Propagating Trees and Shrubs

Most trees and shrubs can easily be raised from cuttings, which may be taken virtually throughout the year. So, if a particular batch of cuttings fails to root, just keep taking more at regular intervals until you are successful.

Can I encourage a plant to produce strong material for cuttings?

Soft wood bends easily when handled.
It should be easy to cut.

If you are good at forward planning and there is a plant in your garden that you wish to propagate, prune some of the branches hard at the start of the growing season. This will encourage it to produce vigorous new growth that should provide good material for propagation later on in the growng season.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of each cutting type?

The softer the cuttings, the greater the percentage of them that will root, and in the shortest time. However, subsequent aftercare requires a certain investment of time and effort. Cuttings taken later require less attention, but are slower to root and a smaller percentage will root successfully.

How do I know which type of cutting to take for any given plant?

Raising new plants from cuttings 
is a hit-and-miss affair. Take them whenever it is convenient. If the cuttings fail, take some more 
later on, but without sacrificing the shape of the parent plant.

What equipment do I need?

To maintain the humidity around softwood cuttings that is necessary for greater success, you need a closed propagating case and a heat source. This keeps the cuttings alive during the period when they are forming their roots – the damp atmosphere prevents wilting.

What types of propagator are there?

The simplest propagators comprise a tray with a clear plastic lid that fits tightly over it. Sometimes the lids have vents in them that enable you 
to moderate the humidity level. 
If not, you may need to lift the lid from time to time to stop the air from becoming humid, causing damage to the plants. Some models contain a cable in the base that creates a gentle warmth, like that generated by a light bulb, around the cuttings. Larger, more sophisticated versions have thermostats so that you can regulate the temperature more precisely – worth the money if you are intending to do a lot of propagating or if there is a specific plant that you are keen to propagate at a certain temperature. You can also buy mini-cloches, which are clear plastic domes that are designed to fit over single flower pots. These create a microclimate around the plant, but need lifting every so often to allow air to circulate to stop condensation damaging the plant.

Can I still root softwood cuttings without any of these?

You can create the appropriate conditions for rooting by tenting a flower pot with a clear plastic bag. Seal this with an elastic band around the pot or by folding the open end 
of the bag under the pot. If you place the pot near a radiator, you can achieve the same result. Turn the pot regularly to ensure an even heat.

How do I deal with softwood cuttings?

Cuttings taken in early spring are notoriously prone to wilting, which easily leads to rotting. For success, it is necessary to keep them turgid – in other words, they can never be allowed to dry out. Take the cuttings as early in the morning as possible, when they will be stiffened by overnight dews. As soon as you take the cuttings, place them in a plastic bag to retain moisture. Deal with the cuttings promptly by having all 
the necessary materials prepared.

How do I take cuttings?

First, fill pots or trays with cuttings potting mix – equal parts potting 
mix and horticultural grit or sand 
is a suitable mix – water well and allow to drain. Cut non-flowering stems from the plant, up to 15cm (6in) in length. Cut just above a 
leaf joint on the plant, so that it will heal quickly. Remove the lower 
leaves from the cutting up to about half its length. Trim the cutting at 
the base, just below the lowest leaf joint. There should be two or three sets of leaves remaining. Make holes in the cuttings potting mix with a dibber, then insert the cuttings so 
that the lower leaves are just proud 
of the potting mix surface. Lightly spray with a liquid fungicide, then place in a propagator.

Can I put more than one cutting in each pot?

Open the vent on a progagator regularly
to allow air to circulate.

It makes sense to take as many cuttings as possible because only a proportion will root successfully. You can put several in each pot or tray, but it is important that there is sufficient space between them so that they do not touch. Leaves should also not touch the lid of the propagator or 
the plastic tent. Where leaves are in contact with other leaves or touch 
the propagator or plastic, beads of moisture will collect. This moisture will tend to hold fungal spores and can lead to rotting.

What if the cuttings have very large leaves?

If you are dealing with cuttings 
of plants that have large leaves, 
such as hydrangeas or spotted 
laurels (Aucuba japonica), you can 
cut the leaves across at the widest point to halve them. This enables you to get more cuttings in the container and also reduces moisture loss from the cutting, as you have reduced the surface area of the leaves. However, you will need to keep a close eye 
on them, as the cut edges can be prone to rotting.

What aftercare do softwood cuttings need?

If you are using a closed propagator (for soft cuttings) or have tented them with a plastic bag, the humid atmosphere around the cuttings will help keep them firm. However, that humidity can be a breeding ground for fungi. Remove the covering occasionally and wipe down any excess moisture. Spray the cuttings lightly with a fungicide. Once a cutting has rooted, pot it up individually in a compost (potting
mix) that is suitable for the type of plant. A rooted cutting no longer needs to be covered, but needs to be kept indoors initially. Gradually acclimatize it to conditions outdoors. A cold frame will offer suitable protection from the worst of the weather, during daylight hours. Overwinter rooted cuttings in the frame and pot them on the following spring – they may be large enough to plant out the following autumn or can be grown on in containers for a year.

