Sunday, November 17, 2013

A cut above the rest

When I first started taking cuttings from the plants here, I cannot tell you how disappointed I was when only three succeeded, out of the twenty-or-more cuttings I took. Rosemary was a hard plant to fail with though. I tried the next year and the year after that, with an array of different cuttings, but always with an equally dismal number of failures. It has taken about 4 years of consecutive failures (in total) to finally succeed in propagation.

In the first year, I think I managed to cook everything in the greenhouse when I tried to provide the heat required. The following year, I learned my lesson with heat and put the cuttings in a shade house instead, hoping the heat from summer would provide the temperature required. But I managed to drown the cuttings with water instead, as there was less heat in a shade house.

purchased plants (left) my cuttings (right)

I thought I nailed it the third year however, when I added more sand in the soil mixture to provide better drainage (ie: no roots rotting) but it turned out to be another grand failure. I was still nervous about applying direct sunlight for heat you see, so the perfect drainage did nothing for root development in the shade house either. I managed to keep the cuttings green for a really long time though.

I almost wasn't going to try again this year, but I am as stubborn as the proverbial drought! Not only have I managed to succeed with propagation (finally) but I learned quite a few lessons on the way.

First lesson: place cuttings where you will see them EVERY day. I have mine next to the front door and I move them to the front retaining wall, during the day, for the heat requirement.

Pots need to get hot, to encourage root development

I give them morning sun and bring them back under the front verandah after a few hours (depending how overcast it is or not). I also give them a spritz with water before they go out and after they come back in too. These changes every day, allows the heat and sun required for root development and photosynthesis, but it also stops the stems from drying to a crisp too.

Second lesson: combine easy to strike plants with more delicate cuttings in the same pot.

Acacia cutting (centre-left) in pot

The large leaves of this pelagonia, shade the small acacia cutting underneath. I can heat the pot in the sun to stimulate root development, without frying the delicate leaves of the acacia. When spritzed with water, the fuzzy pelagonia leafs keep a nice micro-climate for longer too. I've tried striking several of this particular acacia (the parent will die this year, so I'm desperate) and this is the only combination I've tried yet, where the leafs haven't shriveled and died after a few days.

Pigeon peas grown from seed

Third Lesson: move pots around as their needs change. I have several established plants, several cuttings just started, and those cuttings somewhere in between. I also have pots with seeds. I combine the different stages of development together, to either shelter or expose the individual pots. Some cuttings need more heat to stimulate root development or germinate seeds, so I expose them more. Other cuttings may look like their stems are getting too moist and that's another reason to expose that particular group more. But I never want too much exposure, so I place a few established pots with leaf canopy, to provide (some) protection.

Plant combinations

This particular technique for striking cuttings, is like a micro version of guild planting or food forests. It utilises the understory to provide the perfect growing environment for more delicate plants/cuttings to strike. You don't want them bunched up so thickly however, that you restrict air flow. So observe the balance daily, and switch pots around as they require it.

Fourth Lesson. Don't be impatient. Wait to see root development protruding from the bottom of the pot, before deciding to discard the plant or pulling it out to check.

Above is the root development I want to see, but you would be surprised by what the cutting actually looks like at the top...

Native peanut tree - semi deciduous

It's just a stick at the moment, but if you look closer, the tip is still green and waiting for leafs to emerge. All the energy is going into developing new roots. When its ready, the leaves will develop next. I've been impatient before though and pulled out cuttings I thought were dead - only to discover a delicate root system I just ripped out.

Among the years of failures however, there have been some remarkable successes stories too. Like this native sedge I managed to propagate from seed, after a visit to a public park.

It died back completely one year and believing it dead, I removed it from my propagation tubs. Where I put it though, a bunch of long grass grew around it - which probably provided the perfect environment for it to wait for the next lot of rains. The following year, I decided to clean up all the pots I'd left around the yard at various times, only to discover it had sprung up again. I plan to incorporate it near one of our swales, as it's a moisture loving grass.

Another amazing cutting came after the Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers, this year. David bought me some flowers from the local supermarket, which were selling them at half price to catch the last of the tourist trade.

