Pros for Hardwood Cuttings

Years ago, I had just one plant of Belaruskaja black currant. Now I have about a dozen plants of this delicious variety, and plenty of black currants for eating. Do you have a favorite tree, shrub, or vine that you would like more of. 

Hardwood cuttings are a simple way to multiply plants. This type of cutting is nothing more than a woody shoot that is cut from a plant and stuck into the soil some time after the shoot has dropped its leaves in the fall, but before it grows a new set of leaves in the spring. In the weeks that follow planting, if all goes well, some roots may develop and, come spring, this apparently lifeless piece of stem grows shoots and more roots, and is well on its way to bona fide plantdom.

(Be very careful, though. Multiplying plants can become an addiction. I speak from experience.)

Hardwood cuttings, kiwi, blueberry, grape

Easy to root

Success with hardwood cuttings depends on both your skills and the plant chosen. Not every woody plant is amenable to increase by hardwood cuttings. You can expect close to one hundred percent “take” with plants such as grape, currant, gooseberry, privet, spiraea, mulberry, honeysuckle, and willow. But this method generally is unsuccessful in making new apple, pear, maple, or oak trees. 

Because they lack leaves, hardwood cuttings are less perishable than “softwood cuttings,” the leafy stem cuttings that are taken while plants are in active growth.Blackcurrant and plum cuttings

If you’re a novice and want to make your thumbs feel greener early on, try your hand with hardwood cuttings of willow, a plant I have seen take root from branches inadvertently left on top of the ground through the winter. Most other plants demand a little more finesse to ensure success with hardwood cuttings.

Gathering Wood

All right, so you have a woody plant you want to multiply by hardwood cuttings. Step back and look at the plant before you take wood for cuttings. Look for some young shoots, those  that grew this past season; snip them off for cuttings. The shoots most likely to root are those of moderate vigor, not too fat and not too thin for the particular species.

Black currant, 1 and 2-year old stems

Black currant, 1 and 2-year old stems

Plum, 2 and 1-year old wood

Plum, 2 and 1-year old wood

Once you have one or more shoots “of moderate vigor” in hand, cut them down to a manageable length of eight inches or so. Look for the nodes on each branch; these are the points where leaves were attached. Make the cut for the top of each cutting just above a node, and the cut for the bottom of each cutting just below a different node. 

Make sure the upper end of the cutting, which is the point that was furthest from the root, is planted pointing upwards. The plant “remembers” this orientation and responds accordingly, growing roots from the bottom and shoots from the top of each cutting. (Although it’s not impossible to root upside down cuttings, there’s just less chance of success.) Professional propagators cut the bottoms off squarely and the tops at an angle so that the ends don’t get mixed up during planting.

Success Comes With . . . 

Plant the cuttings in your garden where the soil is not sodden. Without good drainage the cuttings will rot, rather than root.  Make a slit with your shovel, slide in a cutting until only the top bud is exposed, then firm the soil. The rooted plants should be ready for transplanting to their permanent homes by next fall.

Cuttings can be set in the ground for rooting either immediately or stored through the winter for setting out in early spring. I’ve had better success with fall, rather than spring, planting. In the spring, the cuttings often are overanxious to begin growth and the top growth is well underway before the roots have begun. The shoots soon realize that there are no roots to sustain them, then flop over and die. 

With cuttings planted in the fall, roots have the opportunity to develop from now until the soil freezes. In the fall, soil temperatures drop more slowly than air temperatures so there’s still some time, depending on your location, before the soil freezes solid. New shoots, on the other hand, won’t grow until next spring, after they feel they have been exposed to a winter’s worth of cold. (This is a natural protection mechanism that prevents plants from resuming growth during a warm spell in January.) Come spring, the shoots that grow from the tops of the cuttings will already have at least the beginnings of roots to bring sustenance.

Blackcurrant cuttings in spring

Blackcurrant cuttings in spring

Mulch fall-planted cutting so that alternate freezing and thawing of the soil doesn’t heave them out of the ground.

Cuttings could even be planted in pots with a well-drained potting soil, as long as the pots are kept cool (30-45°F) long enough for the shoots to “feel” winter, so they can grow shoots in spring.

If you’d rather plant in the spring, the cuttings need to be kept cool and moist through the winter. The traditional method of storage is to bundle the cuttings together and bury them upside down in a well drained soil. Why upside down? Because the bottoms of the cuttings then will be first to feel the warming effects of spring sunlight beating upon the ground, while the shoot buds are held in check buried deeper in cold ground.

