
Add rooting hormone and continue the process normally. You might be tempted to put these cuttings directly into the garden when they’ve grown roots, but fight the urge. Put them into a larger container, start to acclimate them to the outdoors, and then take them outside for good when the next growing season begins.
Some plants that are good for propagating at the hardwood stage are fig trees and rose bushes.
Semi-hardwood cuttings are taken during the growing season, before the wood is fully matured. The leaves, on the other hand, should be fully grown by this point. This type of cutting is taken between July and September.
Follow the same procedure. These cuttings can be a little bit larger than six inches, and the leaves on the lower half need to be removed. Make sure there is still a fair amount of leaf tissue on the whole cutting, though.
Taking semi-hardwood stem cuttings works well for broadleaf evergreen shrubs. Some softwood evergreens--pines, cedars--can also be propagated by this method, though you should wait until later in the year to take these cuttings; late fall to early winter.
And, last but not least, softwood stem cuttings. Softwood cuttings are taken when the woody plants are young, and the wood is just beginning to harden. This stage isn’t as long as the others, and typically only lasts between May and July.
You can test it by bending the shoots--if they are very bendy, or snap easily, they’re ready. The leaves can also be examined--some of them can be fully grown, but there should still be some new, small leaves as well.
Because these cuttings are, you know, softer, they’re also very delicate. We’ve already talked about how all cuttings need to be treated with care in the beginning, and this is especially true for softwood cuttings, being that they’re taken at a frail stage.
These cuttings can actually be a little bit smaller than the go-to length: two to six inch cuttings should do the trick as long as it also has a few nodes present.
And, though you might need to be extra careful with these cuttings at the beginning, they tend to root much quicker than woody plants at the other stages. Lavender and fuchsia are good shrubs to take softwood cuttings from.
Throughout much of the explanation in how to take cuttings, there was, more or less, an assumption that it was stem cuttings. When you take root cuttings, there are a few changes you have to make.
Herbaceous root cuttings
As discussed, herbaceous plants can be annuals, biennials, or perennials. When propagating herbaceous plants with root cuttings, you should really only do so with perennials.
Root cuttings are to be taken when the parent plant is dormant, because at that time, all the energy (and by energy, we literally mean carbohydrates) is directed to the root system, instead of flowers and the stem. Make a plan to take these cuttings in late fall or early spring, at the latest.
To take root cuttings, you first have to dig up the roots of the parent plant and cut it into sections to then be replanted. Don’t cut too much of the root system in an herbaceous plant, you only need a one- or two-inch section.
Compared to woody plants, herbaceous ones are relatively small. And if you have very small roots, then this process becomes simpler: just scatter the roots in potting mix and gently press them into the medium.
Next up, cover and maintain the right conditions for growth as you would with other cuttings. With perennials, the shoots should grow pretty quickly.
If you want them to stay outside, gradually adjust them to outdoor life before planting them in the garden.
Woody root cuttings
On the other hand, woody plants are bigger, with bigger root systems, too. So, there are a few more things to deal with here.
Since you probably don’t have shrubs growing inside your house (to each his own), the first thing you’ll need to do is dig around the base of the parent plant to uncover the root system--make sure it’s the correct root system, if you’ve got a few things growing near each other.
Then, it’s time to take cuttings. The root systems of woody plants can be very large. You don’t want to take cuttings the size of your thigh. They should have a thickness like that of a pencil, and can be anywhere from two to six inches long.
As with the stem cuttings, the top cut should be flat and the bottom cut should be at an angle. This is especially important here, because the polarity of the cuttings--their orientation when you plant them--affects their development. They’ll only grow if they’re placed in the medium the correct way.
The upper cut (not a punch, but the actual incision) should be a little below the crown of the parent plant, and the lower one, cut at an angle, depends on how long you want the cutting to be.
This is its own balance. Generally, a larger root cutting means faster growth, but you also don’t want it to be too big. Control your hubris.
Woody root cuttings: storage, rooting, & planting
Next up is another intermediate step: storage. Bundle the cuttings together with the ends on the same side (flat cut all on one side, angled cut on the other end). For three weeks, keep the bundled cuttings in a moist medium, such as sand or peat moss, at 40°F.
Now we’re back on track with the normal procedure. Place the cuttings in a rooting medium, a soilless potting mix, as you’d use for stem cuttings. Here’s where you need to be careful: make sure the cuttings are upright, with the flat cut at the top.
Also, make sure that there’s some space between cuttings, if you took multiple, so their roots don’t get tangled together. I wouldn’t want to comb through that.
Afterwards, cover with about two inches of the medium, then give some covering, like a plastic bag or storage container. Keep the conditions humid with indirect sunlight.
When the roots are developed and it’s the right time of year for your specific plant, start to acclimate them outdoors. And you’re done!
Though it’s somewhat more difficult to propagate woody plants with root cuttings, it’s still totally possible. Raspberry, blackberry, and the trumpet vine are some of the best plants to propagate this way.
Leaf Cuttings: first, some background
Both herbaceous and woody plants can be propagated from leaf cuttings, which, itself, is pretty amazing. At any time of the year when leaves are present, with just a cutting of a leaf, you can grow an entire plant…
…as long as you have the necessary parts on it. If you want the whole truth, not every plant can be propagated with leaf cuttings. This will only work with plants that are capable of forming adventitious buds. Speaking of which, before we start with the propagation method, let’s cover some basic plant anatomy.
- Petiole: the shoot connecting a leaf to the stem of a plant.
- Axillary bud: bud/shoot that is located at the point where the petiole and stem of a plant meet.
- Node: part of the plant where the flower and leaves grow from; can grow adventitious roots.
