Last Minute Cuttings

Reader Contribution by Andrew Weidman
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We had our first freeze warning in South-central Pennsylvania this weekend. From what my Facebook feed shows, we are not alone. Winter is still two months out, and already I’m seeing photos of snow.

There aren’t too many plants outside that I need to worry about losing this year. The tomatoes gave up the ghost a few weeks ago, and have already been cleaned out. The figs still have a month or so before they need to be packed away for the winter (more about that later). The New Guinea Impatiens plants at the front door are in two massive whiskey barrels, and will soon be casualties of the season. And I still have a little grace time to dig up my white garden lilies.

The one plant that needs immediate action is a passionflower vine that I want to move to the fence line next year. I tried transplanting a few vines last year, nurturing them all season. They grew slowly through the summer, which was to be expected, but failed to reappear this spring. That was the gamble I accepted, knowing passionflowers don’t transplant well.

They do root well from cuttings, however, so that’s the angle I’m pursuing this time. A week ago, I clipped a length of vine for cuttings material, and headed for my mad scientist’s laboratory — I mean, nursery workshop in the basement. There, I used the vine to stick cuttings for rooting.

The trick to rooting cuttings is in keeping them alive until they can form roots. Drying kills more cuttings than any other problem, and a good propagation case can increase your odds of success tremendously. A few years ago I made a propagating case, using two plastic shoeboxes. One holds good, light potting mix, and the other serves as a lid. I think I spent a grand total of five dollars on my propagating case. I’ve used this case to root figs, gooseberries, currants, and lots of other plants, all with good results.

When you make a cutting, it forms scar tissue, called callus, along the cut surfaces, which has the ability to grow into different structures. The more callus forms, the better the chances roots will form. 

Vines are perfect candidates for mallet cuttings. You make a mallet cutting by snipping the vine a half-inch above and below a bud and leaf, what botanists call a ‘node.’  I took my cuttings a step further by splitting the main stem of each in half to create more cut surface area. While it’s not necessary, I also like to dust the cut surfaces with a rooting hormone powder. Some people recommend using willow water, containing natural rooting hormones, to kick start root promotion, but I’ve never been able to see a difference in performance.

After I cut each mallet and dusted it with rooting powder, I trimmed the leaf down by at least half, to decrease the amount of surface area. This cuts down on moisture loss. It may seem drastic, but it helps sustain your cuttings until they root. Then I stuck each cutting in the moistened potting mix in the case, up to the base of the leaf. I try to space them out about an inch or two apart in the case, but you can crowd them closer if you like.

I parked the case on a heating mat under fluorescent lights. They’ll take up to two months to root and begin growing actively. I can’t stress enough the importance of patience. Don’t fiddle with them in the case, just keep them moistened, and let them do their thing. Yes, I’ve ruined more cuttings than I care to admit, because I got impatient and fiddled with them. Just let them go, and let them grow, until next spring. Consider it an investment on the season.

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