A refrigerator can substitute for the traditional burying. Seal the cuttings in a plastic bag, wrap the bag in a wet paper towel, and then seal the whole thing in yet another plastic bag. Plant as early in spring as soil conditions permit.

Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, figure out why, and you’re on your way to propagation addiction. Next worry is what to do with all your plants.


Free and Attractive Mulch

  Beautiful. Floating down from the sky. A white blanket of “poor man’s manure.” That’s what gardeners and farmers have called snow.
Garden under snow
In fact, snow does take some nitrogen from the air and bring it down to ground level for plant use in spring. Not that much, though. Just a few shovelfuls of real manure could supply the same amount of nitrogen as a blanket of snow.

  Mostly, what I like about the 15 inch deep fluffy whiteness now on the ground is the way it insulates what’s beneath it. Fluctuating winter temperatures wreak havoc on plants, coaxing them awake and asleep and awake and asleep as air temperatures go up and down and up and down. Each time plants are awakened, they become more susceptible to subsequent cold, the whole problem exacerbated with borderline hardy plants.

Anticipating cold weather and snow, last fall I cut back a cardoon plant and two artichoke plants, covered each with a large, upturned plastic planter, and then smothered everything in autumn leaves. Cardoon and artichoke, in fall with leafy coverBoth kinds of plants are probably cold-hardy to about zero degrees Fahrenheit, but here winter temperatures, except last winter, typically drop to about minus 20 decrees Fahrenheit. That snowy blanket provides extra protection that the plants might need — especially after last Saturday’s unseasonal low of minus 8 degrees.Cardoon and artichoke, snow covered

  Hardy orange (Citrus trifoliata) is another plant to benefit from snow cover. It’s a Citrus that’s allegedly cold-hardy into zone 5 (-20°F minimum temperature). I planted some seeds outdoors a few years ago and, while their roots survive winter cold, the tops die back to resprout each spring. I also planted out a more mature hardy orange that was given to me; it also suffered some cold damage.

The deeper this winter’s snow and the longer it stays deep, the more of the hardy oranges’ stems will survive till spring. Perhaps, helped along with global warming, enough of the above ground parts of the plants will survive to reward me one year with sweet-smelling blossoms and, less appealing, their very puckery fruits.

Multiplying Currants and Grapes

  Last fall, I cut stems from my black currants and grapes into 8 inch lengths. In the bare ground between some dwarf apple trees, I scratched some lines and pushed a straight-bladed shovel into the ground on that line. Levering the handle of the shovel opened up just enough space in which to shove one or two of those cut stems, distal ends up, right up to their topmost buds. Then I moved along the scratched line, pushed the shovel in again, shoved in more stems, and so on down each line. If all goes well, each of those stems will grow into a good sized plant that I can dig up and transplant next autumn.
Rooted currant cuttings
  That is, unless alternating freezing and thawing of the soil heaves those stems up and out of the ground. I’ve seen it happen, leaving a row of carefully inserted stems sitting on top of the ground by winter’s end.

  All of which is another reason I’m thankful for the snow. In addition to protecting plants from cold, the blanket modulates soil temperatures, keeping cold soil cold, which is how I’d like it to remain until spring. I could have — should have — thrown some fluffy, organic mulch, such as leaves or straw, over the stems to do the same thing. But I didn’t. I hope the snow stays.

Where One Plus One Does Not Equal Two, Figuratively Speaking

The harvest has begun: I picked the first fruit of the season this week. Not only that, but it was the first fruit I harvested from the particular plant. The fruit was a Sunquat, planted in a pot a year and a half ago. It summers outdoors and winters indoors, basking in sunlight streaming through a south-facing window.
Not many people have heard of Sunquats. I hadn’t. Citrus plants hybridize freely and Sunquat is one of many citrus hybrids, this one a mating of kumquat (Citrus japonica) and Meyer lemon. I happen to be a big fan of the tart flesh and spicy, sweet skins of kumquat fruits. I also happen to be a big fan of Meyer lemon, which is not a true lemon but is probably a hybrid of lemon and sweet orange.

Meyer lemons are juicy and somewhat sweet, with a flowery aroma. They also bear prolifically. As testimonial to their precocity, I once had a cutting that flowered soon after rooting, when it was only a few inches tall.
Meyer lemon cuttings rooted

  So what could be bad about combining kumquat and Meyer lemon? A Sunquat! The skin was sour without picking up any of the spicy tang of a kumquat’s skin. The flesh was much less puckery than kumquat or lemon, but was uninteresting, just bland. Perhaps harvesting a bit underripe, before the skins turn full yellow, will put some pizazz in a Sunquat.

