How to Propagate Plants from Cuttings

By The National Gardening Association, Bob Beckstrom, Karan Davis Cutler, Kathleen Fisher, Phillip Giroux, Judy Glattstein, Michael MacCaskey, Bill Marken, Charlie Nardozzi, Sally Roth, Marcia Tatroe, Lance Walheim, Ann Whitman

When people speak of propagating plants, they usually mean taking cuttings — using pieces of stems, roots, and leaves to start new plants. Softwood stem cuttings, taken from spring until midsummer, root the quickest. During this time, plants are actively growing, and the stems are succulent and flexible.

Here’s how to take a softwood stem cutting:

  1. Cut a 4- to 5-inch-long (10 to 12 cm) stem (or side shoot) just below a leaf, and remove all but two or three leaves at the top.

    Make sure you use a sharp knife to minimize damage.

  2. Dip the cut end into rooting hormone.

    Rooting hormone is a powder or liquid containing growth hormones that stimulate root growth on cuttings. Some also contain a fungicide to control root rot. Local nurseries or garden centers carry the product.

  3. Insert the cutting into a box or container, filled with about 3 inches (8 cm) of moistened pure builder’s sand, vermiculite, or perlite.

    The ideal container should have drainage holes.

  4. Slip the container into a self-sealing plastic bag.

    Prop up the bag with something like toothpicks or short twigs so that the plastic doesn’t touch the leaves. Seal the bag to minimize water loss, but open it occasionally to let in fresh air.

  5. Place the covered container in indirect light.

    Easy-to root perennials include begonia, candytuft, chrysanthemum, carnations or pinks (Dianthus), geraniums (Pelargonium), penstemon, phlox, sage, sedum. Woody plants that you can root include bougainvillea, fuchsia, gardenia, heather, honeysuckle, ivy, pyracantha, star jasmine, and willow.

  6. When the cuttings are well rooted (4 to 8 weeks, for most plants) and are putting on new growth, transplant them into individual containers of potting soil.

    As they continue to grow, gradually expose them to more light. When the plants are well established in the pots and continue to put on top growth, harden them off (acclimate them to your weather conditions) and plant them in their permanent garden location.

To harden off new plants, gradually move them to more extreme temperatures and sunlight. Moving them from the porch to outside in partial sun and finally to full sun over a week’s time should do the trick

Propagate Your Shrubs from Softwood Cuttings

I have propagated thousands of new shrubs from softwood cuttings. That may sound like a lot, but since I’m a propagator at a nursery, it’s all in a day’s work. To successfully propagate such a large number of shrubs requires specially designed hoop houses and state-of-the-art misting and heating systems. It’s also handy to have helpers to carefully monitor the health and well-being of each cutting.

On a smaller scale, though, it is possible to propagate deciduous shrubs from cuttings taken during the summer without the all the high-tech machinery and costly gadgets I have at the nursery. By creating favorable conditions, using the right tools, which are actually quite simple, and being patient, you can achieve success with softwood cuttings at home, too.

Harvest cuttings from semi-ripe growth

The trickiest part of propagating shrubs from softwood cuttings is knowing when a shrub’s stems are ready to be cut. Softwood, the section of a shrub’s stem that’s neither brand new nor fully mature, is the stage of growth on a deciduous woody plant that is best suited for rooting (for details, see Softwood is neither green nor woody, below). The newer, green growth that lies at the end of the stem will rot before roots are produced, and the older, more woody growth at the base of the stem has a harder time putting out roots.

Softwood cuttings can be taken from most deciduous shrubs in June and July and sometimes into early August. I determine a stem’s maturity by taking it in my hand and bending it. If the stem breaks with a characteristic snapping sound, it is in the softwood stage and ready to be harvested as a cutting. If the stem is still too green, it will bend but not break. If the stem is entering the woody stage, it won’t bend at all.

Softwood is neither green nor woody

Softwood is the term used to describe the stage of growth on a deciduous woody plant that’s neither the new, green growth at the end of a shoot nor the stiff, woody growth near the base of the stem. The softwood lies between the two. The best way to know if a shoot has reached the softwood stage is to bend it. If the softwood snaps, the shoot is ready to be taken as a cutting. If the shoot is very flexible and doesn’t snap, it’s too green. If the shoot is not flexible at all, it is too far gone.

1. The best way to test if a stem has reached the softwood stage is to bend it. If it snaps, it’s ready to be cut.2. Cut a stem about one inch below the second leaf node. A cutting should measure between 3 and 5 inches.

