Thursday, 2 February 2012

Taking Cuttings

When you're trying to establish a stand of trees or bushes (or planting anything that germinates slowly, for that matter), a far cheaper and faster option than buying plants in can be to take cuttings off some overgrown branches of a friend's plants with their permission, and get them to root and form new plants.Ideally, when taking cuttings you should try to start the end that you want to root around one of the points at which the parent plant branches, and trim the smaller branch of your cutting back to that point, as for botanical reasons that I haven't bothered to research yet, the cells around such a node seem to find it easier to change their growth pattern into a root. You can also improve your chances by treating the tip that you want to root with a solution of 'rooting hormone', usually particular synthetic auxins that instruct the cells there to grow root structures.

In my case, to create a fast windbreak hedgerow, I have a couple of brilliant plants available for the job, where my friend and their neighbour have willow trees and blackberry brambles, which grow so vigorously that you can often just shove a stick in the ground and it will root. In fact, the former is so good at spreading by this method that it is considered an invasive weed in Australia, and my friend tells me that one time they tried to make a fencepost out of a freshly cut beam of willow, it grew into another tree where it was placed.

Having all that in mind gives me a little more confidence when considering that this isn't such a great time of year to be trying to root some things; all the ground was frozen hard and frosty on top yesterday, and it was so cold out that I couldn't get much done before feeling like my fingers would fall off if I carried on. I've read other gardeners saying that late autumn is the best time to transplant brambles, giving them a little time to establish roots before becoming dormant over winter, but I've done my best to get some roots going anyway.

One cutting from willow ready to be planted on right, trimmed at a join with a bit much bark stripped off but oh well, and another cutting on left showing where a branch would be cut before trimming it down.
I started a couple of days ago by cutting off some bits of willow getting in the way of a path, and digging very small holes for them to grow in by the south-west fence line. I added a tiny bit of manure in the bottom of the hole to help the roots establish, but without the bulk of extra soil from planting potted trees, there was practically no mound above these branch cuttings.
The previous cutting planted at top, the ground almost flat, with the next one trimmed down in the foreground, ready to be planted.
I was also supplied with the cheapest tree available from that native plants nursery, a Downy Birch, which with its affinity for slightly wet and acidic soils, should do very well in its position near to these brambles.
I found an impressively/annoyingly-sized rock in the hole that I was digging for it.
Then I remembered to take pictures of the way I'm covering pre-dug squares of sod for the bare-root fruit trees, which should be here when I get up in the morning.
A section of some of the woven-appearance cupboard backing that I keep seeing more of these days, going a bit soggy and rotten, and held in place with bit of scrap bamboo, will act as mulch to suppress the grass roots in this patch.
Keeping the grass down should make it a little easier to plant the bare-rooted fruit trees in each patch when they arrive. Also doing this helps me to remember where I planned to plant them. If I had more bits of cardboard to spare, I would cover a wider area to make it easier to plant legumes around the trees once they are in.
If you can see them, these baby trees are getting all ready to make an effective wind-break now. The downy birch is the one ready leaning slightly into the wind, tied to a bamboo stake taller than itself. That big rock is also weighing it down for extra storm-safety.
Even if those willows try to overgrow and take over, they can easily be coppiced many times. A brilliant temperate pioneer plant, giving the benefits of a windbreak to other plants, while providing yields of useful timber and firewood, and even a natural painkiller/fever remedy (from which aspirin was derived).

The next day I took some cuttings of the nearby bramble bushes, trimming them in a similar way with some secateurs. To try and improve their chances in rooting and surviving, I used a budget trick learned from some nice pot-plant growers quite experienced in the art of plant cloning, by mixing up a little honey with some water and dipping the roots in it.

To make the process useful I did something I often do for an efficient brew, which was to pour water straight into an old honey jar that has had all but a thin film scraped out of it. Of course, in this case I used a little water left in a kettle after it had cooled down, so that it wouldn't denature useful things in the honey.
Some of a non-thorny variety of bramble, some not, one bit of another healthy-looking bush I didn't quite recognise, but seemed very hairy.

Once I had collected my cuttings and warmed back up a bit, I took them off to the patch to plant. I put the biggest cuttings into three separate stands along the fence, where I hope they will spread from.

My method for this was quite simple: kick the frozen grass aside, make a row of holes with one jab of a pitchfork, shove a cutting in each hole, water it a tiny bit and move on.
I left a couple of the smallest cuttings aside to be potted, as is generally suggested to be the safest way to clone any plant cutting, so even if my cuttings outside don't survive the end of winter, I should have something to transplant out there in the spring.
The leftovers, with crunchy grass in the background.
These little ones seem quite happy in their soft warm potting soil.

2013 Update:
Something I didn't fully know when this was published was that one of the main reasons why willow is so amazing at rooting itself, is that the greenish resin in its bark and spring shoots contains chemicals which both aid rooting at the same time as acting as a painkiller in humans. While the Salicylic Acid present both cures headaches and activates a plant's immune system to help fight off fungal infections, there is also a hefty amount of Indolebutyric Acid, which is a root-growth-promoting auxin.
Although solutions of honey, sugar or specially mixed electrolyte salts can keep cuttings alive for quite a while by providing necessary nutrients, and sometimes even allow them to form new roots, hence it's generally advised to treat cut flowers that way, if you make a tea out of willow bark or shoots and leave your cuttings in that overnight, it'll give them a much better kick-start to survive and thrive.


  1. Really enjoyable and informative article. I will be planting an army of brambles over the spring using this method!

    1. N.B. Most of those pictured didn't survive, and I would suggest taking a combination of the best of two parts of what I did there to give them a better chance of survival and not make the same mistakes as me:
      First off, cut the stem low down in a thick woody section; you might not even want to bother with the thin wispy shoots near the tip and just discard them, as the woody sections will have a better chance of survival. Then give them a few days of soaking in water / rooting hormone to have time to form tiny roots - I rushed this too much. Then let them all establish in compost before transplanting outside - the thick briars that I stuck outside initially grew back some leaves, but were not strong enough to survive the weather long-term.
      Hopefully I'll find time for a proper update soon...