Easy Plant Propagation

Anyone can be a plant propagator with these easy, traditional and low-tech plant propagation techniques.

| April/May 2008

The most common way to grow new plants is to sow seeds, but many plants also can be propagated vegetatively by rooting cuttings or stems, or dividing clumps. If you already have a healthy plant, plant propagation is often faster, easier and cheaper than growing more plants from seeds. It takes six weeks to grow a tomato seedling to transplanting size, but you can root a stem tip cutting in half that time. With plant propagation, you can multiply one petunia or coleus into several happy plants, and it will cost you nothing to start a new planting of grapes by sticking pruned branches into a bed of moist soil.

No special equipment is needed to become an accomplished plant propagator, though it helps to carry a spirit of adventure into each new project, because each species responds differently to various techniques, and plant propagation often involves a serious injury or near-death event followed by recovery. Plants that are easy to propagate know how to handle this unnatural disaster.

Green Intelligence

If you were being chased by someone with a knife or about to be trampled by a herd of buffalo, you would run away or hide. Plants cannot, so they have devised fundamental ways to survive common catastrophes. On a cellular level, most plants stock their stems with “undifferentiated” cells that begin multiplying into specialized cells if the plant “decides” that its best shot at survival requires new stems, leaves or roots. These undifferentiated cells are most numerous in nodes — the places where branches and buds emerge from stems — and in buds that form on shallow roots and low-growing stems. Your job, as a plant propagator, is to identify where the plant is holding its caches of undifferentiated cells, and then provide perfect conditions to help those cells morph into beautiful new roots. 

To get an up-close look at this process, start with a sprig of supermarket mint. Clip or pinch the lowest leaves from a 4-inch-long stem, stick it in a small water-filled glass or bottle for 10 days, and you should see the beginnings of tiny white roots emerging from the nodes and the sections of the stem between them. You can transplant the cutting to a pot as soon as the roots are a half inch long.

Many plants root readily in water, including tomatoes, hydrangeas, coleus and many culinary herbs, such as rosemary, marjoram and oregano. Keep in mind that warm temperatures are crucial to fast rooting in water. Basil and other plants that aren’t supposed to root from stem cuttings often do when kept in a sun-warmed window. And, though glass containers make it easy to keep an eye on rooting (or rotting) cuttings, dark-colored heavy pottery vases work even better, because they absorb and retain solar heat while shielding the roots from light.

Rooting in water is quick and easy for plants that can be propagated this way. Other plants will root best in soil or a soil-like medium such as perlite or vermiculite. Roots that form in water are structural wimps compared to those that grow in soil. Either of these mediums, or a mixture of half peat moss and half sand, will reduce problems with disease when you’re working with slow-rooting woody cuttings. To speed things up, many people use rooting powders or gels, which provide synthetic forms of several common plant hormones. However, research studies show that plants that root readily do not benefit from hormonal stimulation, plus there are natural alternatives you can make yourself at home (see “Rooting in Willow Water,” below). If you are working with a challenging plant (such as blueberries or another slow-growing woody plant), the Rooting Database hosted by the University of California is a magnificent source of information on success rates using various rooting mediums, rooting hormones and much more. Hundreds of challenging trees, shrubs and perennials are listed by common or botanical name. With the right technique, you can propagate almost any plant from a cutting.

11/29/2017 1:01:14 PM

My kids were definitely raised like this but now, in their teens, they are totally rebelling against our homesteading lifestyle. I would love to hear more from parents on how to encourage older kids to appreciate the life they live rather than constantly (and vociferously) wishing that their home life was more like their friends' lives-- no responsibilities, more "stuff", more access to electronics, etc.

7/6/2013 6:58:31 AM

enjoyed this article on propagating!

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