The Secret of Rooting
by Michael J. McGroarty
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The secret of rooting cuttings can be summed up in two words.
“Timing and technique”.
When you do your cuttings is every bit as important as how
you do them. So if you do the right thing, at the right time of
the year, your efforts are sure to bring success. Through this
article you will learn both.
"Rooting Hardwood Cuttings of Deciduous Plants"
Hardwood cuttings are much more durable than softwood
cuttings which is why hardwoods are the best technique for the
home gardener. A deciduous plant is a plant that loses it’s
leaves during the winter. All plants go dormant during the
winter, but evergreens keep their foliage. Many people don’t
consider Rhododendrons, Azaleas, and and Mountain Laurel
evergreens, but they are. They are known as broad leaf
evergreens. Any plant that completely loses it’s leaves is a
There are three different techniques for rooting cuttings of
deciduous plants. Two methods for hardwood cuttings, and one for
softwood cuttings. In this article we are only going
to discuss rooting cuttings using the hardwood methods. If
you are interested in softwood cuttings, you'll find a very
informative article at http://www.freeplants.com
Of the two hardwood techniques is one better than the other?
It depends on exactly what you are rooting, what the soil
conditions are at your house, and what Mother Nature has up her
sleeve for the coming winter.
I have experienced both success
and failure using each method. Only experimentation will
determine what works best for you. Try some cuttings using each
When doing hardwood cuttings of deciduous plants, you should
wait until the parent plants are completely dormant. This does
not happen until you’ve experienced a good hard freeze where
the temperature dips down below 32 degrees F. for a period of
several hours. Here in northeastern Ohio this usually occurs
around mid November.
Unlike softwood cuttings of deciduous plants, where you only
take tip cuttings from the ends of the branches, that rule does
not apply to hardwood cuttings of deciduous plants. For
instance, a plant such as Forsythia can grow as much as four
feet in one season. In that case, you can use all of the current
year's growth to make hardwood cuttings.
You might be able to get six or eight cuttings from one
branch. Grapes are extremely vigorous. A grape vine can grow up
to ten feet or more in one season. That entire vine can be used
for hardwood cuttings. Of course with grape vines, there is
considerable space between the buds, so the cuttings have to be
much longer than most other deciduous plants. The average length
of a hardwood grape vine cutting is about 12” and still only
has 3 or 4 buds. The bud spacing on most other deciduous plants
is much closer, so the cuttings only need to be about 6- 8” in
Making a deciduous hardwood cutting is quite easy. Just
collect some branches (known as canes) from the parent plants.
Clip these canes into cuttings about 6” long. Of course these
canes will not have any leaves on them because the plant is
dormant, but if you examine the canes closely you will see
little bumps along the cane. These bumps are bud unions. They
are next year’s leaf buds or nodes, as they are often called.
When making a hardwood cutting of a deciduous plant it is
best to make the cut at the bottom, or the butt end of the
cutting just below a node, and make the cut at the top of the
cutting about 3/4” above a node. This technique serves two
purposes. One, it makes it easier for you to distinguish the top
of the cutting from the bottom of the cutting as you handle
them. It also aids the cutting in two different ways. Any time
you cut a plant above a node, the section of stem left above
that node will die back to the top node. So if you were to leave
1/2” of stem below the bottom node, it would just die back
anyway. Having that section of dead wood underground is not a
good idea. It is only a place for insects and disease to hide.
It is also helpful to actually injure a plant slightly when
trying to force it to develop roots. When a plant is injured, it
develops a callous over the wound as protection. This callous
build up is necessary before roots will develop. Cutting just
below a node on the bottom of a cutting causes the plant to
develop callous and eventually, roots.
Making the cut on the top
of the cutting 3/4” above the node is done so that the 3/4”
section of stem above the node will provide protection for the
top node. This keeps the buds from being damaged or knocked off
during handling and planting. You can press down on the cutting
without harming the buds.
When rooting cuttings this way it helps to make the cut at
the top of the cutting at an angle. This sheds water away from
the cut end of the cutting and helps to reduce the chance of
disease. Once you have all of your cuttings made, dip the bottom
of the cutting in a rooting compound. Make sure you have the
right strength rooting compound (available at most garden
stores) for hardwood cuttings. Line them up so the butt ends are
even and tie them into bundles.
Select a spot in your garden that is in full sun. Dig a hole
about 12” deep and large enough to hold all of the bundles of
cuttings. Place the bundles of cuttings in the hole upside down.
The butt ends of the cuttings should be up. The butt ends of the
cuttings should be about 6” below the surface. Cover the
cuttings completely with soil and mark the location with a
stake, so you can find them again in the spring.
I know this sounds crazy, but rooting cuttings this way does
work. To increase your chances of success you can cover
the butt ends of the cuttings with moist peat moss before
filling in the hole. Make sure you wet the peat moss thoroughly,
then just pack it on the butt ends of the cuttings.
Over the winter the cuttings will develop callous and
possibly some roots. Placing them in the hole upside down puts
the butt ends closest to the surface, so they can be warmed by
the sun, creating favorable conditions for root development.