The best time to take cuttings is early in the day, when shoots are fully hydrated. Lateral shoots, or those that grow from a leader, make the best cuttings. I avoid weak, thin shoots, as well as overly thick, heavy ones. As soon as I take a cutting, I nestle it into a plastic basin that I’ve filled with damp paper towels. The towels will keep my cuttings moist and cool until I’m ready to head back inside and pot them up. They also shade my cuttings from the sun. Exposure to direct sunlight, even for only a few minutes, can cause irreparable damage. I also avoid taking cuttings on hot days, when plants may be wilting.

Keep cutting short to conserve energy

3. Keep your cuttings cool and moist while collecting them. The author uses a plastic basin and moist paper towels to keep her cuttings fresh.4. Remove leaves to create wounds. The wounds allow the rooting hormone to can gain entry into the stem.

A cutting’s size is also something to consider. I like my cuttings to contain at least two sets of leaves. I use pruning shears to cut the stem from the shrub at about one inch below the second leaf node. Since the length between leaf nodes differs from plant to plant, the size of a cutting, using this rule of measurement, will vary. The average cutting should measure between 3 and 5 inches.

To prepare my cuttings for rooting, I remove the lower set of leaves to open up wounds on the shoot. It is at these wounded sites that rooting will occur. I also wound the end of the shoot’s tip by laying the cutting on its side and shaving away a strip or two of bark.

Use rooting hormone and provide good drainage

5. Cover the wounds with hormone to boost the shoot’s root-producing capability and to prevent rot.6. Trim each set of leaves to minimize transpiration loss.

After I’ve wounded the cutting, I dip the end of the stem into water and then into rooting hormone powder. Softwood cuttings root more successfully when a rooting hormone is used. The object when dipping cuttings in rooting hormone is to cover the wounds completely. Rooting hormone contains the same auxins already in the stem that initiate root production. Coating the stem with hormone boosts the plants’ natural mechanisms to produce roots.

I’m careful never to dip cuttings directly into a jar of rooting hormone powder for fear that the cutting may contain a contaminant. To be on the safe side, I empty a small amount of the hormone into another container and dip my cuttings into that.

Once a cutting’s wounds are coated with rooting hormone, I gently tap off any excess and insert the stem into a six-pack or seedling tray filled with a moistened mixture of perlite and soilless mix. The potting mixture we use at the nursery is 60 percent perlite and 40 percent soilless mix. This mix provides the good drainage and maximum aeration that new roots need. Cuttings placed into a mix that holds moisture is apt to rot before rooting occurs.

Once the cuttings are inserted into the soil, I trim the remaining leaves in half to cut down on transpiration loss. These leaves are still performing photosynthesis, even though there are no roots to draw moisture out of the soil. At this point, if I were propagating these cuttings for the nursery, I would move them into the propagation house where they would get bottom heat from a mat and moisture from a sophisticated misting system until roots develop.

7. Place stakes at the corners of each tray to support the roof of your mini-greenhouse. 8. Water the trays well. 9. Place the tray of cuttings into a plastic bag. This mini-greenhouse will keep the cuttings moist until roots develop.

To mimic these conditions on a smaller scale, I stick small stakes into the corners of the six pack, then water the cuttings from the bottom. Finally, I tuck the tray into a plastic bag, which will create the humid conditions needed for rooting to take place. I then place the tray in a sheltered part of my garden that gets dappled sunlight and keep the cuttings moist until roots develop.

Check for root development

10. Monitor cuttings weekly for root development. These hydrangeas developed roots in three weeks. 11. Pot up rooted cuttings into quart-size containers. Water them well, and transfer them to a sunny spot.

Some cuttings root faster than others. I’ve found that the best way to check for root development is with my eyes. After four to five weeks, I can check the bottom of each tray for small white roots that may be poking out of the drainage holes. If none are visible, another way to check for root development is by gently pulling on a cutting. If it shows some resistance, then it’s a good bet that roots have developed. If it pulls out of the tray easily, I inspect the stem for very fine root hairs. If no roots are apparent, I place the cutting back into the tray, reseal the bag, and wait a few more weeks before checking again.

Depending on the species and the growing conditions, a healthy network of primary and secondary roots should develop after six weeks in the bag. My success rate varies from shrub to shrub, but generally I get roots on about 70 percent of my cuttings. Once they’ve rooted, I pot up my tiny new shrubs into one-quart pots that I’ve filled with a mixture of 80 percent soil and 20 percent perlite, water them with a nutrient-rich seaweed- or kelp-based fertilizer and place them in a sunny spot in the garden. In the fall, I unpot them and transfer them to a sheltered nursery bed where they’ll spend the winter. Come spring, I’ll have a good supply of shrubs that I can move to a new, more permanent home.

