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Types of Cuttings
Softwood: Softwood cuttings are taken from new growth of the current season. They are used for propagating deciduous shrubs such as forsythia and lilac. They are generally the easiest to root and don't require special handling. The best months to take softwood cuttings of shrubs are June and July, although some may be taken in August.
Softwood cuttings are taken while stems are succulent and not yet woody, but mature enough to break when bent sharply. Avoid very young, tender shoots.
Semi-hardwood: Semi-hardwood cuttings are taken during late summer but are made from current season's growth that has partially matured and is becoming woody. These cuttings are used to propagate broad-leaved evergreens such as holly, euonymus and azalea. The term semi-hardwood is also sometimes applied to partially matured cuttings of deciduous plants.
Hardwood: Hardwood cuttings may be taken from deciduous plants and narrow-leaved evergreens. Cuttings from these plants are taken during the late fall or early winter after a hard frost when the plants have become dormant.
The cuttings should be taken from terminal shoots of the previous season's growth and should contain a small portion of year-old wood at the base.
How to take cuttings
Select cuttings from vigorous, healthy wood, preferably from the upper part of the plant. Avoid excessively vigorous shoots as well as weak, spindly growth.
Softwood and semi-hardwood cuttings should be taken during cool portions of the day. Place the cuttings immediately in a plastic bag to avoid excessive wilting. Cuttings should be 4 to 6 inches long. A slanting cut slightly below a node will generally give best results. Use a sharp, clean knife.
Remove leaves from the lower half of softwood and semi-hardwood cuttings (see Figure 1). Dip the base of the cuttings in a rooting hormone for faster and better rooting. Rooting stimulants are generally available in most garden supply stores. Use as directed.
The rooting medium should not contain fertilizer. Begin fertilizing after cuttings are rooted and have been transplanted to a growing medium.
Clean, coarse, construction-grade sand may be used for rooting cuttings. Avoid very fine sand because it has poor aeration, which retards root formation. A mixture of one-half sand and one-half peat moss is a better rooting medium.
Vermiculite, a lightweight expanded mica product, is suitable for rooting cuttings. The horticultural grade (No. 2) is the best size to use, and it may be used separately or mixed with an equal volume of sand.
Perlite is another excellent propagating material. It is lightweight and provides good aeration to the cutting. Perlite gives best results if mixed with an equal volume of peat moss or vermiculite.
Heavy soils should not be used for rooting. They tend to pack tightly, which results in poor aeration and little or no root formation. They also must be thoroughly sterilized to prevent disease development.
Compressed peat pellets that expand when water is added make a convenient propagation medium and container.
The prepared cutting should be stuck into the medium up to the remaining leaves. Water thoroughly to settle the medium around the base of the cutting.
Care of cuttings
Since cuttings don't have a root system, high humidity must be maintained. Low humidity allows wilting, scorch, leaf drop or death.
Enclosures help maintain high humidity. If only a few cuttings are to be rooted, use a miniature greenhouse or place individual pots in large plastic bags (Figure 2). Monitor the plastic bags for condensate, and water the medium when condensate disappears. Never place plastic-enclosed containers in direct sunlight, because excessive heat will build up. For rooting large numbers of cuttings, use coldframes, hotbeds or greenhouses.
Care of rooted cuttings
The move from high humidity and moist rooting medium to low humidity and dryer soil is critical. Do it carefully. Give these new plants close attention during the first weeks after the move.
If only a few cuttings have been rooted, pot them in individual containers. Larger quantities should be placed in a well-prepared but protected bed or coldframe outdoors where they can be given special care for two growing seasons.
Some plants such as azaleas and rhododendrons require special acid soil, but for most plants a mixture of equal parts good topsoil, sand and peat moss makes a good growing medium. Add about 1 cup of an all-purpose garden fertilizer (such as 12-12-12) and 2 cups of ground limestone to each bushel of mix. Thoroughly mix these into the medium before filling the containers. Potting soils for houseplants may be purchased and used for potting cuttings when no other soil is available.
If a nursery bed is used, thoroughly pulverize the soil, and work in 3 to 4 inches of compost, peat moss or leaf mold. Add fertilizer and lime as directed by a soil test.
Install some shade over cuttings during the first growing season. A shade screen can be made from burlap, snow fencing or laths (Figure 3).
Provide protection to young, rooted cuttings during the first winter season. Mulch them with straw or construct a coldframe around them. Coldframes may be made from concrete blocks or scrap lumber covered with clear plastic, burlap or cheese cloth. If plastic is used, remove it during warm days, or cover it with straw to prevent heat buildup.
After two growing seasons in the nursery bed or container, the young plants should be ready to move to permanent locations.
Adapted from an article by Mary Ann Gowdy and Christopher J. Starbuck - Department of Horticulture, University of Missouri-Columbia. Reprinted with permission.
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