Propagation - Basics


Cuttings are the simplest method of propagating most shrubs and herbaceous perennials.

It is also the surest way of propagating a new plant which will be identical in all respects to the parent, which is not always the case with seed propagation.

This technique is known as Asexual Propagation, which relates to propagating by vegetative methods (Cuttings) as opposed to Sexual Propagation which is the art of propagating from seeds.

This method is most useful for propagating plants that produce sterile seeds, and can't be propagated by sexual propagation.

Cuttings Chart

Cuttings and the Law:

When propagating plants be it from seed or cuttings certain legal issues may be in place that may prevent you from propagating certain plants.

For example; the breeder of the parent stock may have patented the variety/species which gives him/her the right to control reproduction of the said plant/s.

If this is the case the propagator may be legally bound to pay the breeder a royalty.

Generally when one is propagating such plants for their own use and not for profit, these rights are often waived.

In the event that the propagator wishes to propagate for gain, then he/she is duty bound to contact the patent holder /breeder for written permission and conditions to do so.

This permission (contract) usually sets out any royalties due, along with any other conditions that may be apply.


Many plants have specific needs when it comes to propagating which has led to the development of many techniques to meet these needs, as can be seen in the related links list.

Having said that there are fundamental principles that apply to all types of cuttings these are ;


Hygiene is paramount when taking cuttings to ensure one does not transfer viruses from one plant to another.

Wipe cutting tools after taking cuttings from a plant and before taking cuttings from another!


Cutting Tools:

Cutting tools should always be razor sharp to ensure that a clean cut is made each time you take a cutting.

Cuttings that have shredded / damaged ends can be problematic when it comes to the formation of roots.

Craft knife / Scalpel


Containers should be washed prior to their use.

Cell trays


The rooting compost should be fine in texture, of uniform consistency, yet well aerated and loose.

It should be free of insects, disease organisms, weeds, and weed seeds.

It should also be of low fertility and capable of holding moisture, yet have good drainage properties.

Do not use garden soil to root cuttings it is not sterile, it is too heavy, and it does not drain well.

Use a seed and / or cutting compost in preference to multi-purpose compost as the high levels of nutrients in the latter can inhibit the rooting.

Alternatively; use multi-purpose compost and dilute the fertiliser in it by adding either silver sand / sharp sand / Perlite and or Vermiculite.

Listed below are suggested recipes when using these additives.

Two parts (by volume) seived Multi-purpose compost and one part Silver sand.

Two parts (by volume) seived Multi-purpose compost and one part Perlite.

Two parts (by volume) seived Multi-purpose compost and one part Vermiculite.

Sterilising Compost:

The keen amateur gardener may attempt to make his / her own compost then find that they have difficulty with sterilisation!

There are a number of small electric sterilising units available on the market, but the amount of compost being made may not justify the cost of such a unit.

As an alternative; small amounts of soil may be sterilised in a domestic steamer.

Small Soil Steriliser


Hormone powders/Gel:

Once cuttings are severed from the plant they build up auxins at their base, it is this plant hormone that promotes the formation of roots.

Dipping the cuttings in fresh rooting powder can increase the amount of auxins supplied.

In interest of good hygiene, when using hormone powder/gel, tip out a small amount of the mixture into a small container, such as an old lid or plant pot saucer, and dip the base of each cutting in this.

Rooting Powder
Small amount of powder on saucer
Dipping a Cutting

Throw any excess away after use.

This method eliminates the risk of contaminating the remaining contents of the container, thus avoiding the possibility of passing on viruses and/or other diseases onto future cuttings.

Most rooting powders / gels have a short shelf life and should be replaced annually.

Taking Cuttings:

Cuttings taken in summer are generally rooted in a cold greenhouse or cold frame.

Winter taken cuttings will require some form of heat e.g. a propagator (these can be purpose made or home made).

Heating Facilities

General requirements:

To root cutting you need the following conditions;

a) Adequate light:

Cuttings should not be subjected to too much sunlight.

If unavoidable provide some shading to keep the leaves cool, but not so much that it greatly reduces photosynthesis.

Supplementary Lighting

b) Warmth:

Aim to provide a compost temperature of 15°-25°C (60°-75°F) but no higher, as above this root production can be suppressed.

The temperature around the foliage should be cooler than the compost.

Thermostatically Controlled Propagator

c) Moisture:

Root formation requires the plant cells to grow and divide therefore the rooting medium should be sterile, well-drained and moist, yet able to hold moisture and allow the passage of air through it.

If cuttings wilt, this generally a sign that very little photosynthesis is taking place, so transfer cuttings to an area with higher humidity and better light levels.

Normally there should be sufficient moisture available in the container until rooting has taken place providing the container was well watered when the cuttings were first inserted.

Commercial growers use mister systems to prevent their cuttings drying out, the amateur can use a pump or hand spray and get reasonable results.

Having said that, be careful not to overdo the spraying as over watering can be a major cause of failure.

2 litre Sprayer
5 litre Pump Sprayer

A useful tip when spraying is to mix a fungicide and weak foliar feed to the water, this will reduce the chances of the cuttings damping off, plus it will supply some sustenance to the cuttings.

High humidity levels can also cause fungal rots so judicious ventilation will be required during the rooting process.

d) Other factors:

  • The compost should never be allowed to get too wet.

  • Avoid small cuttings these tend to exhaust their food reserves before they have rooted.

  • To reduce the risk of cuttings damping off, dip the prepared cutting in a fungicide solution prior to inserting it into the compost.

  • To maintain humidity and provide an even temperature, cover the pot or tray with a purpose made propagator cover.

  • Wipe excess condensation of these lids daily.

Purpose made Propagator cover

If only rooting a few cuttings in a pot or small tray place the container in a polythene bag supported on wire or sticks and sealed with an elastic band.

Keep cuttings out of direct sunlight to avoid scorching and overheating.

Once cuttings show signs of growth, gradually increase the ventilation.

If using the plastic bag method puncture the polythene and remove the elastic band.

The whole bag can be removed about a week or so later.

When the cuttings are well-rooted*, transplant them into individual pots of potting compost as soon as possible.

* This is often seen as roots protruding from the base of the container or the foliage is looking a fresher shade of green.

Cuttings rooted in the autumn should be left until March before potting on.

Transplanting cuttings in the dormant season can kill them.

Grow plants on in progressively larger pots until they are enough to plant out.

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