Thursday, September 21, 2000
Several years ago I lived in a low-slung ranch house up on Monterey''s Spaghetti Hill. The rental home was woefully unremarkable, a boxy stucco job with wide eaves offering too much shade from those rare sunny days. My house also happened to be just in front of the bus stop. Nevertheless, I can''t tell you how many people, while waiting for the bus or walking past, would gaze in admiration towards my home. They weren''t admiring the house; it was the tangle of various geraniums flourishing in our front garden that they coveted.
Some time before I moved in, my gardener-roommates had planted the geraniums all along the front of the house from cuttings they gathered from their clients'' gardens. I don''t know the scientific names of the varieties, but there were red ones and pink ones and these wonderful citrus-scented ones that made fabulous potpourri. While I lived there, passersby would often help themselves to a cutting or two of the geraniums to plant in their own gardens. Sometimes they''d knock on the door and ask permission, which we always gave, and sometimes they wouldn''t ask, but I could spy them through my kitchen window.
In turn, I followed suit and began a habit of cutting a stem here and a leaf there from gardens and pots around town, and planting them in my garden. Some of those clones lived long and happy lives in my garden, others died a slow and agonizing death. Through trial and error, I eventually learned the proper way to propagate. And guess what? If you stick to the easy plants, it''s not that hard.
"You can grow almost anything from a cutting, some are more complicated than others," says Sky Hellbusch, nursery manager for Griggs Nursery in Pacific Grove. In fact, he says, propagating from cuttings is how commercial nurseries grow many of their products.
When you grow plants from cuttings, you are in essence creating little clones of the parent plant. There are several advantages to gardening this way. First of all, it''s darn near free if you have neighbors who don''t mind you snipping from their gardens. Second, if you''re into gardening on the cheap, it''s a heck of a lot faster than growing plants from seeds. And there is a certain amount of satisfaction that comes from nurturing a new plant from a single leaf or stem.
Ideally, cuttings are done in the spring. However, in Monterey County''s mild climate, fall is a fine time, too. The key is to allow the cutting to establish a root system before the winter cool sets in. To be on the safe side, you might want to allow the cuttings to establish their roots inside. At first, it''s best to keep the cutting out of direct sunlight to prevent wilting but, as roots appear, the clone can be moved to more intense light.
Geraniums are one of the easiest garden flowers to propagate from cuttings. Fuchsias, spires, coleus, daisies, marguerites and veronica, just to name a few, are also good prospects. For best results, Hellbusch suggests cutting off the new growth just below the "bud union," or the swollen node on the stem where new growth would appear. Take about two rows of leaves with the stem so the new plant can continue to photosynthesize. However, the cutting should be free of flowers--the flower will only suck nutrients from the new plant. For geraniums, Ken Nishi, owner of Marina Nursery, suggests leaving the cutting outside in the shade for a few days until the cut forms a callous.
To root, dip the cutting in rooting hormone, available at your local nursery, to encourage root growth. Cuttings can then be placed directly in water, but it''s better to place in a loose, well-draining rooting medium, such as a peat-vermiculite mix or a pearlite-vermiculite mix, and water frequently while they root. The rooting medium keeps the cutting moist but not too wet. Then, "Once you see a root system there, not just one or two fibrous roots but a whole system, you can go ahead and plant them," Hellbusch says. Depending on the plant, a root system may take a few days to a few weeks to appear.
Succulents are another simple type of plant to grow from cuttings. "Succulents are probably the easiest," Nishi says. "All you do is break off a leaf, put it into soil and it grows another plant." Succulent clones are best grown from new leaves. Cut off the leaf and allow the cut to seal over before planting, then dip the cutting in rooting hormone, place in the rooting medium and water sparingly; don''t place succulents directly in water. "Succulents in straight water is too much," he says.
If you want to get fancy, plants such as dracaenas and rubber plants can be started with the cutting still attached to the parent plant, so it can feed off the larger plant''s nutrients. Nishi recommends cutting a branch at an angle at the top of the plant where new leaves have formed. Insert a toothpick into the cut so it doesn''t close, and paint the cut with rooting hormone. Then swath sphagnum moss around the cut and wrap plastic around the branch, sealing it at both ends. "Then, all of a sudden," Nishi says, "roots will start growing, and when there are a whole bunch, you cut if off and plant it. Basically, from that one plant you now have two plants."
If you try the cutting game and it doesn''t work out, don''t feel bad; you''re in good company. Nishi, who has a degree in ornamental horticulture from Cal Poly, claims he can''t grow a cutting to save his life. On the other hand, his wife Yoko, who has had no formal training in horticulture, is a master at growing plants from cuttings. "You can know the principles," Nishi says, "but if you have a green thumb, you have a green thumb."