Was about the size of the lower leaf when first planted
~ yes, the leaf right down the bottom

I had to cut the stems back to fit them in the vase, and decided to see if I could strike the off-cuts. I placed the hollow stems into some soil mixture and waited. Some of the leafs stayed green, some fell off but gradually the hollow stems began to break down. I pulled them from the soil mixture and discovered no roots had developed on the stems. Remarkably though, one of the tiny leafs developing above the node was sitting just on the soil surface. Of all those stems I planted, that one tiny leaf had roots developing. I didn't think it would live after I took it from the stem and planted it separately. But wasn't I wrong! I'm going to have a lovely purple/pink daisy in the near future.

Pineapple Sage - best ever native bee food
easy to strike too

I can finally see myself being able to plant the Dickens out of the land available here, because of the multiple plants I'm now able to propagate. I've been working years to be able to do it though. I guess it took me this long because I wanted to be able to utilise what I had, without the need to purchase hormone powder or special propagation mixes. This is mostly because I believe nature works when you get the balance right, but also because I never know if I'm going to be able to afford to buy those man-made solutions in the future.

I can say the four years of consecutive failures had very little to show as an immediate return, but has become a remarkable success for the long haul. But then that is how nature works too. The biggest yields are always returned, at the end of a long rung of consecutive mistakes. Evolution is that mistake which gets the balance completely right.


  1. I recently found out the same thing when I started cuttings for house plants. I had quite a few but only four took. You are right- keep them where you see them everyday!
    It's an art in itself in't it?
    Your photos are so pretty and the lush plant life you show made me feel warm ( its cold and wet here now).

    1. Definitely an art, and they won't forgive you if you get the balance wrong. Such a frustrating lesson to learn, but exhilarating when it all clicks together!

      It's great to hear you're taking cuttings too. Keep at it every year, and you will always learn something new. Each climate has a different trick that will make it work. I've read heaps of books on the subject but the information didn't have enough specifics, so it just came down to experimentation and lots of dead plants initially, lol.

      I'm glad the pictures help you feel some of that gardening gIow. I often look at your blog during our winter, to feel a little warmer too. Stay warm.

  2. What a great post. I love it when folks share what they've learned about a particular project. I confess I've never done will with potted plants, but have a greenhouse on my wish list anyway. I'll have to refer back to this post then.

  3. I'm the same Leigh - love to read what actually works for others, as I find the general information available doesn't always work for me. Like everything in life, I guess it just needs a little tweaking!

    Good luck with your greenhouse - you may find it works better in your climate. In our part of Australia, winter can get cool (we have a short one here) but it warms up during the day. Greenhouses can cause fungal issues with cuttings if I use too much water, but then they cook the cuttings if there isn't enough moisture.

    I'm sure I could get the greenhouse to work with a little more experimentation, but its not really necessary in our climate. It could be absolutely perfect during your cooler season though.

  4. I'm afraid I'd have to disagree with putting easy to root cuttings in the same pot with delicate ones, because when the easy ones have rooted and need to be potted on the delicate ones may have only just started or not at all, and they'll be disturbed when you remove the easy ones. I always do one cutting per pot and usually use the smallest one possible.

    I have no succes if I don't keep the humidity up to them and I do this by putting the individual small pots in a large plastic box with a lid which keeps the atmosphere humid. They only need watering once or twice. I agree that sun on the polyhouse is can get soooo hot in there on a summer's day. In the shade is best. I've actually got my latest batch inside in a light (but not sunny) room. The biggest thrill is seeing that first root poking through the bottom!

  5. The two plants in a different pot, can root at different times and become an issue. I have given thought to this by planning to cut them out with a knife. Apparently Jackie French does this to remove the cuttings she sticks in the ground, when she hasn't got anywhere else to put them.

    The acacia cuttings were an experiment. I wasn't expecting it to work, but blow me down, the leafs are still green. I'll share the final outcome whether it succeeds or fails, I'm hoping very much it works though. As the pelagonia is so easy to strike, I have no problems sacrificing it to get the acacia cuttings I've, thus far, failed to strike. So I guess that should be noted if anyone else decides to try it. Make sure one of the plants is easy to strike, so it can be sacrificed if necessary.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, I'll note them and experiment further. I do prefer individual pots too, mostly ex tubestock pots from prior purchases. I agree that humidity is key, but in Qld its normally humid during summer, it's the fungal diseases I have problems with. I suspect I require more ventilation. It's a juggling act I'm still working through. :)


Thank you for taking the time to comment. I love reading what you have to share. Gully Grove is a Spam free environment though, so new commenter’s only leaving hyperlinks, will be promptly composted.