|Have you ever had THAT plant—the one that you just loved so much? Maybe it flowered freely all summer in the perfect shade of peach, or lit up that dark corner with splashy silver foliage, or made a striking centerpiece in that pot of petunias. But then the next year, you went to the garden center (6 of them) to get it, and it’s nowhere to be found?
What’s a gardener to do? It’s fun to try something new, but having the tried and true to build upon allows a little more leeway for experimentation. If you’ve found one of those plants, whether an annual you want again this year, or a perennial you’d like to add to that other flower bed, consider propagating it yourself.
For some plants, it may be as easy as poking a broken stem into the soil, while others will be more challenging. But either way, if you’re a gardener, it’s something you’ve got to try sometime—because when it works, it’s so amazing!
Here you'll find some tips on easy plants to propagate that will get you absolutely hooked. Before you know it, you’ll be filling up new containers, making new beds for your babies, or gifting plants to friends. I have a hard time throwing away any pruned bits now—who knows what could happen with a little effort?
Before we begin, though, one caveat: many plants today are patented, and unlicensed propagation is illegal. That doesn’t mean anyone’s going to come after you for making a few new plants, but you can’t sell them, and it certainly should not be done on any large scale. Just remember that someone worked long and hard to breed and get that plant to market, and we should respect their creations. Additionally, it's a no-no to take your cuttings from plants at the local nursery. If you're a really good customer, they may let you have some trimmings now and then, though!
We'll use coleus as our demonstration plant for taking and sticking cuttings--the method is the same for most non-woody plants. (With woody plants, it's important to know when to take the cutting--i.e. how developed the stems should be.) Not all herbaceous plants can be propagated this way, and some are more difficult than others. Dipping the cuttings in a rooting hormone powder (easily found online or in any garden center) can be helpful, although not always necessary.
The only tools you'll need are a sharp pair of pruners, (or even scissors are fine for most annuals), some potting mix, and some empty pots. You can stick multiple cuttings in a pot if you don't plan on separating them later. For separate cuttings, 2.5 inch pots or smaller, or empty disinfected (with 10% bleach solution) 6-packs work well.
Especially with more valuable or sensitive plants, please do what I didn't do--make sure your workspace is clean and sanitary, and disinfect your pruners between cuttings. This will help avoid spreading any fungal or bacterial disease.
Coleus is probably the easiest plant to start with—cuttings root quickly and easily. It can be difficult to find room to overwinter a full-grown coleus, so if you’re cutting it back to bring it inside, those trimmings are just begging to be potted up. Or, you can just bring a few cuttings inside and keep near a sunny window to have new plants for the spring.
First you'll want to fill your pots with moistened, well-draining potting mix--no garden soil. Tamp the mix down lightly.
Now you're ready to take your cuttings. These will be "softwood" cuttings-- the stem should snap, not just bend, if it is at the right stage. When you prune any plant, you want to do so right above the leaf nodes (the place where the leaves meet the stem). You want each cutting to have at least 3 sets of nodes; depending on the plant, the cuttings will be 3 to 5 inches long. Cut the bottom about a half inch below the lowest set of nodes.
Next, remove the leaves from the lowest set of nodes--you can clip them, or pinch them off. Those exposed nodes are where the new roots will grow. Take a chopstick or a pencil and make a hole in the potting mix deep enough to place the cutting up to the second set of nodes. Plant the cutting and firm the mix around it--it's important for there to be good contact between the mix and the cutting.
If the leaves remaining on the cutting are very large, you may need to trim them. You need enough leaf area for photosynthesis, but not so much that the cutting will wilt. With easy plants like coleus, I'll usually wait and cut off anything that doesn't look good after a day or two. Unless you've let them dry out, that won't usually be necessary with this tough customer.
For plants that are more difficult to root, you can dip the cut end in rooting hormone powder first. To prevent contamination, you'll want to put some of the rooting powder on a clean paper towel or in a separate small container--don't dip right into the jar. Tap the cutting to remove the excess powder, then insert the cutting into the hole you made in the mix. Make sure your hole is big enough so that the powder isn't removed when inserting. Then firm the mix around the cutting.
Gently water in the cuttings at soil level. It's best to keep the foliage as dry as possible to avoid disease.
Here in Maryland in the summertime, there's no need to worry about adequate humidity. But in other situations, you may need to place a couple of sticks taller than the cutting in the pot, and cover the whole shebang with a plastic bag. Voila, instant greenhouse.
Place the cuttings in a shaded area and keep moist. After a week or so, pull gently on the cuttings to feel for resistance, which would mean roots are forming. Some plants may take several weeks to accomplish this. Another good sign is new growth on the cutting. At this point you can move them gradually into the appropriate amount of sunlight for the plant--over the course of 7 to 10 days is usually sufficient. You can fertilize with half strength liquid fertilizer once a week.
That's really all there is to it. This is one of the coleus cuttings after 10 days--look at all those roots! They were just coming out of the sides of the Go-Grow pot already. Even with this much disturbance, this cutting will still be fine, but you will want to handle yours a little more kindly.
Once your cuttings have grown sufficiently, pot them up or plant where you desire. Or do what I'm going to do, and give them away as gifts for friends and family. Now get yourself a coleus (or one of the other plants suggested in our link below) and give this a try--trust me, you'll be hooked! In future, we'll give you tips on other great plants to try that can be propagated in other ways.
More Plants from Softwood Cuttings