We’ve all coveted that one plant in our neighbor’s yard. Try as you might, you just cannot find it at any garden center. This happens because growers—those who supply garden centers with plants—often rotate stock according to popularity and regional viability.
Older plant varieties often only appear in established gardens. If you ask nicely (I recommend that you take cookies at the time of your request), you could get permission to take a few cuttings to propagate hard to find varieties of plants and grow your own from these.
It is important to know whether the plant that you would like to propagate is categorized as a hardwood, semi-hardwood, or a softwood. I’ll use an example of propagating an evergreen azalea, which is a semi-hardwood. Azalea cuttings are typically prepared from partially mature wood, just after a flush of growth from mid-July into the early fall season.
To propagate, you will need good soil-less potting mix, rooting hormone, and a tray or pot that is wrapped to help maintain moisture. To keep your plants in a humid environment, you can purchase a seed starting kit with a tall lid or you can place a pot or tray in a plastic bag.
Step One: Begin by cutting several two to five inch stems from a healthy azalea plant. Choose cuts that are from new growth that is firm enough to bend, but not old enough that it breaks from the parent plant with a hard snap. I recommend cleaning your shears before you begin by wiping them with denatured alcohol and rinsing them thoroughly. Place your trimmers at an angle, and create your cuttings just above a node—the small protrusion where leaves emerge from the stem. Immediately place your cuttings in a cup of water.
Step Two: Set up your rooting tray with moist, pressed soil. Make holes in the soil using a sterile dowel into which you will set your cuttings. These prepared holes help to keep the rooting hormone attached to the base of the stem when you insert the plant cuttings. Allow approximately three inches between each plant so that they have room to grow.
Step Three: To begin to place your cuttings, carefully remove all but the top two or three leaves from your cutting. This is important: your new plants do not have an established root system yet, and removing all but a few leaves aides the plant in retaining moisture while a root system develops. Take your time pinching the leaves so that you don’t damage the stem. If the leaves at the top of your cutting are large, use a sharp pair of shears to cut them in half.
Step Four: Prepare the stem of your cutting by using a small blade to strip away half an inch of the woody bark covering the bottom of each cutting. Dip the stem into the rooting hormone, and carefully insert the stem into a prepared hole. Gently squeeze the soil around the stem to press it against the cutting.
Step Five: Once you have prepared all cuttings and have them set in the soil, cover your pot with a dome or sealed in a plastic bag and place it somewhere where it will get bright, indirect sunlight. Check on your growing pot often. It should maintain some condensation to keep the soil moist. Check the cuttings for roots after four to eight weeks. To check for root structure, remove one or two stems from the rooting medium, using a butter knife. Work carefully to avoid damaging the roots. Inspect the roots, and then replant the stems immediately. Once you have roots, replant the little plants into slightly larger pots, and you’ve got new plants!
Meghan Sarah Fidler received her PhD in Cultural Anthropology, and she now focuses on the relationship between people, technology, and plants. She has published a number of academic works as well as literary compositions, and is currently working on a manuscript for a new book on long-term gardening.