You don't have to pay money to grow your favourite shrubs—not if you've got a friend or relative who already has them growing in their garden!
Winter is one of the best times to grow your shrubs from cuttings. Not only do most cuttings take best when struck in cooler weather and grown on as the weather warms for spring, but many gardeners are pruning their shrubs now. And those prunings can be your cuttings.
How do you do it? Easy. Most times you just take a length of wood from the shrubs, put it in the ground and wait for it to grow roots. Plants like geraniums (pelargoniums), wormwood, santolina and lavender rarely fail. Other times you will need a few other details to help the cutting take.
There's a lot of mystique about taking cuttings—and certainly the more complicated or sophisticated procedures give better results—but the cut-and-bung-in method will still fill your garden.
How to take a cutting
- Take cuttings on a cool, wet or overcast day—this way they'll lose less moisture. Plant them as soon as you can. Any plant with a milky sap, though—like figs, frangipanis and cacti—should be left to dry for a couple of days to minimise the risk of rotting. Taking cuttings is always a race between rooting and rotting
- Use a sharp knife if possible or cut the end straight before planting. Loose bits can rot. If you're not going to plant straight away, put the cuttings in a plastic bag and place them in the refrigerator, wrapping the ends in damp newspaper, or put the cuttings in a vase of water.
Taking a 'heel'
- A 'heel' is where you take a bit of the main stem as well as the branch as your cutting. Pull your selected side branch down, taking a small strip of the bark of the main stem with it.
Where to plant cuttings
- I plant most of my cuttings directly into the garden bed. This is fine as long as your soil stays moist—I put mine under the semi-shade of trees for added shelter—and is firm enough to hold the cutting up.
- You do get better results, though, with sterile soil. Many cuttings will rot before they root, and planting into sterile soil helps prevent this.
- You can use bought potting mix or make your own. Sterilisation is easy—just place the mix and a potato in a shallow tray in a conventional or microwave oven. When the potato is cooked your soil should be ready.
- Other cuttings do best planted in sand.
Planting out your cuttings
- Remember that new roots are fragile, so treat them gently. Always wet them before moving and choose a cool, dull day. Don't plant cuttings from indoors or shaded areas out on a hot day, and don't plant cuttings grown in the warmth into cold soil. Choose a half-way place under the shade of a tree or on a verandah so that the plants gradually toughen up.
- Never transplant too soon—I'm sure this is the reason that most apparently successful cuttings fail.
- Many cuttings need to be left for at least three or four months before they are sturdy enough to transplant. A rule of thumb is that its root mass should roughly equal the amount of foliage it has grown before you shift it out.
- Even though the growth on top of your cutting may be lavish, the roots may still be spindly. They may be able to take up nutrients, but not strong enough to support the plant in the open. If the plant rocks at all when you press it, wait till it's firmer. Always stake plants from cuttings to cut down on 'wind rock' as any movement will damage the young roots even more.
Which Bit to Take
- Softwood cuttings are taken from young tender tips or new shoots, and either evergreen or deciduous plants, usually in spring.
- Take a few leaves as well as the shoots. These cuttings take best if they are taken from the outer portion of the plant, which receives more light usually making for a more vigorous growth.
- Cut a piece about ten centimetres long as cleanly as you can from just below a node, with another couple of nodes above it. Leave a few leaves on the top of the cutting, stripping the rest away. This will help conserve moisture. If the leaves are large (e.g. hydrangeas, photinia, magnolia, etc.), cut each remaining leaf in half.
- Keep softwood cuttings moist and humid with either a glass jar on top of the cutting or a plastic bag over the pot. They should strike within a week, or possibly two.
- Hardwood cuttings are cuttings that have been taken from wood that snaps, i.e. the previous year's growth that has hardened. They take longer to form new growth than softwood cuttings. But, on the other hand, they lose less moisture and don't rot as fast, so they usually root more successfully.
- Make sure the cutting is straight to help stop rotting. If you want to take several cuttings from one stem, cut the tops at a slant. This way you know which end is up—cuttings put in upside down will not strike.
- Hardwood cuttings can be anything from two metres long (willows, poplars, olives) to small stems with three nodes, or leaf buds. Hardwood cuttings may take several months to strike. One olive cutting I took remained dormant for 9 months—it was only left there because I didn't get around to moving it. Then, suddenly, it began to flourish.
- Most hardwood cuttings take easily, just bunged into the garden and kept moist. You can improve their chances by putting a glass jar over them to increase heat and humidity, or a plastic bag if they are in a pot. Hormone dusts can be used, and will make the roots form sooner, but most cuttings take without them. I have never bothered with hormone dusts.
- Most hardwood cuttings start to leaf in spring. Don't move them, however, no matter how vigorous the growth. Give them time to form good roots.
- Useful tip: To stop cuttings wilting before their new roots have formed, wrap the pot in a plastic bag, held up with two sticks so the plastic doesn't rest against the new plant.
- Leaf cuttings are just that—single leaves. Some plants such as cacti species and African violets naturally reproduce in this way, with the leaves rooting as they fall off each year.
- Leaf cuttings work best with fleshy-leaved plants like African violets, rex begonias and gloxinias. Place the leaves in damp sand, or sand and peatmoss. A fine cut through the veins in the back of the leaf will improve the chances of striking.
- As most leaf cuttings are taken from indoor plants, they may be taken at any time. They should root in a few weeks.
- If you can dig up a piece of root without damaging the parent plant, there's a good chance it will grow you a new plant.
- Place the bit of root lengthways in wet sand about 50mm deep. Many plants grow from root cuttings, but this method is less popular than others because only a limited number of root cuttings can be taken without damaging the parent plant.
