Plants for free
Carol shows how to make more of your favourite plants in the first of a three-part series unlocking the mysteries of propagation. This month she explains softwood cuttings
In the first of a three-part series, Carol explains how to take softwood cuttings
Softwood cuttings root faster – you’ll soon have an army of young plants
Making new plants from cuttings you’ve gathered in your own garden is thrilling. Putting strong, young plants into your garden that have been grown ‘ to order’ is far more satisfying than buying plants and a lot cheaper, too. Being thrifty is second nature to many gardeners, but producing a plant for free – nurturing it as a cutting, potting it up and preparing it to take its place in the garden – is particularly grat i fying. In the process, you learn more about the plant, its nature and its needs than you could from any textbook or television guru. September is the perfect time to take softwood cuttings. Many plants, including shrubs and tender perennials, have produced fresh green growth over summer, which can be used now to make new plants. These types of cuttings root faster than hardwood cuttings and you’ll soon have an army of young plants, ready to plant out when spring arrives. These can also act as insurance for any tender plants that don’t make it through winter.
Why not just sow seed? It’s the easiest way to make more plants, it’s almost always successful and you can produce hundreds of plants. Cuttings take more care, you make fewer plants and, unless you’re an absolute whizz, it’s a slower process. But seedlings aren’t clones of their parents. They may well be lookalikes, but the progeny of some plants can vary enormously. Cuttings are a reliable way to get ident ical plants. You might want to make a new hedge, with plants such as box or lavender, or perhaps edge a formal bed uniformly with a coloured leafed sage or penstemon. If you grow lavender from seed the results will be haphazard. To make sure your hedge becomes a thing of beauty – consistent in flower colour, habit and even scent – then it must be grown from cuttings and these cuttings must all come from one plant. Taking cuttings also makes it possible to
propagate a range of plants that won’t grow from seed, because they are sterile hybrids or they don’t set viable seed.
You can try taking cuttings from any shrub that has suitable shoots. Always use new, young shoots – softwood and greenwood cuttings are basically the same and are easy to distinguish by their green colour, rather than the brown of older wood, and their bendiness. There is nothing complicated about the different types of cutting – the descriptions softwood, greenwood, semiripe, ripe and hardwood simply describe how ripe or old the wood is. Some shrub cuttings are easier to root than others, but there will almost certainly be several that will root and turn into fine shrubs. Try fuchsias, lavatera, philadelphus, physocarpus and viburnums, as well as hydrangeas and salvias. Many of these can also be grown from hardwood cuttings, which we’ll talk about next month. I’ll follow that up by showing how to grow new plants from root cuttings, in November. These are all reliable, easy methods of filling your garden with more of your best-loved plants. Though we usually associate taking cuttings with propagating shrubs, there are many other types of plants you can make more of at this time of year. Apart from lavender, other sub- shrubs such as
Softwood cuttings are easy to distinguish by their green colour and bendiness
helichrysum, rosemary, sage and santolina are good candidates, as well as climbers such as clematis, honeysuckle, roses and many perennials. At Glebe Cottage, we grow several asters and though many can be divided in spring, if I’ve missed the boat I make up for it by taking short side shoots from them in September. Most of the varieties we grow are close to the species from which they were selected or bred, and are strong and healthy, such as Symphyotrichum (the new name for asters) ‘Little Carlow’. Short side shoots can be gently pulled away with a ‘heel’ (small piece of stem) from the tall main stems. The heel can then be tidied up with a sharp knife, the lower leaves cut off and any potential flower buds removed. You can use the same method with shrubs. Try other asters, too, such as ‘Coombe Fishacre’ – a favourite of mine that has pale, lavenderpink f lowers with bronze centres – or cultivars of Symphyotrichum ericoides and S. novae-angliae. Many of the slightly tender daisies – such as argyranthemums and osteospermum
– can be increased in this way, though with the most tender varieties, they must be kept well above freezing. My mum’s kitchen windowsill would be thronging with such cuttings throughout the winter. Last year, when filming our ‘ plant families’ strand at RHS Rosemoor, we took softwood cuttings from a moss rose. They rooted very successfully and though, commercially, roses are usually budded or grafted, the roses you root yourself are usually strong and robust. They are now sitting happily in their own pots waiting to be planted out into the garden. There’s a great joy in seeing new white roots protruding from the drainage holes of your pot of cuttings and strong new growth bursting out at the top. Get started now and soon your young plants – the offspring of so many favourite shrubs and perennials – wi l l be growing in your garden, all created for free.