Gardening happiness can take on many forms, but the purest joy is to see new roots on cuttings or fresh growth sprouting from divided perennials – and then to share your bounty with somebody else in the spirit of ‘gardening ubuntu.’ I’ve noticed, when visiting small country towns, that the prettiest gardens in their main streets all have the same shades of mixed petunias growing on the pavement, and the same variety of pelargonium lounging in pots on their stoeps. If you pause to look deeper, you will see that their mass plantings consist of the same agapanthus, and all have hen-and-chickens (chlorophytums) and the same types of ornamental grasses growing somewhere. Under the trees, growing on different plots, you’ll find the same species of ferns growing in their shade. And in spring you’ll see that they all have aquilegias in the same shades.
I call this phenomenon ‘gardening Ubuntu’, which means that these gardeners, who live far away from modern garden centres, have mastered the art of propagating more plants from those that they already have, and that they have also shared their bounty with each other.
With this in mind, here’s a refresher course on how to take cuttings and divide plants to make more of what you have in the garden. The mild weather in October is the perfect time to do this.
When you propagate plants from cuttings, you will have new plants that will be identical to the mother plant.
- Rooting medium – the commercial ‘Seedling Mix’ is perfect, or you can mix potting soil with washed, coarse river sand, or add in Vermiculite or perlite to get a light medium that will hold moisture without becoming water-logged.
- Hormone powder – we have a range of Dynaroot powders available, for various cutting types.
- A container with drainage holes at the bottom.
- An old pencil or stick.
- Sharp and clean secateurs.
Do this Cut off sturdy stems about 8-12cm long. Cut them off below an ‘eye’ (the slightly swollen part or node from where new growth sprouts).
Pull off any buds or open flowers on the cutting, and then remove all of the bottom leaves, leaving only a few at the top.
Place your cuttings in a jar of clean water as you prepare them, to stop them from wilting.
Pour a little of the rooting hormone powder into a shallow, clean dish (the cleaned lid of an old jam jar works perfectly).
Fill up a container with the rooting medium and press it down lightly. The rooting medium should be moist.
Dip each cutting into the hormone powder, shake off the excess, and use your old pencil or stick to poke a hole in the soil medium – palm peat is a favourite of ours! Push the cutting gently into the soil, taking care to cover about half to two-thirds of it with the soil, and press down lightly around it with your fingers.
Water the planted cuttings lightly with a watering can and place in a warm, lightly shaded but sheltered spot. You can save on water by using our popular EXLGel.
Commercially grown cuttings are normally kept in a hothouse until well rooted when they are hardened off, planted out and grown on in nursery containers. You can emulate hothouse conditions this way:
Push a few sticks into the container of cuttings, to prevent the plastic from touching them. Water the cuttings, then place the container in a clear plastic bag. Tie a knot in the top of the bag and prick a few holes in the bag to prevent moisture build-up.
Tips to soft cutting success
- Don’t use plant material that looks sick or is infested with insects.
- Work as clean as you can. All containers and your secateurs must be sparkling clean.
- Don’t use garden soil as a rooting medium – try our alternative, palm peat.
- Don’t simply push the cuttings into the soil, as this will damage them. Make a hole in the soil first.
- The soil medium should be kept evenly moist, but never sodden or the cuttings will rot. Your homemade plastic bag ‘hot house’ goes a long way to prevent this, by preventing evaporation.
- Keep the cuttings sheltered from direct sun.
- Refrain from pulling the cuttings to check whether roots have formed. Rooting will take a few weeks (3-6 weeks at least!). If they look healthy and you start feeling a slight resistance when very gently trying to pull them out, you can remove their protective covering to allow them to harden off and grow more roots.
- When you notice new growth forming, drench them with a growth-stimulating seaweed concentrate like Kelpak every two weeks.
- As soon as they are strong enough, plant them out into individual containers to grow them on to become lush garden plants.
Take cuttings of:
Pelargoniums, salvias, lavenders, fuchsias, daisy bushes, penstemons, rosemary and all kinds of groundcovers like Arctotis, osteospermums and trailing gazanias.
Lift and divide
Initially, you’ll be very happy when ornamental grasses and clump-forming perennials grow into thick stands. But if left undivided and replanted into the freshly composted soil for years, the plants will eventually lose quality and flower power. Planting lots of clump-forming plants are also very rewarding and have great value for money, as they will give you many divisions from the mother plant to use elsewhere in the garden, or to swop with other gardeners for varieties you don’t have. You have two opportunities to do intensive division: in Autumn (ideal for most temperate climates) and again in Spring (for very cold frosty climes).
- A large garden fork;
- A sharp spade;
- A knife or panga;
- Water the plants a day before you are planning to lift them.
- Use the fork to lift the clump, trying not to damage the roots. In the case of a very thick clump, it helps to have a friend with another fork, so that you can lift out the clump together.
- If the roots are very strangled and the clump is difficult to divide, you can use the spade or knife to cut the clump into workable pieces. Shake off most of the soil around the roots and pull smaller clumps loose, leaving ample roots attached. Don’t divide the plants into pieces that are too small.
- Use your secateurs to cut off old woody roots. Clean out the old leaves and then also cut the top growth back to about half its normal length. Too much foliage left on plants that have been newly divided will use energy that should rather be directed to the roots, to help the plants get established again.
- Replant the divisions in well-prepared soil and water deeply afterwards. Plant the excess in old pots and dish out to gardening friends.
Plants that can be divided now include:
Japanese anemones, irises, arum lilies, Michaelmas daisies, campanulas, shasta daisies, echinaceas, gaillardias, bergamot, physostegias, daylilies, dietes, agapanthuses, lilyturfs, sweet Williams and strelitzias.
Bask in the garden bounty of autumn
- Rake up Autumn leaves and layer them as a light mulch around plants. Also, pack some into black plastic bags to allow them to rot down into leaf mould.
- Collect the seeds of spent annuals and perennials by cutting off their stems, with seed heads attached, and place them into brown paper bags. Tie with a rubber band and hang upside down to dry.
- Cut back overgrown Summer herbs to freeze in water for Winter use. If there is too much of it (there always is!) tie them into bunches and dish them out to the neighbours.
- Dig up some mint and plant it in pots to give away as gifts.
- Before taking cuttings of lavender, cut off the flowers, tie them up in bunches and hang them upside down to dry. You can use them afterwards to add a fresh fragrance to linen cupboards and to make potpourri.
- Cut off your Autumn rose blooms with long stems, arrange some in your own vases, and take the rest to an old age home.
Want to sow your own cottage flowers?
Romantic aquilegias must be sown in trays in April. These are old-fashioned cottage garden plants that will always give joy in late Spring when they flower. There are many hybrids and forms available, from dwarf to tall. Although they are regarded as perennials, it is better to replace them every year. It is simple and easy to grow them from seeds:
- Fill a seedling tray 2/3 with seedling mix – we’ve got the perfect type here.
- Tamp it down with a wooden block.
- Spread the seeds evenly over the surface.
- Spread a thin layer of Vermiculite over the seeds. Take care not to make this covering too deep – a general rule is that the buried seed must not be deeper underground than its diameter.
- Tamp down gently again and water with a very fine spray so that you don’t wash the seeds away.
- Cover the seedling tray with a piece of plastic, and place in a shaded place until germination.
Grow them on
As soon as seedlings have grown their first two sets of real leaves, they can be planted in small pots or trays with individual holes. At this stage, you can start feeding them every two weeks with a growth stimulant like Kelpak or a water-soluble fertiliser. They can go into the garden as soon as they are strong enough and are growing healthily.