The propagation of plant cuttings into landscape plants begins with an immersion in root hormone powder.
PHOTO: RICHARD SCHMIDT
Many of the most popular decorative (and practical) landscape plants—shrubs, trees, vines, or fruits—can be propagated by the simple technique of rooting a piece of a "parent" plant. In fact, since one such "adult" can produce hundreds of identical offspring, this is the chief method used by professional nurseries to multiply woody vegetation. The information that follows—along with a little time and patience—can provide you with all the landscape material you want for your yard or homestead!
Leafy and Dormant
There are two kinds of plant cuttings: "leafy" types that are taken and rooted during the growing season, and "dormant" twigs that are clipped in the winter months.
In addition, the leafy category can be divided into two subgroups:  "softwood" cuttings—which come from succulent new growth—and  "half-ripe" (or "semi-hardwood") cuttings that are taken from partially mature stems. Half-ripe wood is usually easier to work with, because it's quite resistant to the plant propagator's chief enemy: rot. You can test a branch—to see if it's half-ripe—by bending the twig. Semi-hardwood stems snap and break cleanly, while wood that's too old—or too young—folds over onto itself without breaking.
Dormant cuttings, on the other hand, are taken from fully mature one-year-old wood while the plants are "asleep" from late fall through winter. Such cuttings remain inactive until spring, when—miraculously—many of them will send forth both roots and leaves to form new plant life.
Now let's take a look at how to propagate both leafy and dormant cuttings, using some familiar plants as examples.
From Leafy to Lush
Pyracantha (or firethorn)—a shrub with bright autumn berries—is easy to multiply from half-ripe leafy cuttings.
First you'll need a "stock" pyracantha bush that's vigorous, healthy, and free from pests. The bush must also possess the genetic traits—such as berry color—that you'll want to see in the "new" plants.
Take cuttings (from branches that pass the snap-when-bent test) three to six inches long with two leaf buds, stripped bare, at the base and three to six leaves on top. Cut the bottoms just below a bud using clippers that make a clean, sharp slice.
Next, insert each cutting—to about a third of its length—in a soil-less medium that retains moisture without becoming waterlogged. Some good choices for this purpose are vermiculite, perlite, or either of the two in a 50/50 mixture with damp peat moss. (Soil should be avoided because it may contain rot-producing bacteria and fungi.)
Both the growth speed and chance of success will increase if you dip the moistened lower quarter-inch of each stem in a rooting hormone powder (available through most nurseries), many of which also contain a fungicide to retard stem rot.
Clay or plastic flowerpots between four and six inches in diameter make good rooting containers. Fill them with your "starting" medium, make a hole (use a pencil for this) for each cutting, and insert the stems. Be careful not to knock off the rooting powder. (You can put as many cuttings in a pot as the container will hold, as long as the leaves of adjacent plants can't mat on top of one another.) After planting, water the rooting medium and allow the excess liquid to drain off.
Professional growers use shallow wood or plastic "flats" for rooting containers. An 18-inch-square by two-inch-deep container can accommodate 200 cuttings.
Infant Plant Care
During the rooting period (anywhere from six weeks for pyracantha to several months for slower species), the cuttings must be kept moist and out of direct sunlight. A closed plastic bag placed around both container and cuttings—propped up so as not to rest on the foliage—will create a miniature greenhouse with ideal rooting conditions.
After six weeks, test for roots by giving one of your mini-trees a gentle pull. If it rises up in the medium, it's not ready yet.
Once the roots are sufficient, accustom the small plants to the outdoor environment by first opening the plastic bag, then removing it—bit by bit—over a two-week period. Be cautious, because the leaves will have become tender in their protected world. (From this point on you must also begin to water the cuttings regularly.)
When the tiny shrubs have had time to become acclimated to the outside world, they're ready to transplant. Just invert the pot and tap its edge firmly on a wood surface: The entire ball of plants and roots will fall into your hand. Separate the plants carefully and quickly. Work out of the direct sun or wind to prevent drying, which would injure the roots.
Whether you pot the plants individually or move them to a nursery bed is a matter of personal preference. I pot mine directly in one-gallon cans, which I obtain free from restaurants and institutional kitchens. (Wash the cans and punch four holes in the bottom with a church-key opener.)
Regardless of where you plant, however, be sure to use a good potting soil (equal parts soil, garden compost, and coarse organic matter such as ground bark or chunk peat moss), water the bushes frequently—but not so often as to waterlog the soil—and protect the foliage from bright sun until the plants are established. (An "umbrella" of wood lath or window screening will provide shade when placed above a sunny cold frame.)
After a year or so of active growth, the cuttings may be planted in their permanent locations. Continue babying them, though, against drought, excessive sun, and cold until they're well settled.
From Dormant to Delightful
Grapes—a prime example of plants that can be grown from dormant cuttings—are best propagated from mature wood cut after the leaves have dropped in the fall. As a matter of fact, grape cuttings can be made when the vines receive their annual pruning.
A good grape cutting should be about the diameter of a pencil and approximately 12 inches long. It must have four leaf buds: two to be buried beneath the soil and two that are left exposed. (You'll want to plant your grapevine "right side up," so make a slanted cut at its base and a straight slice at the top to help you remember which end is which.)
In climates where the soil freezes, cuttings are best made in the fall, then bundled and buried in loose, well-drained soil until spring. Some propagators like to bury their cuttings horizontally, while others put 'em in the ground vertically but "upside down" on the theory that spring warmth near the surface will stimulate root development from basal buds before the cooler "tops" leaf out.
In milder climates, cuttings may be taken anytime before spring sap flows, then planted either in the ground where the vines are to grow or in a nursery bed. (Since some grape loss is certain, always plant extra cuttings.)
By now you're probably eager to know just which trees, bushes, or vines can best be propagated using each of the above methods. I've prepared a Propagation Methods Chart that gives the preferred cutting procedure for many popular landscape plants.
Finally, here's a footnote for those folks who live in cold climates: It's easy to propagate exotic plants (citrus, for example) for indoor, outdoor, or greenhouse use if you can find a source for the cutting.
I have a lemon and a mandarin—both rooted from half-ripe cuttings—which grow, bloom, and fruit in seven-inch clay pots. Wood from young trees roots more readily than does that from old, and lemons are easier to propagate than most other citrus varieties.
Hibiscus and fuchsias are other warm zone plants that are easy to multiply and well worth the effort. You'll also find that many of the tropicals and semitropicals found in conservatories are among the easiest plants to grow from cuttings.
So the next time you want to beat the high cost of nursery-grown foliage, try a little cutting instead!