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SPRING TO IT 2001 | Books

How to Make the Cut When Propagating


Bring up the P word to most weekend gardeners and self-doubt sprouts like weeds. Ken Druse knows; he's seen the reactions.

"They are definitely scared," said Druse, a plant-propagation proponent of the first order. "They think propagation is a mysterious scientific discipline only done by professionals."

"Well, they're wrong, of course. In fact, many, [even hobbyists], do it and they may not even be aware of it."

Druse's book, "Making More Plants: The Science, Art, and Joy of Propagation" ($45, Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2000), is all about taking the flowers, shrubs or whatever you have and using various techniques to have them go forth and multiply. The author wants to de-mystify the process because, at least from his point of view, what could be more satisfying than creating a nursery?

"It really is the most thrilling part of gardening," Druse said in an interview from his studio in Brooklyn, N.Y. "It's like making a baby. And besides, you can make a new plant for free."

But he realizes propagation can be a hard sell. Druse frequently lectures on it and is often bemused by the lack of confidence he encounters. He recalled a dinner after one of his recent talks.

"I mentioned propagation and this one woman just shook her head, like it was something impossible to even consider," Druse said. "Then she turned to a friend and thanked her for a honeysuckle cutting. Then she turned to me, 'Oh,' she said, 'I guess that is propagation.' She was right."

Give it a try, that's Druse's advice. Here are basic steps for some of the more common techniques:

* Cuttings. Like many gardeners, Druse thinks of gifts when he thinks of cuttings. "When you say 'cutting,' a piece of stem comes to mind--and then, perhaps, a person or a place," he writes in the introduction to the cuttings section. "One neighbor passed a 'slip' over the fence to another who rooted it and gave a piece to a friend across town."

Generally, when taking a cutting, make sure it's from 3 to 6 nodes long. A node is where leaves emerge from the stem. After you take or receive a fresh cutting, stick it in water or wrap it in a wet paper towel, then slip it into a plastic bag. Cuttings can be kept as long as a week in the refrigerator.

For planting, leave only the top three or four leaves on the cutting; pinch off the rest. Recut the end just below a node. Keep the cutting moist and protected from sun and wind. Dip the stem into water and, though not necessary all the time, consider a dunk in rooting hormone, which can be bought at a nursery. Then plant the cutting in a small pot filled with half peat moss, half sand. You can also buy a rooting medium at the nursery.

For the final steps, water the pot, then put it in a large plastic bag. You can also create what Druse calls a "sweatbox," basically an enclosed tray, to hold several cuttings. Put them in a bright but shady spot while waiting for them to root.

Once they have rooted--you'll just have to look, but be careful--toss out the bag and continue to treat them like spoiled babies. Plant when they've matured.

* Layering. Druse gets a tad surreal when describing this process. "Just imagine if you could stick your elbow in the ground and grow a new you," he said during our talk. "That's pretty much what layering is like."

For layering, you'll need plants with healthy branches that can reach the soil. The best choices are youngish and flexible; they've got to be moved around, so avoid those that can break easily. Dig a small hole--a few inches deep and wide--near the mother plant.

Remove the leaves at a node in a spot on the branch that can easily reach the hole. Place the branch there and cover with soil, making sure the node is buried but the rest of the branch is exposed. Refill the hole and hold the branch in place by anchoring it with something heavy such as a stone or brick.

Water as usual and check root progress every month or so. As soon as the branch has rooted, you can cut it off from the main plant. Give it a while longer to get comfortable where it is; after a time, you can replant it somewhere else.

* Dividing. "An invitation to the ball," is one way Druse looks at dividing. The ball he's talking about is that dense mass of roots that can be found with many plants, especially perennials.

Approaches vary somewhat, usually depending on the root thickness and the specific flower or shrub variety, but generally, start with the plants with the biggest root balls. After gently digging up a plant, cut it in half at the root.

Of course, the portion of the original plant should be put back in the soil immediately and the rest can be cut into smaller parts. Make sure, however, that each has enough root matter to take hold. And the top growth should be cut back a few inches.

If you want to wait a day or two to pot the sections or give them to friends, wrap the roots in wet paper towels and stick them in bags.

* Grafting. Grafting may be the superstar of propagation, but even Druse hesitates to recommend it to novices. Though grafting can produce spectacular results, it's far more challenging and unpredictable than the simpler techniques.

"It's just very difficult to pull off and takes experience," said Druse, who dedicates several pages in "Making More Plants" to the practice. "It's like a heart transplant when you get it to work."

But sometimes grafting may be the only way to reproduce or repair an old, favorite tree. Or perhaps you have an interesting hybrid in mind.

What to do? Learn and practice.

"If you're determined, I'd suggest going to demonstrations and reading books," Druse said. "There's really no simple way. . . . You need to find out as much as you can [and] then experiment. Count on that there will be trial-and-error along the way."

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