Priceless Plants

Get great results by rooting cuttings or divisions of your houseplants.

Carolyn Taylor of Hooksett shows her granddaughter Leanne just how easy it is to pot up cuttings from her Christmas cactus to pass along to friends.

There may still be snow in your yard, but the lengthening days are a sign to your houseplants that it is time to get growing.

If you are itching to get your fingers in the dirt but find it is still frozen solid, turn to your indoor plants and try your hand at propagating some of them. It can be as simple as separating the new babies from an overgrown plant or sticking some fresh cuttings in a glass of water until they root.

Propagating plants from seed borders on miraculous, but growing them from divisions and cuttings produces results much faster. Instead of pampering seedlings for months, cuttings can be rooted and growing on their own in weeks—and healthy divisions are ready almost immediately. You can be assured each plant is identical to its parent—a clone.

Not only are these easy ways to save a buck by creating your own new plants, you add more horticultural skills to your gardening expertise. Just be forewarned: once you learn how easy and rewarding it can be, you might become a “serial propagator” and soon you’ll start looking at every plant as a potential source of material to be propagated.

This extremely potbound mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria) needed to be cut apart with a knife. The divisions will be potted up and given to the daughters and granddaughters of the original owner, writer Robin Sweetser’s mother-in-law. Messy but satisfying!

Don’t worry though, there is a support group for that—it is called a garden club.

Pass-along plants

Pass-along plants almost always have a story attached. You may have received it long ago or just yesterday, but that plant is usually a treasured reminder of a kinship between gardeners.

Carolyn Taylor, a member of the Hooksett Garden Club, says she has been on both the receiving and the giving ends. “I have several houseplants that I am always propagating and sharing. Two of my favorites are an angel wing begonia, which is huge, and an aloe vera that I have had for a long time.

“The begonia is super easy to propagate,” Taylor says. “I just take cuttings and put them in water until they root and then plant them in new soil. The aloe has ‘babies,’ which I just separate from the mother plant.”

In 1970, she received a Christmas cactus that had been propagated by a neighbor. “Since then, I have propagated probably a hundred plants from that forty-seven-year-old mother plant, which I still have. I take pieces from the ends and put them in rooting hormone and then into dirt. It’s so easy, and they almost always take. These are the plants I give away,” she says.

Take the water route

Susan Ernst, of the Peterborough Garden Club, learned about all methods of plant propagation from the Master Gardener program in Maine (see the Resources below for coordinators of the University of New Hampshire Extension Master Gardener program). “I have done grafting, layering, seeds, cuttings and divisions—everything except tissue culture,” she says. “But I learned the most about propagating houseplants from watching my mother and my aunt.”

Ernst’s favorite method of propagation is from cuttings. “Coleus, impatiens and begonias all are happy to form roots in a glass of water,” she says.

Her method is to take a sharp knife; cut the stems on the diagonal; gently pinch off any side leaves that would be below the water line, leaving at least three leaves on top; and place the cuttings in an opaque container full of water. “They’ll root in no time,” she says.

Rooting in water is simple, but rotting can be an issue. Sometimes water roots fail to make the transition to growing in soil, so be sure not to let them get too long before potting—less than an inch is best.

All that’s needed for cuttings are household scissors or sharp garden clippers, a razor blade, a serrated knife, rubbing alcohol to clean the blades, a piece of glass for a cutting surface and a zip-top bag for a greenhouse. Rooting hormone is optional.

Cutting edge

Rooting cuttings in potting soil or other sterile medium is also easy, and yields better results for a wider range of plants. Stem or tip cuttings can be taken, as long as the parent plant is healthy and growing. This method works best on any plant with a soft stem, not a hard, woody stem.

Experts recommend cutting leaves on a piece of glass. It won’t harbor germs and is easy to wipe clean with alcohol 
between plants. Begonias are very willing to root and form new plants from just a wedge-shaped piece of leaf.

Since fresh cuts are the best for rooting, assemble all your supplies before you start cutting. For a rooting medium, you can use any of the following alone or combine them to make a fast-draining mix: sterile potting soil, perlite, coarse sand or vermiculite. You need clean plastic pots or boxes, a sharp knife or razor blade, and alcohol to sterilize your blade between cuts. You can use powdered rooting hormone if you want, but many organic gardeners avoid using these products because they contain chemical fungicides. It will just take a little longer for roots to form without it.

Fill your containers with rooting medium, water well and let drain. Look for vigorous new side shoots or tip growth, and slice off a piece that is between 3 and 4 inches long. Remove the lower leaves and any flowers or buds; moisten the stem in water; and dip the cut end into a little pile of rooting hormone (not directly into the jar because you could contaminate the whole container).