Being upside down also discourages top growth. Leave them alone
until about mid spring after the danger of frost has passed.
Over the winter the buds will begin to develop and will be quite
tender when you dig them up. Frost could do considerable damage
if you dig them and plant them out too early. That’s why it is
best to leave them buried until the danger of frost has passed.
Dig them up very carefully, so as not to damage them. Cut
open the bundles and examine the butt ends. Hopefully, you will
see some callous build up. Even if there is no callous, plant
them out anyway. You don’t need a bed of sand or anything
special when you plant the cuttings out. Just put them in a
sunny location in your garden. Of course the area you chose
should be well drained, with good rich topsoil.
To plant the cuttings, just dig a very narrow trench, or
using a spade, make a slice by prying open the ground. Place the
cuttings in the trench with the butt ends down. Bury about one
half of the cutting leaving a few buds above ground. Back fill
around the cuttings with loose soil making sure there are no air
pockets. Tamp them in lightly, then water thoroughly to
eliminate any air pockets.
Water them on a regular basis, but don’t make the
soil so wet that they rot. Within a few weeks the cuttings will
start to leaf out. Some will more than likely collapse because
there are not enough roots to support the plant. The others will
develop roots as they leaf out. By fall, the cuttings that
survived should be pretty well rooted. You can transplant them
once they are dormant, or you can wait until spring. If you wait
until spring, make sure you transplant them before they break
There really is no exact science when it comes to rooting
cuttings, so now I am going to present you with a variation of
the above method. This method still applies to hardwood cuttings of deciduous
plants. With this variation you do everything exactly the
same as you do with the method you just learned, up to the point
where you bury them for the winter.
With method number two you don’t bury them at all. Instead,
you plant the cuttings out as soon as you make them in the late
fall, or anytime during the winter when the ground is not
frozen. In other words, you just completely skip the step where
you bury the cuttings underground for the winter. Plant them
exactly the same way as described for method number one. As with
all cuttings, treating them with a rooting compound prior to
planting will help induce root growth.
Hardwood cuttings work fairly well for most of the deciduous
shrubs. However, they are not likely to work for some of the
more refined varieties of deciduous ornamentals like Weeping
Cherries or other ornamental trees. Rooting cuttings of
ornamental trees is possible, but only using softwood cutting
Now let's discuss rooting cuttings of evergreens, using
Hardwood cuttings of evergreens are usually done after you
have experienced two heavy frosts in the late fall, around mid
November or so. However, I have obtained good results with some
plants doing them as early as mid September, taking advantage of
the warmth of the fall sun. When doing them is early, they need
to be watered everyday.
Try some cuttings early and if they do poorly, just do some
more in November. Hardwood cuttings of many evergreens can be
done at home in a simple frame filled with coarse sand.
such a frame, just make a square or rectangular frame using 2”
by 6” boards. Nail the four corners together as if to make a
large picture frame. This frame should sit on top of the ground
in an area that is well drained. An area of partial shade is
Once you have the frame constructed remove any weeds or grass
inside the frame so this vegetation does not grow up through
your propagation bed. Fill this frame with a very coarse grade
of sand. The sand used in swimming pool filters usually
works. Mason's sand is a little too fine. If you
have a sand and gravel yard in your area visit the site and
inspect the sand piles. Find a grade that is a little more
coarse than masons sand. But keep in mind that most any
sand will work, so just pick one that you think is coarse
enough. If water runs through it easily, it's coarse
Make sure you place your frame in area where the water can
drain through the sand, and out of the frame. In other
words, don't select a soggy area for your cutting bed.
Standing water is sure to seriously hamper your results.
Making the evergreen cuttings is easy. Just clip a cutting
4-5 inches in length from the parent plant. Make tip cuttings
only. (Only one cutting from each branch.) Strip the needles or
leaves from the bottom one half to two thirds of the cutting.
Wounding evergreen cuttings isn’t usually necessary because
removing the leaves or needles causes enough injury for callous
build up and root development.
Dip the butt ends of the cuttings in a powder or liquid
rooting compound and stick them in the sand about 3/4” to 1”
apart. Keep them watered throughout the fall until cool
temperatures set in. If you have some warm dry days over the
winter, make sure you water your cuttings. Keep in mind
that sand in a raised bed will dry out very quickly. Don't
worry about snow. Snow covering your cuttings is just
fine, it will actually keep them moist, and protect them from
harsh winter winds.
Start watering again in the spring and throughout the summer.
They don’t need a lot of water, but be careful not to let them
dry out, and at the same time making sure they are not soaking
This method of rooting cuttings of evergreens actually works
very well, but it does take some time. You should leave them in
the frame for a period of twelve months. You can leave them
longer if you like. Leaving them until the following spring
would be just fine. They should develop more roots over the
Rooting cuttings of the following plants is very easy using
this method. variegated Euonymus varieties, Taxus,
Juniper, Arborvitae, Japanese Holly, Boxwood, and English Holly.
Rhododendrons and Azaleas prefer to have their bottoms warmed
before they root.
Michael J. McGroarty is the author of this article.
Visit his most interesting website, http://www.freeplants.com
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