Alan’s guide to winter cuttings
Taking hardwood cuttings is a simple way to make more plants for free and the perfect task for a winter day. Alan Titchmarsh shows how to make more of your favourite shrubs
Of all gardening activities, rooting cuttings is one of the most satisfying. Snipping a piece from one plant and seeing it turn into a new one, not only provides a great sense of achievement but it also saves you money. Plants for free! What could be better? You might think that special equipment is needed to root cuttings – such as a propagator – and that the cost of providing heat to encourage roots to form speedily is expensive. But with hardwood cuttings that are taken at this time of year and rooted outdoors, all those concerns evaporate. You’ll need no equipment apart from a pair of secateurs and a large plant pot, and even that can be dispensed with if you have a spare patch of well- drained soil. Taking such cuttings is the perfect way of blowing away cobwebs on Boxing Day – and it makes a change from sowing championship onions! Hardwood cuttings are, as their name implies, taken from fully matured and hardened stems. The fact that they are rooted outdoors at a time of year not noted for its searing heat means that care and attention is kept to a minimum – watering is seldom an issue in the first few months. After that, any cuttings rooting in the open ground need minimal care – simply watering when the ground begins to dry out and kept free of competition from weeds.
Rooting is obviously slower at this time of year, but the fact that the plants are dormant and the sap stream has slowed almost to a standstill means that they will sit contentedly through the winter months without wilting or desiccating. They will begin to grow next spring and by the following autumn they will have a decent-sized root system, which means that they can be dug up, trimmed back to encourage branching out and transplanted to their final spots in the garden. ( Those gardeners with the ultimate eye to festive economy might consider that they will make good Christmas presents in 2019 and 2020!) The technique is mainly used to propagate deciduous shrubs, but some evergreens respond too, as do several climbers and fruit bush es. Apples, plums and pears are best avoided because they are usually grafted onto a different rootstock to control their growth, since their own root systems may be too feeble to support them or too vigorous for your space.
While you wait
Hardwood cuttings are for the patient gardener. They are not going to root in a matter of weeks. Instead, the lower cut surface will callus over during the winter, and roots will begin to emerge in spring
and early summer so that the plants have a well- establ ished root system by the following winter. Think of it as a yearly cycle and you will come to appreciate this time-honoured way of increasing your stock of shrubs without having recourse to a greenhouse. While this type of cutting requires very little effort or attention from the gardener, I wouldn’t want you to think that hardwood cuttings can be totally ignored once they have been committed to the ground. Aside from watering next spring and summer in times of drought, and removing any competing weeds, look out for rabbit and deer damage if these beasts are regulars in your garden. Small tunnels crafted from chicken wire and positioned over the cuttings will deter marauding mammals. After severe frosts – which cause damp ground to expand, often leaving roots dangling in mid air when the thaw comes – firm the earth back around the cuttings with your boots either side of the row. Failure to do so can result in the cuttings drying out, even in what you might think is a soggy time of year. But this is a simple task that can be speedily performed and the cuttings then left to get on with it. If you don’t have spare space in the ground, or you are taking cuttings to take with you when you move house, use a large pot. Hardwood cuttings that are rooted in
large pots rather than in the open ground will need a closer eye kept on them when it comes to watering, and when the weather turns really cold in the depths of winter, the containers will be best positioned in a sheltered spot alongside a house wall to prevent the compost from freezing solid. Bubblewrap round the pot can be used in severe cold snaps but, generally speaking, the cuttings will take whatever the weather throws at them without turning a hair. It is often hard to resist pulling a cutting out to see if it has rooted the following spring, but if you simply can’t wait to discover if your propagation has been successful, it’s better to gently prise up a cutt ing from the open ground with a fork, rather than just tugging at it, which may break off any embryonic roots that are forming. With cuttings in pots you can gently tap the pot away from the compost to check root growth, which should be visible on the outer edge of the compost. But there really is little point in doing this until the shoots are growing away in midsummer and you are confident that the cutt ings have survived the winter weather. Remember, too, that some cuttings take longer to root than others – for example, willow ( Salix) is much faster than dogwood ( Cornus). Come next autumn, dig up the rooted cuttings from the open ground, and tap out
and separate those that have been rooted in pots. No matter how good a gardener you are, there will be a few – hopefully not too many – that have simply sat there and not rooted (pop them back in if you want to prove a point!) or else turned brown and died. This often happens, which is why it is always worthwhile taking more cuttings than you need. Those that are well rooted will seldom resent the disturbance as long as they are replanted in their new location or potted up without delay. Any that are surplus to requirements can be given away, or taken to plant sales the following spring. When it comes to planting out your cuttings, snip back any newly grown shoots by about half to encourage your new plants to bush out and form a balanced framework of branches in their first full year of growth as an individual. Plant them out in soil that has been enriched with a generous helping of wellrotted manure or garden compost and they will settle in during the autumn and winter to grow away lustily the following spring. And that’s the point when you will f ind yourself basking in the glow of satisfaction that comes from growing a new plant from a twig.
Alan chooses healthy, pencilthick dogwood stems for cuttings