37 shrubs that are easy to propagate from cuttings

Many deciduous garden shrubs can be propagated by softwood cuttings taken in summer. The ones listed below tend to root quickly and grow into viable shrubs in a short period of time.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa japonica)
Beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis)
Blue mist shrub (Caryopteris x clandonensis)
Burning bush (Euonymus alatus)
Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii)
Chinese stranvaesia (Stranvaesia davidiana)
Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
Daphne (Daphne caucasica)
Deciduous azaleas (Rhododendron cvs.)
Elders (Sambucus spp.)
Enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus)
Flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa)
Forsythias (Forsythia spp.)
Honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.)
Hydrangeas (Hydrangea spp.)
Japanese maples (Acer palmatum cvs.)
Kerria (Kerria japonica)
Large fothergilla (Fothergilla major)
Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
Magnolias (Magnolia spp.)
Mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius)
Redtwig dogwood (Cornus alba and sericea)
Rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa)
Serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.)
Slender deutzia (Deutzia gracilis)
Smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria)
Spireas (Spiraea spp.)
Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia)
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)
Viburnums (Viburnum x burkwoodii and carlesii)
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)
Weigelas (Weigela spp.)
Willows (Salix spp.)
Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei)
Winter hazels (Corylopsis spp.)
Witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.)

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As autumn advances the garden is slipping from summer into winter mode. On the allotment, I’ve taken down all the bean frames and dug out the squash, courgette and sweetcorn plants and even the Cosmos and Dahlia flowers are looking windswept and past their best.

In the big raised bed in our front garden, however, the flowers keep on coming. Particular stars at this time of year are Mexican Fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) and Salvia ‘Hotlips’.

Salvia ‘Hotlips’ in our raised bed.

Salvia ‘Hotlips’ is a woody sage from Mexico. It is usually considered to be a form of Salvia microphylla, Blackcurrant Sage, although it is sometimes (as on the Thompson & Morgan website) classified as a form of Salvia x jamensis (a hybrid between Salvia microphylla and Salvia greggii). I’ll skirt around the naming problem by just using the name Salvia ‘Hotlips’.

Salvia ‘Hotlips’ is very drought tolerant and flowers from early summer until the first hard frosts. It is described as being semi-hardy and will grow happily outdoors here in Norfolk, although it will lose many of its leaves in the winter. It does best in a well-drained soil in a sunny spot and a prune back in spring, to tidy it up and remove twigs that have died off in winter, will keep it happy. In a colder area you can grow it in a pot and take it into an unheated greenhouse for the winter to keep it drier and slightly warmer – it is usually the combination of cold and damp that more tender plants dislike. If you grow it in a pot, repot it once a year and give it a regular feed in the summer months.

The name ‘Hotlips’ comes from the colour of the flowers, which are white with dramatic red lips, the colour of a garish lipstick. Depending on the conditions in which the plant is grown, the flowers can vary between bi-coloured red and white, pure red and pure white.

The flowers are attractive to bees. The nectar is at the bottom of the tube of the flower and a bumblebee can reach it by pushing down on the lower petal and crawling inside the flower. Short-tongued bumblebees often find it easier to “cheat”, by biting a hole in the base of the flower to steal the nectar. This is quite literally robbery: the bee takes the nectar without pollinating the flower. We recently spotted a Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) queen doing this on our plant.

The leaves have a pleasant blackcurrant smell when bruised: Salvia microphylla is sometimes known as Blackcurrant Sage. The flowers taste pleasantly sweet and small numbers can be used to decorate salads and the leaves can be used fresh or dried as a flavouring. A herbal tea can be made from the leaves, called ‘mirto de montes’ (after the name commonly used for the plant in Mexico, meaning ‘myrtle of the mountains’). Medicinally, the leaves can be used to reduce fever.

In recent studies extracts from S. x jamensis have been shown to be cytotoxic (toxic to cells) and phytotoxic, inhibiting the germination of poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and oat (Avena sativa) seeds. The essential oil of the hybrid Salvia x jamensis contains at least 56 different compounds.

Salvia ‘Hotlips’ was first made available to gardeners in 2002 by Stybning Arboretum, now known as San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum. The original plants were brought to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, after a housewarming party given by Richard Turner, the editor of Pacific Horticulture Magazine. His Mexican maid, Alta-Gracia, had provided flowers from her garden for the party, including those of this lovely plant.

