The Art of Propogation

While I’m certainly no expert on propogation, I thought I’d share my little successes in this most satisfying of garden practices, in the hopes that others might be inspired to take a few cuttings of their own–particularly when they see how simple and fun it can be.

My mother-in-law is the master of this art, and it was her fine example that led me to take a few tentative samples from the majestic hydrangeas in the garden of a house she had recently moved away from. My husband looked down at the handful of bare, brown twigs I held out to him and said, "Those are going to be bushes?" Truth be told, I had my doubts, as well, but I certainly wouldn’t be out anything if the project failed. So I took them home and looked up ‘Propogation of Cuttings’ in my cherished 1931 Gardening in the South by George R. Briggs. I’ve always been just a little bit afraid of George R. Briggs–he’s no nonsense, and has very strong opinions on things I’d never even thought of before–but I trust him. If he says that an all-over mulch spoils the effect of a rose bed, then I lay the bed to grass around the bushes. If he tells me to cut said roses almost to the ground, I swallow hard and then fall upon them with the shears. And if he states that, "Plants grown from cuttings are by far the most important from the home owner’s standpoint," then, by golly, I’d better get busy propogating! 😉

I really was amazed at how simple it was. The size of the cutting itself will vary according to the plant or shrub, but you need to clip a twig that has at least two or three nodes along the stem. Cut as close to the nodes as possible at the top and bottom of the twig, and if there are leaves, strip all but the top node.   

Surprisingly, one of the best mediums for rooting cuttings is wet sand. It seems to hold just the right amount of moisture close to the stem and stays damp for a long time. Immerse the cutting in a jar of play sand that has been soaked with water and the excess poured off–only the top node should be above the surface. This will produce–or continue to produce–the leaves, while the nodes beneath will send down the roots. Miraculous! :) They need a good source of light, and, if it’s still cold, protection from the elements. (I started mine under a flourescent light in the basement.) And they need to be kept evenly moist, never flooded or dried out. That’s all!

That first attempt of mine was quite ambitious–as all of my first attempts at anything new seem to be when I have no idea what I’m getting into! In addition to the hydrangeas, I started some wild grapes from a vine Philip’s grandfather had planted, as well as several varieties of my mother-in-law’s roses, including a Chinquapin rose that she had propogated from a cutting of her great-grandmother’s bush!

As none of my samples had any leaves on them, it really was fascinating and exciting to watch each and every one leaf out and begin to grow over the weeks that followed. To be sure, it took a long time to see any progress, and many days I was tempted to toss the whole lot as a failed venture, but I’ll never forget that morning that I went down to check on them and saw that first little flush of green at the tip of a hydrangea cutting. I think I danced a jig for joy!

Once my roses leafed out, I planted them in a ‘holding bay’ corner of my flower garden and placed mason jars over them. As they continued to grow, the moisture given off by the leaves created a nice little hothouse effect. This can also be done after the initial bushes have gotten their leaves, skipping the wet sand stage and keeping several inches of foliage above the ground.

The hydrangeas and grape vines summered on the patio in pots and were put out the following spring. It is worth noting that I planted four ‘store bought’ hydrangeas across the yard the very same day that these still-tiny bushes went in the ground–and now, almost three years later, the plants from cuttings are three times the size of those nursery varieties! They’re not full grown yet–and I’m sure they’re looking forward to some fertilizer this spring!–but they’re sturdy and staunch and their blooms have been large and long-lasting. (Not to mention the fact that they survived both the roofing and the painting of the house, being planted along the western wall and subject to unbelievable debris and trampling and ladders and heavy boots!)

There are untold methods and means of this gentle art, but each, I’m sure, will yield the same rewarding results. I love it because it’s fun, and it makes me feel like I’m being a good steward of the beauty God surrounds us with. And I appreciate the sense of connection it can give with people and places–other gardeners, dear friends, loved spots.

When my mother and I drove away from my grandmother’s house for the very last time after the closing, I stopped in the driveway and snapped off a branch of the oak leaf hydrangea that grew outside the dining room windows. It was like a little bit of my grandmother, and all that she loved. I’m still nursing it along in a little pot on my porch a year and-a-half later. But I like to think that down the road I can point it out to my children in my yard and remind them where it came from. And maybe they’ll look forward to taking a cutting for their own someday gardens…   

4 Responses to “The Art of Propogation”

  1. heartandhome says:

    I’m nearly inspired to try this out myself–the sentimental in me likes the thought of bushes and trees and flowers taken from special places–but I don’t know if I could do it… I think I’d kill the poor things just by thinking the thought. I just think I’m doomed to a life of brownery.

  2. Joanna says:

    I am new to your blog and I just love it.
    Can you post some pictures of your house and property?

  3. April says:

    The only propagation I’ve done in my life is Devil’s Ivy (wherein you merely lop off a long end, drop it in a jar of water and leave it for a few weeks). I should dearly like to make a garden (or at least part of a garden) with plants from friends. Unfortunately, my friends are spread all over the country! 😉 I wonder if the cuttings would last long enough to be mailed, or do they need to be put in the wet sand right away?

  4. To be honest, April, I don’t know. Maybe if they were wrapped in damp paper towels and shipped in a mailer with bubble wrap?? It’d definitely be worth a try…