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How to take softwood cuttings

Rooted cuttingsOne of the joys of working with plants is how easy they are to propagate, even without waiting for the plants to go to seed.  I've posted previously about propagating grapes from hardwood cuttings, but during the summer, the techniques are a little different.  Now the cuttings are known as "softwood cuttings" because they consist of this year's new, flexible growth along with the leaves, and the technique is subtly different too.

Choose an easy plant to propagate.  I've got a windowsill of softwood cuttings in action right now, but some are highly experimental.  The sweet potato slips I began in a bed of gravel are one of the easiest types of softwood cuttings --- they root in just a few days.  Similarly, I snipped off some suckers from my tomatoes when I was pruning last week because I want a few more plants, and I expect to see roots on all the new tomato plants shortly.  I've had 17% rooting success with softwood cuttings of rosemary and 50% success with hardy kiwis (although the latter died when I didn't baby them enough in the garden.)  Currently, I'm also trying out thyme (which is supposed to be relatively easy) and trifoliate orange (the dwarfing rootstock for Meyer lemons.)  I recommend starting with any vigorous perennial you're in love with, as long as the original plant didn't come grafted onto a different rootstock (a sure sign that softwood cuttings will be difficult.)

Tomato cuttingsTake a cutting with four or five nodes.  Both softwood and hardwood cuttings need at least four nodes per cutting (five is better) since these are the points that can grow leaves and roots.  Nodes are easily visible on dormant grapevines as bumpy spots, and on softwood cuttings as the location where leaves are attached to the stem.  Since you can't expect every cutting to root, you might as well increase your chances of success by taking several.

Keep the plants moist.  Softwood cuttings are much more sensitive than hardwood cuttings are to lack of moisture.  After all, the plants have leaves actively releasing water into the atmosphere, so they need new water to take the lost liquid's place.  The best way to keep softwood cuttings moist is to install misters that wet the plants (either from above or below) every minute or two, but in the homesteading world, you can often get away with just putting your cuttings in a glass of water.  Make sure that at least two of the nodes are below the water level at all times, and change the water if it starts to get gunky.  An alternative is to fill a pot with moist potting soil, stick the cuttings into the dirt two nodes deep, and then attach a transparent plastic bag over the top of the pot.  (I've had less luck with the second method because it's tougher to harden off the plants to low moisture conditions after they root.)

Willow natural rooting hormoneRooting hormone increases your chances.  You can buy rooting hormone in the store, but I like to just snip a few twigs off the creek willow (Black Willow, Salix nigra, but any willow will work) and stick them in the glass with my cuttings.  Willows release a natural rooting hormone as they grow their own roots, which will speed your more important cuttings along.

Harden off your new plants.  Once your cuttings grow roots, you'll be tempted to toss them into the garden.  That's fine with the very vigorous rooters like tomatoes and sweet potatoes, but I've learned the hard way that more tender perennials need some time expanding their root network before being set out in the hot sun.  (As a rule of thumb, figure that if you had less than 90% success with rooting your cuttings, they need a hardening off period.)  Transplant your rooted cuttings into pots and put them in a sunny windowsill (but not in a hot greenhouse), watering them regularly.  Once the plant's roots fill the pot, your cutting is ready to go into the ground.

If you haven't already jumped on the softwood cutting bandwagon, I strongly encourage you to give it a try.  The only downside is finding a spot in the garden for all those vigorous plants you materialized out of thin air.

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