Propagate annuals, perennials, shrubs for ‘free’ plants

by How Does Your Garden Grow? By Sharon Daniels

In an ordinary year I’d have planted a flat or two of bedding annuals but this year, staying “safer at home” makes it different.

Now I am doubly glad that last fall I potted a favorite coleus. Over winter I pinched out tips to root and produce more plants. Those coleus plants are all I have for outdoor containers.

Propagation lets us make copies of many favorite annuals, perennials, shrubs and vines by simple cuttings, layering, division, or softwood cuttings.

Layering is easy. If you have a low-growing forsythia branch or cane of a rose, scrape some of the outer layer where the piece can reach soil, shake on a dusting of hormone powder if you want, be sure the bare place touches soil, and hold it in place with a landscape pin or even a rock. When it roots, detach it from the parent plant.

For additional perennials such as day lilies, spade up a clump, divide it into pieces and plant elsewhere. Day lilies are so forgiving that if you see a color you want more of, you can do this at nearly any time. Day lilies multiply themselves readily so wherever they are planted, you’ll have more soon, believe me, especially if they are planted in rich soil.

Butterfly bush and hydrangea are two of the shrubs you should be able to propagate from softwood cuttings. Others include crape myrtle, mock orange, smoke tree, sweet shrub (the one I call Bubby Bush), and weigela.

This month and July are optimal times for this process. Choose an early morning hour when the plant is well hydrated, and take along water or wet towels to keep material from drying out.

You can tell when it’s time by bending the stem. If it breaks with a snapping sound, it is in the softwood stage and ready. If the stem is too green, it will bend but not break; if it is already in the woody stage, it won’t even bend.

Using a clean pruner, take pieces four or five inches long, preferably with two buds. Cut an inch below the second node. Keep pieces moist.

Remove any flowers and all leaves except at the top, and snip those in half. Wound the lower inch of the stem (scrape away a bit of bark on one side). Dust rooting hormone on the scraped portion, insert the cutting in starter soil, set four bamboo sticks at pot edges and drape a clear plastic bag over to create a mini greenhouse. Set in a sheltered place.

After about four weeks, gently tug on a plant and if it doesn’t pull out easily, it probably is rooted and can be planted elsewhere.

Some plants create copies of themselves with no help from a human. From one hellebore (Christmas Rose or Lenten Rose) bought at a Master Gardener plant sale maybe 20 years ago, I now have more hellebores than I can count. Birds, insects or wind may get credit for some seed dispersal propagation.

Sharon Daniels is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener volunteer.