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Ten tips for successful rooting

Taking hardwood cuttings

Want to increase your success rate rooting cuttings?  Try out these ten tips.

1. Pay attention to time of day and time of year.  As I mentioned in a previous post, softwood, greenwood, and hardwood cuttings are all taken at different times of year, and different plant species respond better to different seasons.  If you're taking softwood or greenwood cuttings, it's best to actually cut the stems early in the morning when they're full of water and the air is cool to minimize wilting.

2. Skip the tips and blooms.  The actively growing tips of twigs usually have less stored carbohydrates, meaning that they don't have as much food to draw on before they root and start photosynthesizing again.  Similarly, parts of trees that have flower buds are going to be putting their energy elsewhere, so it's best to choose areas that aren't flowering this year.

Cone of juvenility3. Stick to the young.  Within the same tree or bush, certain parts of the plant act younger than others.  The so-called cone of juvenility shows the parts of a tree that are the least mature biologically and most likely to root easily.  If you're trying to propagate lots of plants effectively, it can be worth coppicing the parent plant so that it keeps putting out new growth from within the cone.  And even if you're selecting cuttings from  a mature tree, you can try to get more youthful twigs by finding sprouts low and near the trunk.

4. Choose a good rooting medium.  As long as it's fluffy and able to hold a lot of water, most rooting mediums work pretty well.   Options include sand, peat, perlite, pine bark, pumice, or sandy soil (and I generally use stump dirt).  Remember that your plants don't need much fertility in their rooting medium, although you will probably want to add some kind of fertilizer once they're well rooted and are putting out new leaves.

Fungi on cuttings5. Rooting hormones and fungicides can help.  I wrote a whole post about rooting hormones, some of which include anti-fungicidal agents.  I learned the hard way that cuttings can be the perfect habitat for fungi, but I also suspect that if you do everything else right, you might not need the chemical aids.

6. Wounding isn't always bad.  Difficult-to-root greenwood and hardwood cuttings are sometimes wounded near the base to promote rooting.  Wounding usually consists of scarring the bark (but not the green cambium underneath) for half to one inch of the base.  Similarly, girdling can be used as a preconditioning step for rooting since it concentrates carbohydrates and hormones in small area, which will make roots form better there.

7. Keep cuttings moist but not wet.  Softwood and greenwood cuttings, especially, can dry out by losing too much water through their leaves before they root.  Steps as simple as partial shade or a plastic bag over top of the pot can work, as can more complicated misting setups used in nurseries.  However, be aware that too much moisture can be a problem, especially in the slower-growing hardwood cuttings. 

Heat pad for propagation8. Some like it hot.  Bottom heat can help cuttings root...or it can prompt them to grow leaves, use up their reserves too quickly, and perish.  The most common use of heat is beneath cuttings started outdoors in the winter.  Next most common is using heat to callus hardwood cuttings, which helps precondition them for rooting.  To callus cuttings, apply bottom heat for four weeks, place in plastic bag in the dark at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, bury upside down in soil, sand, or sawdust, or store in a warm, moist place for three to five weeks.  As you can tell from the various methods, it's probably best to look up the species you're considering rooting before deciding whether and how to callus.

9. Don't rush them out of the nursery.  Softwood cuttings, especially, often benefit from spending two years being babied before being planted in their final location.  And a few cuttings even need supplemental light in the fall to prompt them to put out a growth spurt and store enough energy to make it through the winter.  If you're going to go to all the trouble of rooting cuttings, don't let them die on you after the roots form.

10. Keep notes.  So many variables can affect the success or failure of your cuttings that it's essential to write everything down so you can make changes and try again.  And don't feel bad if the techniques that work for someone else don't work for you.  Some varieties within the same species root better than others, so you might not even be on an even playing field.

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This post is part of our Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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The hardwood cuttings from the Hardy Kiwis I put on heat thinking it would help I can only hope that didn't' sap all their energy into making new leaves or vines. I noticed the ones I made with our Issai Kiwi put out vines with and flower buds. I'll try pinching them back to redirect the energy, but may just have to try again.
Comment by Brian Fri Mar 1 14:41:15 2013

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