July 13, 2010

Propagation, Pots, and Patience

One of my favorite local nurseries is Farmington Valley Nursery on Waterville Road in Avon, Connecticut.
There is no web site, they don't advertise. There are no perennials, no flower flats, no bulbs or grasses.  Just trees and shrubs.  They only sell woody plants that they have propagated themselves.  They have some interesting and unusual cultivars, and Kevin, the nursery manager, can tell you all about each one in detail, knowing exactly how it grows right here.

Last Saturday Kevin held a short class on softwood cuttings.  It's been very hot in Connecticut... the whole east coast suffered with 100 degree temps recently, and we were way too warm in the steamy greenhouse, so the class was short.  Really short... we rushed through the snipping and dipping (cutting the stems and dusting with growth hormone powder) so we could get back outside where it was much cooler, in the mid 90s.

There wasn't much new to learn... I've been making softwood cuttings for a while with varying degrees of success.   The process is well documented and easy.  Fine Gardening has a good tutorial here.  And Ken Druse's gorgeous book Making More Plants was my fireside reading all one winter.  

My failure in the past wasn't due to technique or knowledge.  It was a lack of space to house the cuttings. They need shade, they need to stay moist but not wet for 4 to 6 weeks, and they take up room.  Then, when they root, you need lots of room for nursery pots, out of the weather and sun.  I just didn't have a good place to set pots or trays.

I had propagation flats with plastic humidity domes set up all over my small porch, but I didn't realize that the early morning sun was coming in and beating down on them before I got up each morning.  It was only for a brief time, but it was creating little solar ovens and the cuttings were cooking.

Other locations inside and outside were also a problem... no room, no shady nook, too much sun, I'm just not set up for propagating anything more than a pot of cuttings.

Even so, I have had some successes.  The obvious: forsythia and caryopteris and shrub dogwoods will root on their own if you just suggest it.  But I also rooted some trees: sweetgum twigs and maples, and a cutting from my little persimmon tree.  I got impatient, and tried to plant the little tiny rooted plants out in the garden too soon, so eager to see large leafy plants and woody trunks emerge.   I should have left them potted over winter to put on size and build up the little root system before planting them out.

I didn't really learn anything new at the cutting workshop Saturday.  The two problems that plagued my results in the past weren't covered: finding a good location for the trays, and patience.

But I always enjoy a visit to this unusual nursery, checking out the woody plants, and realizing that the beautiful lush specimens for sale all started out right at Kevin's workbench as tiny, almost leafless twigs stuck in perlite and peat moss.


  1. Making more plants is very fun! I've had the best luck with shrubs like viburnum and hydrangeas just bending a low branch down and pinning it under the soil with a rock. It may take several months, but they seem to root better if attached to the mother plant, and you don't have to worry about tending them. Love everything Ken Druse does!

  2. Cyndy, Layering shrubs is a really easy way to get more, although most of my shrubs are too small yet to have long enough branches to layer.

  3. I would love to try this, but condo too tiny to keep them (where I could water them) and not up at Kilbourne Grove enough (so no water). My landscape design teacher did give my some seedling redbuds, hackberry and cornus cousa that he had started from seed. They were a few months old and I planted them in my Kitchen Garden, hope they will be ok.

  4. This sounds like an excellent workshop and one I could benefit from, though sitting in a greenhouse on days like these isn't especially appealing:) Having just the right space, as you say, to start cuttings like these is a problem for me, too. But it would certainly be nice to add more of my favorite plants without having to buy more.

  5. Deborah, tending cuttings is like having kids...you have to be here all the time and they take up room!

    Rose, it wasn't very appealing in that hot greenhouse, that's certain, although the little cuttings love it.

  6. Space and patience are issues for me, too, Laurrie. I can definitely empathize! Wouldn't it be great if a workshop could cure those two?

    I adore those plants with flexible limbs like forsythia that you can just bury in some leafmold and compost and voila! new plant. As you say, "if you just suggest it." ;)

  7. Meredith, Space and patience are such challenges. I don't know how you did it, but your prayers for rain on my gardens and trees were answered. We got more than half an inch of nice rain yesterday and today. Thank you for your intercession!

  8. Very ambitious of you!! I usually end up trying stuff like this and then getting distracted and ending up with a bunch of dried up twigs in a pot. Decidedly low in the patience arena around here. Love your posts - they're always fun to read!

  9. Laurrie, I read this post with great interest since I have grown hydrangeas from cuttings very successfully - including one Blue Danube! I used the Ken Druse book, also, as my guide. This is a really helpful post for anyone who wants to try this. It's so rewarding when you have a full-grown plant from cuttings!

  10. Kelly, I don't have the distractions of kids like you do (mine grew up and moved away), and I have plenty of time to try these doomed projects!

    Melissa, thanks for the info on the Blau Doneau eventual size. Your hydrangeas from cuttings are amazing.


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