At one time or another all gardeners are tempted to take a cutting or two. Root cuttings, or divisions, are easy. In most cases, a bit of stem and leaf remain with the root cutting. It soon recovers from the division and goes on with the business of growing. This makes perfect sense. Stem and leaf cuttings are something else though. A bit of bare stem, stuck into the ground, makes roots. How? And why?
It is amazing.
Leaf cuttings are even more amazing. How can a leaf grow roots? And how does a slip of a leaf know to grow roots and not waste its precious stored energy in growing an unproductive stem first? It baffles me no end.
Although I've done it many times, it always amazes me to see a demonstration of the strength and tenacity of the life force in stick and leaf. To see for myself that a piece of a leaf carries the perfect pattern for the whole - root stem leaf, flower and seed - always blows me away. And this is one of the reasons why I like taking cuttings. The other is to obtain unusual or rare plants or shrubs. The whole thing is rather easy mostly, and a lot of things root quite readily. The key to growing cuttings successfully is to support this life force as much as we can.
In taking cuttings, especially if away from home, it is most important to keep the life force strong and reduce the stress to the cutting as much as possible. A clean, straight across cut is far better than a slanted one, as it exposes less area to the drying air. Most cuttings should not be shorter than three inches or longer than six. Tuck these into a little plastic bag and sprinkle a few drops of water into the bag. This will supply sufficient moisture to keep the life force strong. Seal the bag and keep it as cool and dark as you can. A cutting will uselessly transpire moisture when exposed to heat and light, and the life force will soon exhaust itself under these conditions. Just keep it as moist, (not wet), cool and dark as possible.
Transplant the cuttings as soon as possible into a prepared rooting medium. The rooting medium should drain really well. If too much water is retained in the soil, the cutting will just rot. Pure sand, vermiculite or perlite works really well. Peat moss retains far too much moisture, and should be added very sparingly, if at all. A touch of bone meal for root development does help. Make a fresh diagonal cut now at the end of the stem to increase the surface area for greater root development area, dip into a rooting hormone and stick it into the rooting medium to a depth of two inches.
Before inserting the cutting into the soil, remove all leaves except the top two. And if the top two leaves are large, leave only one, and cut this in half. All that is needed to maintain sufficient photosynthesis is about half a square inch of leaf surface. Any more leaf surface will require more transpiration than the cutting can provide without roots. Seventy degrees (F) soil temperature will accelerate root development dramatically.
A soil-heating cable is ideal, as it heats the soil without heating the air. Otherwise 85 degrees (F) air temperature will provide 70 degree F. soil temperature. Wet the medium well, and seal the environment.
A clear glass jar or a clear plastic bag supported on sticks will seal the environment and preserve moisture. What we want is high humidity without wetness. Provide shaded bright light to reduce the transpiration demands of direct light. And that is all there is to it. You'll have somewhere between 80% and 100% success under these conditions.
The best time to take cuttings for most growing things is after flowering, when the new green growth is sufficiently long to take a cutting. At this time, when the new growth is active, the life force is at its strongest.
Fresh growth, in most cases would be soft cuttings. Some plants grow best from ripened cuttings, usually one-year-old growth. Others root best from hardwood, or old wood cuttings. It would take an encyclopedia to list them all. The only thing is to look it up, try, ask, or otherwise find out.
One of the best rooting hormones can be easily prepared at no cost by crushing fresh willow branches in a shallow pan and covering them with water. Let this sit and soak for 24 to 48 hours, before using it. The willow has one of the most powerful rooting hormones known.
This is all we need to do to obtain a replica of that old rose, rare shrub, or unusual plant. A bit of sand, a glass jar, a kindly place, neither too hot nor too bright, a bit of willow juice, and we can watch the life force grow into its perfect pattern contained in leaf and stem.
The 'mystery rose' shown above is a beautiful climbing rose, ca 1930 or earlier, found on an old trellis.
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