Taking cuttings from an ornamental or fruiting tree is a great money-saving way to propagate some of your favorites on your property. For fruit trees, it’s also a way to ensure you get the same yummy produce you’ve always enjoyed, since sometimes planting the seeds doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the same quality of fruit as the parent plant. Rooting the cuttings isn’t hard if you follow a few simple tips.
Hardwood vs. Softwood Cuttings
Depending on the time of year, you can take either hardwood, softwood, or semi-hardwood cuttings. Hardwood cuttings will do best if taken during a tree’s dormant period, usually in winter or very early spring. These down times are ideal for propagating fruit trees and ornamentals like Japanese maples. Hardwood cuttings take a long time to root, sometimes up to six months, so be patient and keep an eye on their cuttings to make sure they don’t dry out.
Softwood cuttings are best taken in spring when a plant is actively growing. Growth will be green and flexible, and it can take about a month for these cuttings to root. Try this method on ornamentals like flowering cherry or dogwoods when the growing season begins.
Semi-hardwood cuttings should be taken in summer, once new growth has started to harden and isn’t as pliable as earlier softwood cuttings. The wood will also be darker or covered with bark rather than new green growth. These will take a little longer—six weeks or more—to root, and works best for evergreens that don’t go through a dormant season like Arborvitae or cedars.
Step 1 - Take a Cutting
How Many Should I Take?
Actually, take four or five. It’s wise to take more cuttings than you think you might use, in case some of them don’t survive. You can always sell the ones you don’t need, or give them away to friends who will be thankful for your DIY expertise. Using pruners that are clean and sharp, make the cut with a quick snap to avoid crushing the plant flesh.
Cut straight across so the stem has less surface area needed to callous over. Less surface area also provides less opportunity to introduce disease and less stress on the tree. Angle cuts have their place, such as when cutting flowers for bringing into the home. In those cases, you’ll need more surface area so water can be absorbed more easily.
How Long Should the Cutting Be?
Hardwood cuttings should be between 12 and 48 inches long. Softwood and semi-hardwood cuttings should be between six and 12 inches long, preferably with at least three leaves on the sprig. Keep your cuttings moist until planting time.
Step 2 - Prepare for Planting
For your hardwood cuttings, strip off some of the bark about an inch from the bottom portion that will be inserted into the rooting medium. Don’t cut too deeply. You just want to expose some of the flesh to allow rooting hormone to work its magic. Do this to a lesser extent with the semi-hardwood cutting—it shouldn’t be necessary for the softwood cuttings.
Remove any leaves, fruit, or flowers at the bottom of the cutting so they don’t rot when inserted into the rooting medium. If there are leaves on the upper part of your softwood and semi-hardwood cuttings, trim off half of each leaf. By trimming off part of the leaves, you reduce surface area where transpiration occurs, keeping moisture loss to a minimum.
Step 3 - Apply Rooting Hormone
You can find rooting hormone in the form of a fine powder at many home garden centers. Pour a small amount into a separate container rather than dipping your cuttings directly into the bottle. This will help prevent contamination of future cuttings.
Dip the cut ends into the hormone. Your cuttings should be nice and moist so powder will stick. For the hardwood cuttings, make sure to dip it so the hormone clings to the sides that have been stripped. Dispose of the powder after use.
Liquid rooting hormones are also easy to work with. You can find them in ready-to-use solutions, and as concentrates. Follow the directions for length of time that cuttings should sit in the solution—leaving them in too long may prevent rooting. If you’d rather go the natural rooting hormone route, there are items you have around that house that have been known to work. These include apple cider vinegar, cinnamon, and even human spit.
Step 4 - Plant in Rooting Medium
Your choice of rooting medium should be something that doesn’t incorporate soil. A soilless mix is light and well-draining. At the garden center, bagged potting mixes are fine, but you can also make your own if so inclined. Coarse sand, perlite, and sphagnum moss mixed in equal parts is an easy recipe.
Make sure the medium is moist. Use a pencil or your finger to poke a hole in surface, then place the cutting into it, firming the material around it so it stays upright and stable. If you have multiple cuttings, but don’t have small pots for each individual one, you can insert several into a larger pot for now, wait for them to root, at which time you can pot them up in separate containers.
Step 5 - Bag It
If you’re one of the lucky ones with a climate-controlled greenhouse, place your cuttings in there and keep an eye on them to make sure they stay nice and moist. Try not to disturb them for the first two to three weeks while they start forming their roots.
For those of us who haven't had the opportunity to build the perfect greenhouse, it’s important to take an extra step to ensure they thrive: Misting multiple times daily may be necessary, but it also helps to keep them enclosed in a plastic bag. This increases the humidity around them, reducing transpiration. Once they've developed roots, the bag can be removed, but you’ll want to continue to keep your trimmings moist until it's time to plant in the ground or another pot.
Propagating your own stock of trees is a simple and money-saving way to fill up your garden and ensure you get the fruit you’ve always enjoyed from your harvests.