Today I'd like to share a skill I learned when I first began gardening. Like all new gardeners, I wanted a yard full of beautiful plants. Unfortunately, my budget was often smaller than my plant lust, so I had to come up with another way to get the beautiful perennial herbs I so desperately wanted.
My solution was to take a class at the community college and learn how to make plant cuttings and root them. This technique has allowed me to start several new herb gardens for a minimal amount of money. Let me show you how you can have your own bountiful herb garden too.
Where To Get Cuttings To Grow Herbs
First you need to know where to get the cuttings, because you can’t just march down to the local nursery and ask for some. They are in the business of selling plants, not providing you with cuttings.
When I’m traveling to a gardening friend’s house I always bring two important items with me: a zip-top plastic bag with a little bit of water in it and my small scissors. You could also use a plastic container with a secure top, or even a mason jar. The purpose of the container is to keep the cuttings fresh until you can get them ready for rooting.
I’ve found that gardening friends are always willing to share a few cuttings. Even neighbors and strangers will share a few clips from their plants if you ask nicely.
Sometimes I actually purchase a plant that I want a lot of, and then I make several cuttings from the “mother” plant. If you want to fill your garden bed with salvia, yarrow, or lavender this is often the easiest thing to do. Just let the mother plant grow for a bit and then begin making cuttings.
I have even been known to make a few cuttings from pretty plants that I see in public places. They will often be cutting back their plants as part of a regular maintenance routine anyway. Remember to keep your zip top bag and scissors handy on outings and don’t take too much.
You should never make cuttings at the local nursery – that would be stealing! Just buy the plant or, if it’s not in the budget right now, find a friend who will share.
How To Make A Cutting
Have you ever seen someone shear a lavender plant without regard for what it will look like afterward? The result is often hideous, with lone, flowerless stalks pointing skyward. This should be avoided! My motto is to leave the mother plant as healthy as possible. That means that you should make your cutting right at the top of a set of leaves. Leave no bare stems exposed.
You want a cutting to be 4 to 5 inches long. Make three to five of them if you can; not all will survive when you are a beginner.
Place those cuttings into the container with water and seal it tightly. The clippings will survive with enough moisture until you can get home and fix them up.
How To Prepare The Cuttings
Add more water to your container and give them a good swirl. That will remove any dead leaves and stray bugs you may have brought home. Pat them dry and lay the cuttings out so you can take a good look.
Your mission is to remove the leaves along the stem of the cutting for 2/3rds of the stem. I usually do this by pinching them off at the node with my fingernails, but some people use scissors or a knife. Try not to cut into the stem because that is where the new roots will form.
Ideally you should have at least two nodes on the stem to grow roots.
Now pinch out the main growing area at the top of the cutting. If you skip this part you will have a new plant that is taller than it is wide. Pinching the growing tip will cause the plant to branch out at the remaining leaves.
You should also pinch off any flowers on the cutting. You want the new plant to focus on root production, not flower and seed production.
This is a before and after picture of a pineapple sage cutting. All big leaf plants should also have the remaining leaves cut by half. It will not harm the cutting. The big leaves will take too much water and energy and the plant will concentrate all its effort into keeping the leaves alive. This makes it hard for your new plant to grow roots.
FUN TIP: Be sure you save your leaves for a good cup of herbal tea. Pineapple sage is particularly good.
Continue cleaning leaves off nodes until all your cuttings are done.
In this picture, the pineapple sage, mint and cinnamon basil leaves have all been reduced by half. The stems have been cleaned and they are ready for planting.
There are two ways you can handle the cuttings at this point. Both are effective depending on the time of year (they’ll root faster in the summer) and your available space.
Add the cuttings to a shallow jar of water and place it in a windowsill. You want to make sure that none of the leaves are in the water, only the stems. Any leaves will rot when under water for an extended period of time.
They also need air circulation, so don’t crowd. If you have a lot of cuttings in the jar, the ones in the middle will eventually die back without circulation. If I am making cuttings in the early spring, I may speed up the process by placing a plastic bag over the jar, thus creating a mini greenhouse on my windowsill.
Your cuttings should be in fresh water, so be sure and change it out every few days. You should see roots beginning to form after a week and after 2-3 weeks the plants will be ready to go into potting soil. These plants will need to be hardened off before they are placed outdoors in your garden beds.
Some cuttings respond better to being started in soil than in water. Lavender is one of those finicky plants that may rot if placed in water. The trick to rooting cuttings in soil is to make a humid environment for them.
I like to use recycled containers like this plastic cupcake carrier, but you can also use a plastic dome found at any garden center. They are relatively inexpensive and can be used year after year.
Lightly water the soil and then place a prepared stem into each section. You want them go into the soil until the bottom leaves touch it. They also need to sit upright in the container you’ve chosen. You may find that the stems are too long and need to be cut shorter. No problem. Just cut off a small section until it fits. Remember you want at least one node to be under the soil – that’s where the roots will grow.
The roots will also benefit from growing in individual sections because there will be less root shock at transplant time.
Give them another watering so the soil is securely against the stem, and cover the whole section with a dome or clear plastic bag. The dome will have condensation after a few hours and will trap in the moisture. You should check the moisture level once a week and mist it if necessary.
Which plants work best for propagation by cutting? Any perennial plant that grows a stem with leaves will do. While it is usually easier to start annuals from seed, even basil and tomato can be rooted this way.
If you'd like to learn more, Plant Propagation A to Z: Growing Plants for Free is a great reference book.
Now see, wasn’t that easy! By utilizing friends, neighbors, and this technique you can have a beautiful perennial herb garden for just a fraction of the price. All it takes is a little bit of skill and patience to wait for the roots to grow. Which herb will you try first?