Nancy Brachey

It’s time to take cuttings in the garden

Hydrangeas, such as this oak leaf variety, are valued for their summer beauty and fairly easy to propagate from cuttings.
Hydrangeas, such as this oak leaf variety, are valued for their summer beauty and fairly easy to propagate from cuttings. File photo

Summer vacations are ahead for many people, and often this means a long trip for family reunions. When this happens at a family homeplace, where your relatives have lived for decades, it’s an opportunity for more than hugs and old-fashioned good food.

It’s a chance to steal a memory. By that I mean propagate a plant from a grandmother or aunt’s garden to grow and eventually plant in your own landscape.

While this sounds like a major production, it isn’t. It is simply basic gardening that you can learn to do and practice like a pro.

For some heirloom plants, such as Lenten roses and peonies, it is a simple task to sink shovel under the plant, dig up the root system and put the plant in a paper bag or pot to take home where it will be replanted immediately.

But shrubs are different. Spiraeas, viburnums, camellias, hydrangeas, forsythia and old-fashioned roses can be propagated, but they require a certain technique. These are the shrubs that people tend to associate with family gardens because they knew the person who planted and tended the plants for a long time.

Fortunately, plants tend to be ready for propagation by cuttings in early to mid-summer, which is a common time for travel and family gatherings. New growth that emerged in the spring is mature enough, but not too woody, to cut and root for new plants.

When cuttings are taken too early, they tend to flop and rot before roots take hold. The tip of the stem may still be bright green and soft, but down the stem, 3 to 5 inches or so, it should be firm enough to snap. Use clean, sharp shears for the work of cutting. This reduces the chance of diseases and makes a clean cut that does not crush the stem tissue. With large leaves, cut them in half to reduce water loss while rooting.

Because this is not 100 percent foolproof, take more than one cutting. As a general rule, cuttings from side shoots tend to root better than ones from the tip ends. Do this in the morning, while the plant has more water in its system.

Dip the cut end of the stem in rooting hormone, a powder sold in small envelopes in garden centers. This raises the chances of success at rooting. Take off any leaves on the lower half of the cutting as well as any leftover flowers or flower buds.

Stick the cuttings halfway into a pot containing a mix of clean potting soil with perlite. This is a white, gravely substance that will increase the pore space for roots to develop and ensure good drainage. Depending on the size of the pot, you can use more than one cutting, but there should be about 2 inches between them. Water the growing mix well.

Pop a plastic bag supported by small sticks over the cuttings. A loosely fitted plastic bag is better in summer because it allows heat to escape but conserves humidity. In really hot weeks, take off the plastic. Using a glass jar to cover the cutting while rooting is a time-honored practice but it is not for the summer, when the air inside would get too hot, even in the shade.

If you don’t want to travel with pots and cuttings, put the perlite in a plastic bag, dampen it and place the cuttings in this. Tighten the bag to keep things from falling out until you get home and can put the cuttings in a proper pot.

Keep your cuttings in a shady spot. Water the pot regularly and watch for the emergence of new leaves, a signal that rooting is underway. As the plants develop, move them to larger, individual pots of good soil and let them grow to garden size. Use diluted liquid fertilizer occasionally.

You won’t have a garden-size plant overnight. It may take two to three years to grow to that size, depending on the plant.

Nancy Brachey:

Ask Nancy

Q. I wanted to divide monkey grass, but the roots were so tightly wound together, it was impossible.

A. A sharp knife would help. You will sacrifice some plants, but it is the most reasonable way to divide the mature clump. Just cut the roots into four sections, then pull or cut apart each plant. This may require tough action. Some will break from the roots and be lost. But your clump probably has many more plants than you wish to replant. It is much easier to dig and replant clumps with just a few youngish plants rather than the mature clump you are working with.