Cuttings and propagation, guiding principles

Plant cuttings

Preparing cuttings is a plant propagation technique.

A key benefit is that you reproduce the same exact plant as the one you love!

A great many plants are very easy to grow from cuttings, such as willow, olive, pear, apple, fig, coffee and grape.

On to the technical side of preparing cuttings. Here are the tips on how to correctly prepare cuttings.

Shortcuts: cuttings for roses, hydrangea, geranium, zz plant, oleander

Note: cuttings is different from grafting

Cutting preparation techniques

Basically, a cutting is a piece of the plant that you cut off and place in a substrate for roots and shoots to grow.

  • Different parts of the plant: stem, offshoot, leaf, root, heel (that’s the tip with a trailing sliver of bark when you tear a twig off)
  • Substrate: often just soil, but sometimes plain water is fine.
  • When to start: the season when you “take” and prepare the cutting: spring/summer/fall… or new growth versus old growth.

Cuttings in soil mix: a time-proven classic

Cuttings basicsCuttings in soil mix is what works for most plants.

  • Choose a healthy plant, lush, free from any insects and diseases, and not yet flowering.
  • Cut a 4 to 6 inch (10 to 15 cm) stem with clean, disinfected pruning shears.
  • Remove leaves and lateral shoots from the portion that will go in the soil.
  • If you wish, dip the base of the cutting in rooting agents (or hormones, as they’re called sometimes).
  • Plant the cutting upright in special cutting soil mix, or a mix of peat and sand.
  • Depth should be at least half the stem, at least 3 inches (6-7cm) or more. It’s alright to have more in the ground than out of it.
  • Water abundantly.
  • Keep a high moisture level until it is settled in.

To ensure constant moisture, place a clear plastic bag atop the pot and fasten it with a rubber band. Another good option is to use a garden cloche to increase air humidity.

Water cuttings

Water cuttingsMany plants are able to sprout roots even if all they have is water. It’s possible to use stems and tips of branches. Sometimes even a single leaf is enough.

  • From a healthy plant, select a stem that is 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) long.
  • Remove all leaves except for the topmost one or two pairs.
  • If leaves are large, cut them shorter by half, too.
  • Put water in a tall glass or thin-necked vase. Slide the cuttings inside with the leaves sticking out. You can also bundle a dozen cuttings with a rubber band together for quicker handling.
  • Change the water every 2-3 days to prevent algae.
  • Ideally, collect rainwater instead of tap water.
  • Roots will sprout. When roots are at least an inch (3cm) long, transfer to a pot with potting soil.
  • Best transfer to a pot before the root ball gets too large.

For both soil and water cuttings, the length of 4-6 inches (10-15 cm) is perfect. Indeed, several new cuttings can be made from a single, longer branch.

  • Note: It’s important for all your cuttings to be placed “right side up”. Upside-down cuttings will not grow.

Exceptions: some cuttings can sprout upside-down, slanted, or lain flat, like Plumeria and willow, and many grasses. For example, papyrus sprouts however it’s planted.


What is micro-propagationThough it sounds technical, micropropagation is simply the idea of cuttings, taken to the extreme. A tiny clump of cells is collected from the host plant and set to grow in a special growing medium. It involves pipettes and micro-dosing nutrients.

Micro-propagation is how breeders grow thousands of identical clones from a single plant. Most forestry trees are grown this way.

When to prepare cuttings?

Mid to Late spring – May-June – Green cuttings

Summer – July-August – Softwood cuttings

  • Stems have taken the color of wood and are more brittle.
  • The base is hard but the tip is still flexible.
  • Typical plants: geranium, Fuchsia, evergreen shrubs.

Fall – October-November – Hardwood cuttings

  • Branches are dormant. Sap circulation has stopped.
  • Buds are present but not yet fully formed.
  • Typical plants: deciduous trees and shrubs.

What plant parts are used for cuttings?

For most plants, woody stems are used. However, many plants can sprout a new plant from leaves, stalks, roots and even fruits.

Stem cuttings

A stem is taken from the plant. It can be cut into several portions, as long as at least a few nodes and leaves are present on each portion.

  • A node or bud is where leaves sprout from.

The stem or branch then becomes the “trunk” of the new plant. Roots sprout from the bottom and new leaves and branches appear at the top.

Leaf cuttings

A single leaf is plucked from the plant. The portion that was attached to the plant is wedged into clean soil mix. A new plant emerges from the underground part of the leaf. The leaf itself shares its nutrients to the new plant, and then it withers away.

Several species such as begonia, African violet and other indoor plants like the Zamioculcas are compatible with this particular technique.

Root cuttings

Many plants with thick roots or tubers can be propagated simply by snipping a piece of root from a larger plant.

The small piece of root is then buried directly where the new plant is to grow. An intermediate step where it is planted in a pot is also possible.

Placing the root only in water (water cuttings, as described above) won’t work. Indeed, since it’s fully formed, the root needs to breathe air, too.

A flower that is often propagated through root cuttings is the Iris flower. Some shrubs also easily propagate through root cuttings, such as common snowberry.

Fruit cuttings

Some fruits evolved to multiply after being eaten. Of course, seeds often do the trick, but some seedless fruits still propagate! Take Ananas comosus, (common pineapple) for instace. When ripe, animals wrestle the fruit from the plant and bite it off. The green-leaved tip then sprouts roots and turns into a new plant!

Plants that can be propagated through cuttings

Species that are most often propagated through cuttings, all techniques combined, are listed here:

Camellia, rhododendron, buddleia, Maule’s quince, forsythia, tree mallow, fuchsia plants, honeysuckle, lilac, soap bush, meadowsweet, weigela, hibiscus, aster, dahlia, lantana, nasturtium, clematis, wisteria, wild privet, cypress, oleander, etc.

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Images: depositphotos: Robert Przybysz; own work: Rosalyn & Gaspard Lorthiois; Pixabay: Beverly Buckley; shutterstock: Fascinadora