Notes from the Field: Please Sir, May I have Some More?

Mt. Aso pussy willow.

We’re just on the cusp of the yearly explosion of reawakening gardens, and it is this expected boom, the anticipation of color and texture and perfume, that sends frissons of excitement right up a gardener’s spine. It’s also when a gardener’s cash outlay goes from the trickle of a few packages of seeds here, and a bag of potting soil there, to a torrent of fairly high-end purchases.

There’s grass seed to buy for over-seeding and filling in bare spots, lime to dust everywhere I have grass growing, and lawn fertilizer to get down. Plus, more fertilizer (in different nutrient proportions depending on their purpose) for all the various garden and vegetable beds. At my house these I buy by the pallet full. Next comes compost, and then mulch, in what seems like a sisyphean supply.

There are new tools to replace those that broke or got misplaced, another hose and adjustable spray head taking over for the duo that didn’t get coiled up and put away for the winter. New gloves are a necessity as is a back-up trowel, and new bamboo stakes to step in for those that have finally started to splinter.

The list continues: Epson salts for roses, Bordeaux spray for fruit trees, sulfur for hydrangeas and blueberries, gypsum by the 40lb. bagful, in an effort to try and combat the heavy clay where the dahlias are going this year. Oh, and still more compost to dig into that bed to make sure those dahlias thrive.

The financial outlay can be staggering — and we’ve yet to purchase a single green thing — that I’ve already blown my entire budget for the year without having any plants to fill in once-sunny beds that have now grown thin in yearly-increasing shade.

“I’ll invest in more bugbane, sweet woodruff, primroses and epimediums,” I tell myself in January when garden activity is occurring mostly in my imagination, or in scribbled notes on scraps of paper tucked among the pages of my newest gardening tome. And it all sounds good until some other, more desperate, area in the garden clamors for my funds.

Luckily, there’s a sidebar solution. Don’t buy more plants, make more plants.

It’s called propagation and it’s actually fairly easy. Two ways to make more cans are by division (splitting the ones you already have into multiples) and by taking cuttings of stems and/or leaves and getting them to root. Trust me, you can do this. I know it might seem a little daunting, and that you’re scared that in the process of cutting up your existing plant you’re going to do it damage, or kill it, but as long as you pay a little attention, you’ll be fine.

Let’s start with division. This is where you take a plant and either take a chunk out, saw it in half or remove it from the dirt, shake, wiggle and untangle its roots, and pull them apart to be replanted separately. The thing you need to pay attention to is how the plant grows. You can easily divide clumpers and runners, things like Hostas, grasses, Dayliles and Iris. In fact, if you don’t divide irises, they’ll eventually peter out – the separating keeps them flowering (trust me, I learned this the hard way.) Astilbe can be divided, as can Sweet Woodruff, Epimediums, Phlox, and hardy Geraniums. Hmm, weren’t these the plants I had planned to invest heavily in back in January? So why do I want to spend a lot of money getting new ones, when I can, for just a little effort, have them multiply like rabbits right in my own back yard.

I was taught to split up summer flowering things in the spring, and to do the same for spring flowering things in summer. Not in the heat of high August, but not so late that the newly separated plants don’t get a chance to root in before winter winds start to blow. You want to make divisions on a cool overcast day, and you need to plan enough time that you’ll be able to dig the plant up, take it apart, and plant all its little pieces back into the ground on the same day. So, don’t take on a whole mass of plants the first time you try this. There are all sorts of books and websites devoted to the art of division, but the above rules of thumb work well, and sort of make sense too. Think grasses in the spring, peonies in the late summer.

Another simple way to make more is to take cuttings. There are two kinds of cuttings. Softwood and hardwood, both of which are taken at different times of the year. Whether you take a hard or soft woodcutting depends on the plant. Hardwood cuttings are taken in the fall right after the leaves fall, or in spring just before bud-break. I prefer the late winter/early spring as I think I get the best results then, so I have a memo in my phone that reminds me to start snipping in March. This is how you make more viburnums, hydrangeas, willows, privet and butterfly bushes.

Softwood cuttings are taken from growth in the late spring that’s neither brand new growth nor hardwood. Forsythia, dogwood, salvia, lilacs and roses are all great to use for softwood cuttings. Just do the “bending” test first. If you can bend the branch and it doesn’t break, that’s new wood, if you can’t bend the stick at all it’s hardwood, but if you can bend it and it snaps, you have in your hand the perfect piece of plant for softwood cuttings.

Next you take either kind of cutting, stick them into a fast draining soil mixture or medium (some use perlite, others prefer sand, while I lean towards cactus potting mix) and make sure it doesn’t dry out. You want to get at least one node (where leaves once were attached or where they plan to grow) if not three, beneath the surface of your medium as these nodes are the junctions which the plant will use to grow new roots.

Put these cuttings someplace they’ll get plenty of light and plenty of warmth, but don’t let them bake or dry out. And, with a little patience (and perhaps a dab of rooting hormone, ta-da, you’ll soon have new plants. Again, I’d recommend reading up on how to cut specific plants, only because I don’t have enough room to run through all the lists right here, and this way you’ll really know what will thrive from cutting based other people’s experiences before you attempt a whole bunch yourself. Plus, reading technical plant rarified knowledge can be super, super fun, and perhaps even useful if you decide to trade cuttings with all your other garden/plant-obsessed friends. I myself have Mt. Aso, the large pink catkined pussy willow rooting in my kitchen. Anyone want to trade?

Paige Patterson finds rooting rosemary so easy it’s comical.