If not, I’ll stick to growing Meyer lemons and kumquats, each on their own and with their own delectable flavor.
Meiwa kumquat plant


Figs (Cuttings) Galore!!

Cold weather and short days have put a not totally unwelcome lull in the gardening year. Nonetheless, I wander into the greenhouse occasionally just to drink in the sight and smell of lush greenery suffused in warmth and humidity, and to pull some weeds. The figs in there could use some pruning; they are dormant and leafless and need all stems cut back to 3 to 4 feet in height.Pruned fig tree

Gardening lull or not, I can’t just toss those cut stems away, putting them to waste. Each stem can make a whole new tree, and fairly easily. So I set up a little propagator for rooting some of these “hardwood cuttings.”

Being leafless, the cuttings lose little water so have no need for the high humidity demanded by softwood cuttings, which are cuttings taken while plants are actively growing and leafy. Any cutting, hardwood or softwood, does need its bottom portion, where roots will form, cozied in moisture and air. Some people just plop stems into a glass of water. That works for easy-to-root plants, like fig, as long as the water is occasionally changed so bacteria don’t build up and the roots get some oxygen from the freshly drawn water. Roots formed in water are morphologically different from those in soil, so the eventual and inevitable transfer to soil must be done with care, with attention to root breakage, aeration, and moisture.

My cuttings will root directly in soil, or a “soil” of some sort, actually a soil-less soil similar in makeup to most commercial potting mixes. This soil is nothing more than a mix of equal parts perlite, a “popped” volcanic rock, and peat moss. The perlite is for aeration; the peat moss is to hold moisture. (Coir, a byproduct of the coconut industry, or leaf mold could be substituted for the peat moss.)

Now here’s the cool part: After filling a large flowerpot with the rooting mix, I scooped out the center and put into the hole a smaller flowerpot. That smaller flowerpot has to be terra cotta and unglazed. It also needs it’s drainage hole plugged; some moldable wax, saved from when my daughter had braces, worked well. (I knew I had saved that wax all these years for something!) Rapping the large pot and pressing lightly on the soil ensured good contact and a continuous capillary connection between the water in the inner pot, the porous wall of the pot, and the surrounding soil.Fig cuttings in home made propagator

I slid the cuttings into the circle of soil with only one or two upper buds showing. Until leaves appear, and there’s no rush, the only attention the pot needs is to keep the inner reservoir of soil filled with water. Once leaves appear, the cuttings need light.

Sometime I’ll have to figure out what to do with all my new fig plants.

A Dream Breaks The Lull

New plants in the wings could have been the spark for a horticultural dream the night following setting up the propagator. In this dream, I lived in a large, modernistic house, the most significant features of which were its 3 stories and large, south-facing windows. I evidently wasn’t all that familiar with the house because I wandered around in amazement.

Most amazing were the plants sitting in the windows: potted fruit plants of all sorts, everywhere I turned. In one window was a potted pawpaw tree, in another a peach, then a guava, and still other fruits in other windows. Turning to go down the stairway from the uppermost floor, I came upon small pots of strawberries. (The floors themselves were broad expanses of polished wood and furniture was sparse or absent.)

Strawberry guava

Strawberry guava

Most amazing was the shadow of a lush plant hanging in front of a shaded window. Coming closer, I saw that the plant in the hanging basket was a grape vine, a compact-growing one and that was loaded with tight bunches of delicious, ripe grapes.

Much of the dream is not far-fetched. True, I don’t live in a large, modernistic house of 3 stories. But some of my windows are, in fact, home to such edibles as bay laurel and rosemary. I even have some fruiting plants, tropical and subtropical ones such as Meiwa kumquat and Golden Nugget tangerine rather than pawpaw, grape, and other temperate-zone plants that need to experience winter.Meiwa kumquat plant

A strawberry guava I once grew gave me good harvest in late autumn. Kumquats ripen in early winter. I look forward to my first tangerine and Meyer lemon harvest. Fruiting takes energy, so all these fruit plants sit near sunny windows. Indoor fruiting by a shaded window only works in dreamland.

Awake, Finally

In that same dream, I was in school. (I spent an inordinate number of years in school.) In the dream, I couldn’t keep track of my school assignments, even what classes I was taking or where. I was too preoccupied with caring for all those plants in all those windows at home.

It was good to wake up to a gardening lull.