One aspect of gardening that never ceases to enthral me is that we can take a piece of a plant, stick it in a pot and it will (sometimes) grow into a new plant. This enables us to produce lots of plants for free for our own gardens and to give away, and allows the delight of exchanging cuttings with other keen gardeners, which can be propagated into treasured plants for our gardens.
My own propagating methods are pretty hit and miss, so when I recently had the opportunity to attend a hands-on demonstration of taking cuttings, run by nurserywoman extraordinaire Nancy Shaw, I was very excited. Some readers may have seen Nancy's excellent plant stalls at the quarterly Cottage Garden Club meetings held in Epping, NSW.
Nancy's methods are so much more professional than my own! For one thing, she sharpens her secateurs regularly to make a clean cut when taking the cuttings, and dips the secateurs into a diluted solution of bleach between every set of cuttings, to avoid the transmission of diseases between the batches.
Nancy's preferred propagation mixture is coarse river sand; another propagation mixture is one part of this type of sand, one part perlite and half a part cocopeat. At the workshop, we tried both types of mix (pictured at left). The propagating mixture was placed in pots or trays, tamped down and saturated well, then drained before putting the cuttings in - something I would never have thought to do, as I would usually slop some water in after I had stuck the cuttings in (often knocking them sideways in the process); pre-wetting the mix makes it easier to insert the cuttings properly.
Cuttings are best taken early in the day, put straight into water and potted up as soon as possible. Nancy's preferred length of cuttings is around 8 to 10 cm, cutting just below a node at the bottom of the cutting. It is apparently ideal to use the tip of the cutting, preferably with no flowers or buds; if these are present, however, they should be removed. If there isn't a tip, it's best to trim the top of the cutting just above a node. The stem can be scraped a bit at the base. Remove most of the leaves, leaving just a small amount of foliage at the top of the cutting. If remaining leaves are large, these can be cut in half. These cuttings are much smaller than I would normally use and so this too was quite a revelation.
Each cutting was dipped in hormone gel/powder. A small amount of the hormone gel or powder was placed little bowl to use for a propagation session, to avoid contaminating the whole jar. (When using hormone products, disposable gloves should be worn.) Honey can be used as a substitute for hormone gel. Then we made a hole for each cutting in the propagating mix, using a stick. We then inserted the cutting no more than 2 cm deep and firmed the mixture around the cutting. Many cuttings were put into the one pot (the pots used were about 10 cm in diameter).
We were encouraged to label all cuttings! How quickly one forgets what it is one has potted up, despite the best intentions to remember! Nancy suggested that a 6B pencil is excellent for writing on plastic plant labels; the writing of so many other pens and textas does fade over time. We sprayed our cuttings with water that had a little Seasol added.
The pot was then covered with a cut-off drink bottle (with its base removed) or a plastic bag supported by stakes, or placed in a large ziplock bag. I've always put my potted cuttings into a clear-plastic box with a lid, but giving them individual coverings does mean that the essential humidity around the cuttings is maintained and loss of water from the foliage is reduced. The cuttings were later placed in a warm position with bright light in our gardens at home -- but not in direct sun. Aftercare required that the cuttings be sprayed regularly with the Seasol water to keep the leaves from wilting whilst roots developed. The propagating mixture was to be kept damp but not too wet.
We were instructed to check the plants regularly for signs of rooting having occurred (by tugging the cuttings or looking underneath the pot for roots). At this time of year, roots should form in a few weeks. At this point, the method is to progressively introduce more air to the cuttings by splitting the plastic bag, raising the cut-off bottle or opening up the ziplock bag. To remove the rooted cuttings from the pot, use a knife to lever them out and trying to leave some of the propagating mix around the roots. Repot the rooted cuttings into a small individual pots, using good-quality potting mix. Keep them in a shaded, sheltered spot at first. They can later gradually be exposed to more sun, and later repotted into a larger container.
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