Go Forth and Multiply: The Art of Propagation

Editor’s Note: We’re reaching into Michelle’s Smith’s archives for posts as useful now as when they were first published.


What to do this week

Soon the autumn gales will strip the leaves off the trees and shrubs and the cold nights will send them into their winter slumber. That is the time for collecting stems of this year’s growth to propagate your favourite fruit and ornamental bushes. Some of the plants most amenable to this method include all types of currants, gooseberries, elders, roses, grapes, kiwi and honeysuckle. It is a good idea to start now to collect the supplies you will need to accomplish this.

Gooseberry. Photo: Pavel Leman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

You will need #3 rooting hormone, available at any good garden centre, or through mail order. You will need a supply of peatmoss and perlite mixed for a rooting medium, as well as deep buckets or plant pots. I use the 11-litre ice cream buckets often available for free or low cost wherever ice cream cones are sold.

Once you are sure the plants are dormant, it is time to take your cuttings. Take off 8– to 12– inch pieces of this year’s growth. Cut just below a bud at the bottom and clip off any unripened wood at the top. Usually the bottom is cut at an angle so you can quickly tell which is the base and not plant them upside down! Slice off a thin sliver of bark vertically from the base, about an inch long. You should prepare more cuttings than you think you will need because not all of them will root successfully. Also, have separate pots for each type of cutting to save confusion later. Fill the pots with the rooting medium –3 to 1 peatmoss to perlite– and poke deep holes in it with a dowel or large knitting needle. Leave enough space between the holes for each cutting to have a little elbow room.

Moisten the base of the stick and dip it into the rooting hormone and drop one in each hole. Angled cut down, remember! Pat the rooting medium around them and water carefully. Put the entire pot in a plastic bag and keep in a cool but not freezing spot in bright light but not direct sunlight. Alternatively, store them in a cold room for the winter, until early spring when you bring them gradually into light and warmth.

Cuttings that take will leaf out and start to grow. Some may produce weak, small leaves, and ultimately will need to be discarded. Resist the urge to dig them up prematurely and check for roots. Like all good things, give them time!

Seedlings and rooted cuttings. Photo: Peganum CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Another way to propagate certain plants is to dig up suckers growing from the roots. The time to do this is in early spring, but you can increase your chances of success by root pruning them now. Root pruning can also be done on older shrubs or trees you intend to move in the spring, like seedling trees of maple, birch or spruce from your woodlot. The idea is that this will spread out the shock to the plants and make it less hard on them to be moved later. Take a good, sharp, square-bladed spade and dig it firmly in a circle all around the plant or sucker. Make the circle as wide as you reasonably can. Too small and you won’t have enough roots for the plant to be going on with. Too big and you won’t be able to shift the plant. You may have to be very firm to sever the sucker’s root from that of the main plant. It is a good idea to flag the suckers that you root-pruned to make sure those are the ones you dig up in the spring. Plants that can be propagated this way include lilacs, roses, amelanchier, hazelnuts and gooseberries.

One last unrelated fall task is to take the tomatoes you’ve been carefully ripening indoors for seed and process them. When they are good and ripe, even a bit over ripe, squoosh the seed from the variety you want to save into a glass jar or yogourt container. Let it ferment for 3 to 4 days. This replicates what happens in the wild. It dissolves the gel coat around the seeds and inoculates them against bacterial infection. Don’t let them sit around for too long or they will start to sprout. Pour the stuff into a fine mesh strainer, and rinse under cold running water. All the goo will wash away, leaving the bare seeds. For small quantities, you can dump the seeds onto a clean plate and air dry them, out of direct sunlight, stirring them around every day or so to make sure they dry evenly. For larger amounts I use trays made from plastic window screening on simple frames so air circulates around the seeds and they dry more quickly. Dry the seeds until they break, not bend, when you pinch them between your fingers. Store them in tightly-lidded mason jars in a cool, dark place and they will stay viable for ten to fifteen years.




Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.