How to Grow Your Favourite Shrubs
Bougainvilleas tolerate only mild frost, needing moist, deep soil and plenty of room. Take cuttings in summer and early autumn of new growth with a heel. Trim them back to about 200cm, and plant as deeply as you can in sandy soil in semi-shade under an inverted jar (or in a glasshouse).
Buddleia is very tolerant and grows easily. Take softwood cuttings in mid to late summer, placing them in sandy soil in semi-shade. Hardwood cuttings can be taken from early to mid-winter and should be of the previous year's growth with a small heel. Place a little sand at the bottom of each hole in the garden and plant the cutting. Pinch out the top in spring as this encourages the plants to bush out.
Camellia japonica grows easily from cuttings. Take cuttings from the ends of branches, about as long as your hand, in late summer. A rooting powder will help them take, but isn't essential. Place the cuttings in sandy soil or a mix of one part sand to one part peatmoss.
Daphne likes a temperate climate with a well-drained soil, so the cuttings have a reputation for being hard to strike. Make sure they're taken in the middle of summer (try Australia Day) from new growth that can just be snapped rather than bent. They should be about 75mm long and cut just below a node. Plant them as deep as you can in a mix of two parts sand to one of good soil or peatmoss. Water, and cover with an inverted jar. Don't let them dry out. They should start to root within six weeks.
Elder (Sambucus spp.)
Elders tolerate both frost and heat. They grow from seed or hardwood cuttings; cool soils are best for the cuttings to take. If you need to take a cutting in midsummer, try to strike it in water first on a windowsill, then pot it carefully when roots have formed. Plant out in late winter or early spring.
Figs (Ficus spp.)
Some figs need frost-free conditions, some tolerate light frost, and all need moisture, space and fertile soil. Use cuttings of young branches. Some figs sucker, and these suckers can be uprooted.
Frangipani (Plumeria rubra)
Frangipani needs a frost-free, well-drained soil. Grow from cuttings of woody shoots. Make sure the latex is almost dry, then plant in sand that is only just wet. Cuttings are very susceptible to rot, so keep warm.
Take cuttings of new wood that can just be snapped. The cutting should be about as long as your hand, taken just below a node.
Evergreen hibiscus tolerates only very mild frost, whereas deciduous hibiscus is frost-hardy. Take cuttings of evergreen hibiscus in spring from firm wood. The deciduous hibiscuses should be cut with a heel, in winter.
Take cuttings in winter, with a heel. Place some sand at the bottom of each hole and plant the cuttings in the garden in semi-shade. Keep them moist. Semi-mature cuttings can be taken in midsummer. Cut off all but the top two leaves, and plant in sandy soil. Keep in the semi-shade.
Magnolia (Magnolia spp.)
Magnolia is hardy in a wide range of climates, but prefers sunny positions and acid, well-drained soil. Take softwood cuttings, about 10cm long, in late winter, and root in moist soil with a plastic bag over the pot.
Mock Orange (Philadelphus)
Mock orange tolerates both frost and heat. Winter is the best time for cuttings, but they will probably take at any time. Cuttings can be quite large, especially in winter, and can be planted straight into the ground.
Mulberry tolerates heat and frost, and needs a deep, well-drained soil. Take finger-thick cuttings in spring, and plant them so that at least two buds are under the soil. Grow them in semi-shade until they are well established.
Photinia is a very hardy, quick-growing plant. It tolerates drought, frost and heat. Take cuttings about 100cm long, in late summer to early autumn, with a small heel. Cuttings should take in ordinary soil, but you can improve their chances by dusting with rooting powder. Water with a mister every day.
Poplar (Populus sp.)
Poplars need a cool climate for best colour, but otherwise are very tolerant. Most poplar cuttings take easily. Use hardwood cuttings from autumn to spring—even cuttings several metres long will probably take. Plant in deep, moist soil.
Needs vary with species, but most proteas tolerate light frost and heat. Take cuttings in late summer to early autumn, about the size of your hand, from the top of strongly growing branches. Cut just below a bud. Keep moist and well-drained; mist with a spray every day. Some proteas take better than others. Proteas may also be grown from seed.
Rhododendrons and azaleas
Needs vary according to species and variety; some are frost tender and others are hardy. Most varieties will grow from cuttings in late summer or early autumn. Take tip growth, about 100mm long, with or without a heel. Keep moist—preferably by spraying several times a day—and in semi-shade. They may take three months to root.
Most roses take very easily from cuttings. A mixture of half sand and half potting mix is best, though a friend does well with cuttings in pure sand and the prunings which I just stick in the ground under the apple trees seem to take almost as well. Hybrid teas, especially yellow hybrid teas, are not supposed to form sturdy root systems from cuttings, but I have never found this to be a problem. Old-fashioned and rambling roses give almost 100 per cent success from cuttings, as do miniatures. The latter may flower in the first year, although for the sake for the sturdiness of the plant it's probably a good idea to pinch off the earliest buds. Any long bit of rose prunings will do as a cutting. Take off the lower leaves and thorns, and thrust it half way down into damp soil under a tree or in a pot of half sand and half potting mix. They will nearly always take. Keep the cuttings out of direct sunlight, and don't transplant them for at least a year.
Wisteria is very strong growing and needs a lot of room; it tolerates both frost and heat. Take stem cuttings in late spring from short laterals on the bottom of the vine. Keep moist in semi-shade and mist spray every day. Take root cuttings, about as long as your hand, in late winter. Plant them so that they slope in a pot with the upper part of the root just poking out of the soil. Cover with an inverted jar and keep them moist in the semi-shade until they start to shoot in spring. Don't disturb them for the first year till feeder roots grow.