There are many other varieties of Salvia microphylla and its near relatives, so even if you think that Salvia ‘Hotlips’ is a bit too vulgar for your garden, you can grow one of the others, although the hardiness of different cultivars varies: from 1 to -10 Celcius. I have the purple-flowered Salvia ‘Christine Yeo’ in a pot and also a pink-flowered Salvia microphylla, which I bought from Natural Surroundings many years ago. It did well in pots and even better in the garden. There are also many other species of late summer flowering Salvia to choose from.

New plants of Salvia ‘Hotlips’ and its relatives are easy to raise from cuttings in late summer and early autumn. One of the pink-flowered plants that I raised from cuttings has done very well in Grapes Hill Community Garden, just inside the gate. If you’re unsure whether your particular plant will be hardy where you live, taking cuttings and keeping them frost free over winter is a good insurance policy.

Pink-flowered Salvia microphylla in Grapes Hill Community Garden

What is it? A bushy ornamental sage that puts out a profusion of eye-catching bicolour blooms in white and lipstick red (hence the name) from July to October. Height and spread: 90cm x 60cm.

Plant it with? Perovskias, sedums and blue-flowered salvias such as S. nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ for a pretty but tough drought-proof border, or put it in a bright red pot on the patio for instant impact.

And where? ‘Hot Lips’ is classified as a half-hardy perennial, but it should weather most winters without a problem, especially in the southern UK; tuck it up with fleece in the colder months if you are worried. Offer it full sun, well-drained soil and a sheltered spot. Take cuttings in mid to late summer as a backup plan.

Any drawbacks? It all depends how hooked you are on the two-tone flowers. Their colour can vary according to the temperature, with lipless all white or all red blooms appearing from time to time.

What else does it do? The foliage has a yummy blackcurrant aroma when you crush it or brush past. If the plant gets too floppy, prune it in spring and ‘Hot Lips’ will leap back into life.

Buy it Order five plants for £10.99 or 10 for £15.98 (prices include UK mainland p&p). To order, visit our Reader Offers page. Supplied as plug plants; delivery May to June.

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Salvia Cutting Propagation: Can You Grow Salvia From Cuttings

Salvia, commonly called sage, is a very popular garden perennial. There are over 900 species out there and every gardener has a favorite, like the deep purple clusters of Salvia nemorosa. If you have salvia and want more of these easy-care beauties, nobody can blame you. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to propagate. Can you grow salvia from cuttings? Read on for information about salvia cutting propagation including tips on how to root salvia cuttings.

Can You Grow Salvia from Cuttings?

The great thing about salvia cutting propagation is that you are certain to get plants exactly like the parent plant. With seed propagation, this isn’t always the case. Anyone with sage plants can start propagating salvia from cuttings. It’s easy and virtually foolproof.

When you are propagating salvia

from cuttings, you’ll want to cut segments of the plant from stem tips. Some experts recommend that the cutting include one bud at the top of the stem and two leaf nodes. These are the places leaves grow from the stem.

Others suggest taking a cutting between 2 and 8 inches (5-20 cm.) long. In either case, be sure you use sharp, sterilized pruning shears and make the cut just below a node.

How to Root Salvia Cuttings

As you take the cuttings for salvia cutting propagating, place them in a glass of water, cut-end first. That helps to keep them fresh.

The next step is to trim off all leaves on the lower few inches of the stem cutting. If you are working with big-leaf salvia, also cut off the lower half of each leaf you’ve left on the stem.

You can either start propagating salvia from cuttings by placing them in water or by putting them in soil. If you opt for salvia cutting propagation in water, just put the cuttings in a vase and add a few inches of water. After a few weeks, you’ll see roots growing.

When rooting salvia cuttings in soil, dip the cut end in rooting hormone, then plant it in moist potting medium. One good medium to try is a 70/30 mix of perlite/vermiculite and potting soil. Again, expect roots in about 14 days.


Salvia is one of my favorite perennials to propagate and spring is the best time to do it from stem tip cuttings. Pretty soon our gardens will be filled with salvia blooms and you’ll see why I like them so much. I’ll post a picture at the bottom of this post if you’re curious! The salvia in question for today’s post is a cultivar of Salvia nemorosa called ‘East Friesland’. The method of propagation I’ll show you is one that should work on many salvias and probably quite a few other perennials as well.

How to Propagate Salvia Cuttings:

First I locate an ideal stem for cutting. This particular stem has three nodes – one apical bud (at the stem tip), and two other nodes. I’ve done stem tip cuttings of salvia with only two nodes before so it will work but three will result in a larger plant a little bit faster. Once I’ve targeted the salvia stem tip I want I cut just below the bottom node. The nodes contain auxins which are naturally occurring growth hormones used to induce root or leaf growth.