How long will it take for the cuttings to root?

On grafted shrubs and trees, any new
growth that appears below the graft will
not be the plant that you want. Remove
the new growth as it appears.

Softwood cuttings should root quickly – within about four to six weeks. Semi-ripe cuttings take ten weeks or longer. Cuttings taken in autumn should root by the following spring. Hardwood cuttings can take up to a year to root.

How do I tell if the cuttings have rooted?

Give each cutting a sharp tug. If you feel resistance, the cutting has rooted and can be potted on. If you can pull the cutting from the potting mix, check the base carefully. If you can 
see a callus at the base of the tissue, return it to the rooting medium – it will produce roots in time. If not, 
then discard the cutting. Not all cuttings will be successful, even from plants that have produced successful cuttings previously.

How do I take semi-ripe cuttings?

Semi-ripe cuttings are taken from summer to autumn when the growth is starting to firm up, but is still 
fairly pliable. Prepare them as for softwood cuttings and pot them up 
in containers filled with cuttings potting mix. Place the cuttings in a propagator or cold frame, or tent the containers with clear plastic bags. Semi-ripe cuttings should put out roots within about 12 weeks.

How do I take hardwood cuttings?

Many trees and some shrubs can easily be propagated by hardwood cuttings taken right at the end of the season, in late autumn, when the wood is fully ripe and firm. Cut healthy stems from the plant. 
Remove any deciduous leaves and trim back the tip if this is still soft. Cut stems into 15–20cm (6–8in) lengths, trimming them straight 
across the bottom and with an angled cut at the top, then insert them in containers filled with cuttings potting mix. Only 2.5–5cm (1–2in) of stem should be above the compost surface. Put the containers in a cold frame. Hardwood cuttings can take up to 
a year to root, and only a small proportion of them will be successful.

I have heard that hardwood cuttings can be rooted outdoors. How should I do this?

Choose an open but sheltered spot 
in the garden. Push a spade into the soil and move it forward and back to open up a trench. Line the base of 
the trench with horticultural grit or sharp sand. Place the cuttings in the trench so that only 2.5–5cm (1–2in) of stem is above ground level. However, if the cuttings are from a tree, and you want the new plants to grow with a single upright trunk, bury the cuttings so that the tips are just below ground level. They can be placed quite close together.

Is any aftercare required for hardwood cuttings?

Aftercare of hardwood cuttings is minimal – they do not need regular watering. However, you should check them during very cold weather. If the soil is frozen, the trench may open up. If this happens, lightly firm the soil around the cuttings with your foot.

Which hardwood cuttings root well outside?

  • Buddleja
  • Cornus
  • Forsythia
  • Rosa
  • Salix
  • Spiraea
  • Viburnum

What are suckers?

Some shrubs and trees naturally produce vigorous new shoots from ground level (or just below) around the base of the plant. The beauty of suckers is that they are removed with a fully formed root system so are ready for planting out straight away.

How do I remove the suckers?

Carefully dig up the suckers, making sure there is a fibrous root system at the base of the sucker. Sever the suckers from the parent plant with secateurs (hand pruners) or a sharp knife. Replant immediately or pot them up individually.

Rooting hardwood cuttings outside 1: Dig a trench in a sheltered part 
of the garden about 15–20cm (6–8in) deep.

Picture of Patio Planting

Rooting hardwood cuttings outside 2: Line the base of the trench with sharp sand or horticultural grit to a depth of about 5cm (2in).

Garden Planning

Rooting hardwood cuttings outside 3: Place the cuttings in the trench, spacing them around 8–10cm (3–4in) apart.

Garden Planning

Rooting hardwood cuttings outside 4: Firm the soil around the 
cuttings with your hands, then water them well.

Garden Planning

Taking semi-ripe cuttings 1: Firmly grasp a side shoot and pull sharply downwards and away from the main stem.

Garden Planning

Taking semi-ripe cuttings 2: This will enable you to tear a small tail of bark from the main stem at the base of the cutting.

Garden Planning

Taking semi-ripe cuttings 3: Remove the leaves from the lower part of the cutting, then trim the tail of bark.

Garden Planning

Taking softwood cuttings 1: Take a cutting from new growth using a sharp knife. Put the cutting into a sealed plastic bag.

Garden Planning

Taking softwood cuttings 2: Trim the cutting to the required size. Fill a plant pot with potting mix and plant with cuttings.

Garden Planning

Taking softwood cuttings 3: Label each plant pot. Put the cuttings in a sealed plastic bag 
or within a propagator until 
well established.