'Softwood' cutting beneficial for shrubs

When we think of taking vegetative cuttings to increase the number of our plants, we often think of greenhouses with fancy bottom-heating benches and mist systems and all kinds of specialized equipment in order to have success.

From mid-July to mid-August, the home gardener can root cuttings of most deciduous, and many evergreen, shrubs with a success ratio to rival their professional counterparts. There is only one secret to being able to root 70-80 percent of all cuttings taken. That is the ripeness of the wood chosen to root.

The proper terminology for the stage of growth that we're looking for is called a softwood cutting. It contains the words "soft" and "wood," which means it is neither brand fresh new growth, nor older hard, woody growth. It is that stage in between where the branch, if bent sharply, will snap cleanly in two.

If the growth is too soft, it will bend but not break. If it is too old, it will resist bending entirely. Too-soft cuttings will rot before rooting and too-woody slips will not throw roots at all.

Once you've found this ideal stage of maturity on the shrub or tree of your choice, it becomes relatively easy to increase your stock of plants quickly.

I like to take cuttings that contain three or four sets of leaves back from the terminal bud of the branch. Depending on the type of plant chosen to propagate, this usually produces a cutting of 3 to 5 inches long.

Using a sharp pair of pruning shears or sturdy florist's scissors, cut the stem directly below a leaf junction. Carefully snip off the lower two leaves or sets of leaves from the stem. It is at these wounds where the new roots will form. This is the portion that will be inserted into the rooting medium.

I like to dip this portion of stem into a rooting hormone. I use a powder form, but liquids work well also. Never dip directly into the container, lest you contaminate your entire supply if you happen to take a cutting from an infected stem. Always put a small working supply into another holder to prevent the spread of infections.

If you want to have a second secret to success, it would have to be cleanliness. Disinfect all utensils with a 10 percent bleach solution before starting. That includes your containers. Use clean, fresh rooting medium. Potting soil is fine as long as it is clean.

I like to use individual pots as my rooting containers. I find that they hold more soil, therefore don't dry out as quickly as flats and those little six-packs that annuals come in, and are more stable due to their broader base. They are also easy to water from the bottom during the rooting process. This becomes important once you realize that after we "stick" our cuttings in the pot, we are going to cover it with a plastic bag to provide lots of humidity.

I use those lightweight plastic bags you get at the grocery store to put produce in. I like to put three bamboo stakes just slightly taller than my cuttings into the pot to hold the plastic away from the leaves of the cutting. After the initial watering to settle the medium around the stem of the cutting, it gets watered from immersing the pot in a tray of water and letting it absorb moisture through the drain holes of the pot. True bottom watering! I even wrap a winding of duct tape around the bottom of the plastic bag to seal in all the humidity I can.

Be very careful where you set the enclosed mini-greenhouses containing your cuttings. It is ideal to keep them outside during these hot months but do not let the sun shine on them directly, or you will have fried cuttings!

Try taking cuttings of Japanese maples, viburnum burkwoodii, rugosa roses and sun azaleas right now. This is the perfect time to root these cuttings and you'll be ready to plant out this autumn. Give this a try if you haven't before.

One word of caution: this activity can be habit forming!

Stan Mapolski, aka The Rogue Gardener, can be heard from 9-11 a.m. Sunday mornings on KMED 1440 AM and seen on KTVL-TV Ch. 10 every Wednesday during the 5 p.m. news. Reach him at stanmapolski@yahoo.com.

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