Cuttings edge: how to propagate plants at low cost

Plant prices have risen much faster than dahlias this summer. On my shopping street, 10% inflation is wishful thinking. Twenty-five percent is closer to the target.

There are underlying reasons. The blockade brought millions of new gardeners online, looking for plants to grow. They had little idea of ​​previous prices and it seemed petty to blame nurseries for increasing prices when they were doing everything they could to stay open in such testing times. Those who have had to close must also re-establish their business.

Those in my usual shopping rush have raised prices not only to match what the blockade has proven possible, but also to cope with rising costs of fuel, fertilizer, transportation and labor. The cost of well-grown bedding plants next spring will be a shock. They need to be raised in heated greenhouses. Last winter he hardly needed heating, but this year he may not be so kind.

Here are my 50 years of reference. The last time the FT set up a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, winning gold in 1973 for the third consecutive time, I had to supervise the herbaceous plants. In 9cm pots they cost 90p per 10, wholesale, from major suppliers. Some numbers remain in the head, not always useful. If you ever buy a 9cm plant, you can think again, remembering that even then retail plant prices had risen at least three times in garden centers. In 1973, 35 pence per border establishment was a retail rule of thumb, with the newly introduced VAT on top, then at 10%.

In 2022, the fashion is for much larger plants, especially as gardeners want quick results. Plants in two- or three-liter pots are what most of them like. Sometimes plants of this size have just been repotted into a larger pot and are still short on roots.

Otherwise, they have an advantage: they can be flared, split into three or more, and grown in pots smaller than your garden soil, ready to go out into a border after two months of growing.

At £ 9.99, a three-liter plant, which goes into a three-liter, isn’t a bad buy. Apply my old baseline: what cost 35p in 1973 costs you £ 3.33 in 2022. Don’t dream of comparing that increase to house prices then and now.

We all hate paying more than we did before the blockade. I reduced the order of the border plants to one or two of each, planning to propagate more from these parents. One way is to divide them. Another is to take the cuttings after taking the birth. They are so funny. The success rate is almost never 100%, sometimes only 10%, but the process is real gardening.

Fuchsia flowers 'Tom Thumb'

Fuchsias are suitable for growing from cuttings © Jason Ingram / GAP Photos

A pair of hands cutting a soft wood of a Salvia 'Amistad' plant

Cutting a soft wood of a semi-resistant sage © GAP Photos

Preparation is essential. I go out, pick a healthy mother plant and water it the night before removing it. In this dry summer, pre-watering is essential, as is morning cutting, because the plants still have some moisture from watering the previous evening. Cuttings taken on a hot summer day in the late afternoon are generally less easily rooted.

To cut the cuttings, cut out a few short non-flowering shoots from the parent plant, removing them where they join a main stem if the distance is short. Otherwise bring them into a solid joint on their own stem, usually under a couple of leaves. The cuttings should be only a few centimeters long and the yellowing leaves should be cut off. You need to leave a clear stalk for about a third of the length of the cut, the part you will fix in the compost for the roots.

Cut the leaves with sharp scissors, not a heavy pair of shears, which will crush the soft stem. Next, I put the cuttings in a clear plastic bag and knot it to make it airtight. The bag keeps the cuttings fresh and firm and should be placed in the shade until it is opened and the pieces are planted. If you leave the bag in the sun, especially with recent weather, the cuttings will suffer. If they have to wait a while, put a few drops of water in the bag, close it again and let them collect and firm up again.

I use square plastic pots, up to 3 inches in diameter, as houses for the cuttings. If you cover them, square pots fit more easily under hats or plastic bags than round ones. For rooting compost, I use J Arthur Bower’s John Innes Seed Compost at around £ 9.99 per 25 liter bag and mix it with about a third of its perlite mass.

I totally disagree with the online guides that tell you to water the cutting compost after placing the cuttings firmly. If you do, you will loosen the cuttings or drown them. The perlite must be soaked before mixing it with the compost for the individual pots. Soak the compost too, let them dry slightly for about an hour and then mix them proportionally. Then and only then fill the pots.

Make a hole for each cut near the side of the pot, where drainage is usually best – I use a thick, defunct old pen for that purpose. I don’t care about hormonal rooting dust on soft stem cuttings. Place the cut so that its bottom touches the bottom of the hole, then hold it there and press the compost around it with the fingers of your other hand so that the cut is solid. Try, trying to pull it out by the stem: it must not move. It is essential to plant firmly.

Place several pots next to each other on a seed tray and then fasten a large clear plastic bag over them without letting it rest on the leaves. Alternatively, use clear plastic bottles that once held water or soda: cut the bottom and then slide them over one or two pots at a time. You will rarely need to water again – place the wrapped or bottled pot in a light shade, indoors or out, and check every four days or so to make sure the pots don’t dry out.

After about four weeks, many cuttings should show signs of new growth, a clue that they are taking root. Cut the top of the bag, wait a few days, and then press each crop with as much soil as you can move. Transplant them into individual pots.

Here are five beginner cut candidates: fuchsias, semi-hardy sage, thyme, penstemons, and lavender. This weekend is still a good time to cut and pot them – if you can’t go and buy compost and perlite, try rooting the top four of my five in a glass of cold water, up to half the length of their stems. Most of them will take root without any soil.

Are cuttings cheaper, you may be wondering, even without evaluating your time and manpower? At first, probably not, given the cost of the potting mix, but cost is only part of the equation.

Other parts are fun and satisfaction. A dianthus that you have grounded and grown on your own has a value that no one bought in a store can match.

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