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Bring a Bit of Summer Inside With New Plants Grown From Cuttings

August 27, 1994|ADRIENNE COOK | TIMES-POST NEWS SERVICE

It seems only fair there should be a way to capture the color of the summer flower garden and save it for winter.

In fact, there is a way, and it costs little and is infinitely rewarding, especially for the new gardener. It is the practice of taking cuttings from certain plants, rooting them and planting them in pots and hanging baskets. With a little nurturing, they will grow into glorious clones of their summer selves, sustaining warm color and brightness through the cooler months.

It is an aspect of gardening that seems to dwell simultaneously in two worlds. It is highly practical--you're getting the equivalent of a hanging basket for free--but also quite magical: The business of turning a section of stem into a fully equipped plant is mysterious to say the least.

A cutting is simply a short, four- to eight-inch stem piece snipped off the plant--it might or might not include existing flowers and leaves.

With some plants, the cutting must be done with the skill of a surgeon. With most garden annuals, however, even the newest gardeners can produce results with any stem from the plant.

In a growing medium--water is fine for these willing recruits--the bottom of the stem soon will produce small white roots. Old hands avoid the urge simply to dig up the whole original plant and bring it in--with time, rooted cuttings are sturdier and healthier indoor companions.

To make indoor plants out of outdoor annuals, you need to begin now. First assemble supplies: containers and hanging baskets of various sizes, bagged potting soil, compost, perlite, houseplant fertilizer or an all-purpose organic fertilizer such as fish emulsion and optional rooting compound or powder. All are available at garden centers.

Although hundreds of plant varieties lend themselves to cloning through cuttings and rooting, there are a handful of sure-fire hits.

Varieties that have soft or succulent stems will root most easily, while those with stiff or slightly woody stems tend to be the most reluctant. Three that root readily are geraniums, basil and impatiens. Coincidentally, these three also make good potted plants, so they are ideal for this project.

First, take your cuttings. With good scissors, cut the stem cleanly for a four- to eight-inch piece. Take prunings from several parts of the plant and from more than one variety since they come in a range of colors.

Put cuttings in a container that will not crowd them--a wide-mouth jar, a small bucket--so they are submerged about halfway up in water, like a bouquet of flowers. This is the easiest way, and it works very well to get stems to begin rooting. Another method is to dunk stem ends in water, followed by a dip in rooting powder, a hormone that stimulates root growth. These then are not put in water, but pushed into a container of moistened perlite, a white, pearly and sterile growing medium used to add porosity to potting soils and to root cuttings. The second method will deliver more certain results, but it takes more space and requires a little more expertise.

If cuttings are in water, you will be able to see when stems begin showing roots. Some stems will blacken and wither, but most will develop roots within two weeks. When the roots get about three inches long, the new plant cuttings are ready to go into a planting medium. This stage is the trickiest and, because of the transition, has the highest rate of mortality.

A carefully prepared growing medium will increase the chances of success. To get containers ready for the young plants, mix two parts potting soil, two parts compost, one part perlite. Blend and moisten so it is wet but not soaked. Then fill the containers.

You can put several cuttings in one pot, but bury them deeply--between two and four, or even six inches--and plant gently to avoid damage to the young roots. Carefully firm the planting medium around each plant. You will know in a few days whether the cutting has taken--a successful one will look healthy and sturdy. A wilting plant probably won't make it. Once the cuttings are launched, fertilize them and prune their tops back to encourage branching immediately.

You can continue to grow these plants inside, providing you give them enough light, but most gardeners prefer to set them outside for the first few weeks of growth. Don't put them in direct sunlight.

If they are outside, you will have to acclimate them to their eventual indoor habitat. When the weather gets cooler, bring them inside in the evening and set them out during the day. After a week, reduce their outdoor time to half a day. A week or so later, the transition should be complete.

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