Make a hole in the soil with a pencil, stick in your cutting, firm the soil around it, gently water it in and mist the top.

Transitional housing

To maintain moisture while the cuttings are forming roots, most cuttings (with the exception of succulents and cacti) need higher humidity than what’s available in the average home.

There are several easy ways to achieve this. You can place the box or pot of cuttings in a large zip-top bag; or you can make a mini-greenhouse from a clear 2-liter bottle. Simply cut off the base and slide the top over a round pot of cuttings. Remove the cap for ventilation.

If you have a lot of cuttings, use a large, plastic clamshell container that salad greens come in at the grocery store to make a propagation box. Put your pots of cuttings inside and snap the lid on.

Use recycled plastic containers for your fledgling nursery. Blue mushroom boxes hold African violet and begonia cuttings nestled in vermiculite. A clear clamshell with snap-on lid maintains humidity; for a small pot of cuttings, use a two-liter soda bottle as a cloche. Remove the cap to vent excess moisture.

Place your homemade plant ICU in a warm spot out of direct sun—a place where it is between 65 degrees and 75 degrees is optimum. Bottom heat helps cuttings root faster but is not necessary.

Open the container every few days to check for mold or wilted cuttings, and to add fresh air. This helps to prevent mildew from forming in the humid atmosphere.

After a week or two, if the plants look lively, take off the covering and move them into indirect light. If they wilt, mist them and put the covering back on for a few more days.

Check for rooting by giving them a gentle tug, being careful not to break the new roots. If they resist being pulled out, roots have begun to form.

Soon you’ll be able to move your new plants into their own pots filled with fresh potting soil. A few weeks after moving these new plants to their own pots, you can fertilize them and move them to their new indoor locations.

Slice and dice

.Some plants, such as African violets and begonias, are so willing to reproduce that you can make many new ones from just one leaf or a section of a leaf.

For a prettier mini-greenhouse, check out yard sales and secondhand shops for a cast-off terrarium, glass cloche or Wardian case like this one from Goodwill. It retains moisture while these Streptocarpus cuttings take root.

Streptocarpus leaves can be crosscut into 2-inch sections and the stem end of each section stuck into rooting medium. (Take care to note the direction they grew in—from tip to stem—because cuttings will not grow upside down.) Or you can cut away the midrib and place each half-leaf cut-side down on the medium. One leaf can produce hundreds of new plants.

Rex begonia leaves can be cut into wedges with each tip containing a bit of the stem. Stick the stem end into a rooting medium, and in no time at all, you will have baby begonias.

Multiply by division

Many plants form rosettes, runners, offshoots and suckers that are easily separated from the mother plant and potted up on their own. Multi-stemmed plants—such as sansevieria, ferns, clivia, peace lily, prayer plant and many foliage plants—are great for dividing.

Simply remove them from their pots and pull them apart by hand. If the plants put up a fight, slice them into sections with a sharp knife. Don’t try to divide vines, houseplants with woody stems or ones with single stems; a plant needs to have multiple growing points to be split successfully. Make sure each section has some roots and good top growth. Pot the divisions in fresh soil and water immediately. They will hardly skip a beat and soon will be as big as the original plant.

Jean Greff, of the Monadnock Herbal Society, has a greenhouse full of plants, many of which she has propagated, but she is known for her orchid collection.

“My greenhouse can get down to 45 degrees at night in the winter,” she says, “so I need plants that like it on the cool side.”

Greff has found cymbidiums and oncidiums perform the best for her, and she keeps them happy and growing by dividing them when they become pot-bound. They are not as easy to separate as Taylor’s baby aloe plants, so Greff uses an electric carving knife. “It has never seen a turkey,” she laughs.

After knocking the plants from their pots—quite a chore in itself since the cymbidiums are quite large—Greff is able to cleanly slice the groups of pseudobulbs apart into smaller sections, which she replants and shares with friends.

“The carving knife makes it so easy and it does very little damage to the plant,” she says.

Join a garden club

When it comes to propagating houseplants, you don’t need a degree in botany or a lot of fancy equipment to be successful, but membership in your local garden club is recommended. You can be introduced to a whole new world of like-minded people who are more than willing to trade cuttings with you and support your new adventures in horticulture.

Don’t Be a Plant Pirate

One word of caution, just make sure that the plants you are propagating from are not patent protected. Many plants are, so check their tags first. They will plainly state that propagation is prohibited.

Even if you don’t plan to sell the new plants, it is still illegal to propagate them without permission from the patent holder. You don’t want the “plant police” knocking on your door!

Categories: Gardening & Landscape