How to propagate shrubs from hardwood cuttings – two to three years of patience will be your reward
Having worked in both the plant nursery business and retail plant sales I certainly know the work and true cost that goes into that plant you see in its pot on display in the garden centre.
Let’s face it, plants are expensive these days but with a little patience and a simple propagation technique you can multiply almost any shrub or berry bush you have, or one that you have had your eye on in a friends garden, with much ease.
“An experiment young man!”
I can vividly remember a dark and rainy autumn day in the year I worked on a plant nursery before I started my horticultural education in the UK.
The leaves from the trees were falling around me and I was set with the task of collecting hardwood cuttings from our stock plants.
These simple stick cuttings taken from shrubs, 10-20 cm long and of pencil thickness were collected into bunches of 30-50 pieces and secured with two elastic bands, one at the top and one at the bottom and labeled.
We made a layer of peat substrate 40 cm deep directly on top of the concrete yard, and another one made with only sand. “An experiment young man!” my boss told me, to see which material worked best for rooting the cuttings in.
We then made a trench into which we placed the bundles of cuttings so they were a few centimetres sticking above the surface, backfilled the trench, firmed them with a boot, and left them over winter.
The following summer leaves could be seen growing from the bundles of cuttings and when we lifted them from both the soil and sand, thick white roots were seen in profusion.
There was not much noticeable difference in those grown in soil to those grown in sand but the ones grown in sand were much easier to lift without breaking the finer roots.
We planted three cuttings each into a 2,5 litre pot and grew them on that whole summer. Exactly two years from that rainy autumn day we had plants that were well rooted, 30-50 cm tall, and ready for sale.
This was my first step into the world of propagation and a skill that I have used and perfected in making many of my own shrubs, hedge plants and fruit bushes for my garden.
Two to three years of patience will be your reward
Hardwood cuttings are by far the easiest of cuttings to get to grow as they are left in the soil (or sand) over winter when there is plenty of water from the autumn rains and the melting snow in spring to start to grow and make root.
As mentioned, almost any shrub or fruit bush can be propagated this way, yet some varieties need a little longer time to produce roots. Two to three years of patience will be your reward.
If you miss the planting window in autumn then cuttings can be taken anytime over winter before bud break in spring.
I find the best time to do this is in very late winter/early spring and the bundles of cuttings can be put in the fridge to wait a while until the soil has thawed and can be planted into.
This way is a little different as I would plant the cuttings individually, about 10 cm apart in a trench instead of in bundles.
I find it’s always best to dig a trench but you can also make a hole in the soil by wiggling a stick or similar implement into it and then pop the cutting in, remembering to firm it in place with fingers or a foot.
The most critical time in growing these cuttings is when they are lifted and transplanted - we call it transplant shock. I like to grow mine in pots, but they can equally be transplanted into a shady spot of open soil of the garden to grow on.
It does produce stress to the plants when they are lifted and in order to reduce it I lift them preferably on a rainy or overcast day to reduce water loss.
It pays to have the pots filled half full of substrate which can be watered before the cuttings are lifted.
The beauty of planting them in pots is that the posts can be placed in a shady area of the garden for a while, again to reduce water loss by excessive sunshine.
Slow growers are more expensive
The one thing I have learnt over the years is gardener’s patience when it comes to growing plants but it will give you an appreciation for the price tags you see on the plants in garden centres as a lot of care has gone into growing and looking after them.
Shrubs do take a couple of years but conifers can take many more before they make saleable plants as they are slower growing, hence the more expensive price tag.
Conifers can be propagated too using a slightly different method but that is maybe left for another article in the future!
It either will, or it won’t
I keep good notes every year on everything that I propagate, which includes the plant’s name, the date and any observations I make as they are growing. It certainly helps in not making the same mistakes again as well as learning more about how individual plants grow.
My father always used to say, “Well lad, it only has two chances. It either will, or it won’t [make it ]!” I smile when thinking of something said in such a black and white way, but the gray areas are those in knowledge, good plant husbandry and lots and lots of patience.