Here’s a look at the salvia cutting after I’ve separated it from the plant. Notice that there are several leaves that aren’t necessary. I remove all the leaves except for two and pinch off the apical bud. That will encourage the auxins to work toward roots rather than making new foliage at the top. Once the salvia has rooted it will also encourage lateral branching for a nice bushy plant.

Here’s how the cutting looks after leaf removal. Two leaves and two nodes with a little bit of stem in between.

The next step is to dip the cut end of the salvia cutting in rooting hormone then stick it in moist rooting medium. Then I’ll wait for 10-14 days until rooting has occurred. Once I have roots I’ll pot up my new salvia. It should bloom by the end of this summer (at least here in Tennessee other zones may have different results). I’ve had success using this method with many other plants – go ahead and give it a try!

It doesn’t hurt the plant and makes it encourages it to become more full of foliage. Hopefully you can see why I want to make more salvia!

Summer savings plan: how to take cuttings

The type of shoot you take is important too. Choose sprigs that are blemish-free and look as though they are growing. When taking tip-cuttings or semi-ripe cuttings, if the plant is in growth then the chances of success soar. It’s also best to choose material that isn’t flowering.

The reason is partly practical – flowers on cuttings always attract grey mould, potentially spreading rot to others. It’s also partly physiological, as the way plants grow – upwards, downwards and when in flower – is dictated by an internal series of hormonal checks and balances. On a shoot topped with a flower, all the growth cells below it, including those with the ability to produce roots, are suppressed for the benefit of the bloom.

On tender perennials, such as osteospermum and penstemon, finding non-flowering shoots is sometimes easier said than done, so you have to do the next best thing – take your cuttings and pinch off the flowers. This will trigger root growth, although you have to watch out as even de-budded cuttings often try to bloom again before they bother making roots.

Collecting your cuttings

The best way to gather cuttings is in two stages – I go around the garden snipping shoots with sharp secateurs and placing them, with a label and a drop of water (to keep them humid), into plastic freezer bags. Then, in the cool of the potting shed, I prepare my pots with cuttings compost.

I use a 60/40 blend of multipurpose compost and sharp horticultural grit (to keep the mix open so that excess moisture drains) and pile it loosely into 4in (12cm) pots. When it comes to the type of multipurpose to use, peat-based composts are the most reliable – even bags that have been sitting under the potting bench all summer are still sterile. Peat-free, on the other hand, has to be fresh: over time the blend of bark and green-waste decomposes. Although harmless to plants, this can affect cuttings.

An old boy I used to work with once told me that as part of his training he was told to carry three things: a penny to tip the boss, string to hold up his trousers and a sharp knife. The first two I’ve just about managed to live without, but a sharp knife is an essential – especially so for cuttings.

Use a blunt blade and you’ll leave tears and ragged edges that invite rots and see off your cuttings. When it comes to knives you get what you pay for; the best are made by Tina (grafting/general purpose knife, £52.49; qualitygardentools.com). The carbon steel blades are self-sharpening (why not put one on your Christmas list?).

Some gardeners dib their cuttings into the compost: that is, they make a hole with a dibber to drop them in, but I prefer to push. Pushing ensures good contact with the compost and the slight wounding caused as the cutting scrapes through the grit triggers the development of repair (parenchyma) cells that divide and form new roots.

Once done, water the pots with a rose. Put those with glossy leaves, such as penstemon and fuchsia, into the humidity of a propagator. If you don’t have a propagator, make a mini-greenhouse with a clear plastic bag held over but not touching the leaves. If your bag flops, use sticks as tent poles to keep it up.

Cuttings with waxy leaves, such as sedums and euphorbia, or downy foliage, such as pelargonium, plectranthus and many salvia, rot in close conditions. These I put under the greenhouse bench or inside a shaded cold frame to root.

Tips

• To check that your knife is sufficiently sharp put up your thumb and place the blade carefully onto your thumb nail. If it slides, the blade could do with sharpening but if it grips then you’re ready to go.

• Rooting powder is a sherbet-like dust containing hormones that encourage rooting and a fungicide that fights rots. Most cuttings root without it but it’s worth using on plants that have proved tricky in the past.

10 easy strikers

• Salvia

• Argyranthemum

• Verbena

• Heliotrope

• Penstemon

• Pelargonium

• Osteospermum

• Fuchsia

• Plectranthus

• Coleus

For a step-by-step picture guide, see How to take cuttings: a step-by-step guide

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