- Adventitious buds: buds that grow from somewhere other than the tip of the stem, such as on roots, leaves, or shoots from new growth.
Alright, let’s get to it.
Leaf cuttings with petiole
This method is very straightforward. From the parent plant, cut a leaf, along with about one and a half inches of the petiole. Apply rooting hormone to the base of the petiole and place it, gently, in the soilless rooting medium, planting all the way up to the base of the leaf.
Same as before, add some covering and maintain the necessary conditions. Easy peasy.
This propagation technique works for just about every indoor houseplant. Try it with the African violet and plectranthus plants.
If a plant can be propagated from leaf cuttings, you can almost definitely get the rooting started in water, if you so desire.
Leaf cuttings without petiole
As for taking leaf cuttings without the petiole, you’ll need a very thick leaf. For example, the snake plant can be propagated with just pieces of leaf blades.
Take sections of the long, fleshy leaves. Remove the petiole, if needed, and place the leaf into the soilless rooting medium. Eventually, the daughter plant will form from the midvein of the leaf cutting.
And, finally, propagation with leaf-bud cuttings. These cuttings require the presence of the leaf blade, the petiole, and a section of the stem with the axillary bud.
The axillary bud is very important here. Without it, the shoots won’t grow, even if it seems like roots are starting to develop.
Having all of those parts is the only distinguishable characteristic of leaf-bud cuttings. Once you have the cutting, add rooting hormone, make sure that the leaf itself stays above the rooting medium, and follow all the same steps.
Trailing vines, such as the blackberry vine, can be propagated this way.
Other Methods of Propagation
Layering is another common and easy way to propagate plants--and it has a lot of variations. We’ll cover three of them here.
Basically, the idea is to have roots develop on part of the stem, while the stem is still attached to the parent plant. Eventually, the stem is broken off and you’re left with a new plant.
Why not start simply? For this method, you take the stem or branch of a plant and bend it to the ground. Then, cover it with soil and pin it down with ground staples, making sure that there is at least half a foot left above the soil (the portion that will grow to be the daughter plant).
Wounding the stem facilitates growth, and you can also add rooting hormone before covering with soil.
It’s best to start this process between early spring and late fall. It’ll take at least a few months before the daughter plant is ready to be completely separated from the parent plant, and don’t get discouraged if it takes even a year or two. It’s a longer wait.
The mound layering method is done usually on closely branched shrubs and is done in the fall or early winter. To propagate using this method, you want to straight up slash the above-ground portion of the plant--down to about an inch above the soil.
Get some big gloves, an axe, and a plaid flannel. Then get to chopping.
When spring time rolls around, new shoots will start to form. After they’re at least half a foot long, you should add more soil to cover them, making a mound (hence the name), and then roots will grow from those new shoots.
During the following fall, remove the new layers by gently digging into the mound and separating the parts you’d like to move.
The process of serpentine layering is just like simple layering, but you end up with more.
It works best for plants that have very long stems, or vine-like growth. Like in simple layering, you take part of the stem, cover it in soil, and pin it down. Only here, you do it multiple times, getting multiple portions from a single stem.
The important thing to note for the success of this method is that, for each section, the above-ground part and below-ground part each need to have at least one bud, otherwise it won’t grow.
After the roots develop, the stem is divided into not just one new plant, but however many sections you pinned down.
Propagation by division is super simple and has been in practice for centuries. It works best for herbaceous perennials, but can still be used on some woody plants in the early fall or late spring.
The process is really summed up in its name: it’s done by taking the parent plant and dividing it into clumps. Each section needs to have a few shoots.
It differs from cuttings where only a portion of the plant is taken and then allowed to develop its own root system. When propagating by division, an entire, self-sustainable section of the plant is taken from the parent.
After dividing the plant into daughter plants, you simply place them back into the garden and make sure that they grow normally and have enough water.
The ease and simplicity of this type of propagation is made up for by the fact that it’s not able to be used for very many plants--mostly just perennial flowers.
Propagation by grafting is a unique technique where two plant sections are joined and start to grow together as one plant.
The lower part to be joined together is called the rootstock, and the upper part is called the scion. The rootstock, with, of course, the root system, provides the structural support. Up above, the particular scion is chosen because it’s the scion’s genes that will be replicated.
Grafting is done when both the rootstock and the scion are dormant, between winter and early spring.
Grafting isn’t the easiest process and it does require a fair amount of skill. You have to get the vascular tissues within the rootstock and the scion to merge, meaning, both have to remain alive and in contact with each other. If all goes well, the vascular tissues will merge within a week. The stems, however, will not begin growing together.
Though this method isn’t the easiest, it certainly has its advantages. Grafting leaves you with a strong rootstock that protects the scion--which was likely much more frail or couldn’t grow roots on its own.
When should you take cuttings?
Take cuttings early in the morning. The time of year depends on what type of plant, what type of cutting, etc.:
- Herbaceous stem cuttings: late fall to early spring.
- Softwood stem cuttings: May to July.
- Semi-hardwood stem cuttings: July to September.
- Hardwood stem cuttings: late fall to early spring.
- Root cuttings: late winter to early spring.
- Leaf cuttings: whenever leaves are present.
Which plants grow from cuttings?
Herbs, houseplants, flowers, shrubs, and even trees can be propagated from cuttings. Not every plant can be grown from leaf cuttings, but there is a huge variety of plants that can be grown from stem or root cuttings.
Do you need rooting hormone for cuttings?
Rooting hormone isn’t entirely necessary for the daughter plant to root well, especially for plants that already grow fairly quickly from cuttings. If you’re rooting cuttings in water, it might actually stunt growth. However, if you’re trying to propagate larger, woody plants, rooting hormone can be a huge help.