Hardwood cutting is a great way to increase your future year’s bounty, writes Fiann Ó Nualláin
In the kitchen garden each year we predominately sow afresh our next crop of vegetables, there are some perennial herbs that may need to be divided from time to time to regenerate or to extend the crop yield. If there is the space then there can be some hardwood fruits from raspberry canes to an apple tree that are often seen as reliably self-sufficient or at least low maintenance.
This is the time of year when we are prepping the plot for next year’s crops, rotation plans and harvests. At this end of the year we are also tidying up those canes and edible bushes, well why not propagate those gooseberries, vines and currants and increase our future year’s bounties.
The technique to do so is known as a hardwood cutting because it comes from the stiffer ‘wood’ of plants rather than the green ‘soft wood’ cuttings of most perennials. It is actually easier than sowing seeds and way less complicated than herbaceous cuttings but because all the other propagations and tasks have become habitual, and it not so frequent, some gardeners can shy away from the process. Well it is well worth the minimal effort and low fuss it requires.
Now is actually the perfect time to do it as our garden is offering up its hardwood right as the leaves fall and the dormancy time arrives – now I am not talking mahogany or sturdy branches the girth of a piano leg. I am simply referring to the woody stems of our edible bushes, cane plants, cordons and trailers etc.
That can include our ornamental edibles such as roses and fuchsias, and to any of our more exotic herbal tea plants that we might like to have on the go such as honeysuckle or jasmine, to our healing berry yielders such as elderberry, hawthorn etc. It also includes the hedging plants we may need to propagate to create a windbreak or neaten up our boundaries. So there is plenty of opportunity to dip your toe in.
Because the hardwood cuttings are done when the plant is dormant – from a stem section without foliage or stripped of any remaining foliage then there is no need for constant vigilance to its status/appearance over the next phase or the meticulous maintenance of the right humidity balance and light environment to keep it in photosynthesis as it develops roots for its survival — as with soft cuttings and seedlings. We are not trying to keep it alive or force it to extend roots quickly.
With hardwoods we are using its dormancy to allow it naturally become a rooted thing in the next season.
There is a little preparation of the cutting to do but the next step is to simply let it do its thing. There is no need to regularly water or supply after care. It’s a cutting stuck in the ground or in a container of compost that will restart into growth next spring. The cuttings are allowed to continue in their dormancy where a callus will form over the cuts at each end and when the meristem cells awakened in spring they will naturally start to divide into new growth and become roots or buds at that callus location.
So to take a cutting we first select a healthy stem, preferably one that has grown in the current year. Older stems are viable but can be trickery to root, by sticking to this year’s growth we will get a stem filled with plenty of fresh plant hormones and meristems that will encourage roots at one end and buds at the other. The trick to this is to plant the stem the right way up. The trick to that is to make angled cuts as an aide-memoire.
The tradition is to cut the bottom straight but after you clean off any foliage and cut the softer top tip off, back to a firmer stem section, to do that at a 45degree angle. The visual clue now is pointy up, flat-bottom down. The other advantage to this is that the sloped cut at the top also will assist water run-off and head off any potential tip-rot while it waits the season out to rebud at top and root below.
You might take several cuttings from a single length of stem, so trim the angles as you go to keep all the ends flat and all the tips pointy. The aim is for around finger-length stems to propagate on but anything from 15-30cm long is standard. It is not essential but theses cuttings can have their bases dipped into some rooting hormone and be planted up straight away – into a container of compost or ‘heeled in’ direct to garden soil.
I like to just scrape a small amount of bark at the base before I plant up or heel. The technique is called ‘wounding’, the action is to expose some more of the cambium layer — that’s the light green tissue juts under the surface skin or bark — this is where the meristems that will become roots are housed and by exposing more now there will be more to divide and develop come spring.
When planting, hardwood cuttings are traditionally sunken down to have almost two-thirds of the cutting below the surface. In part this tradition is to stop the cuttings being rocked or knocked out of place.
The only jeopardy being an air pocket or a water pocket at the rooting end callus. But you don’t have to go that deep in containers.
You can plant up to three cuttings, equidistant, around the edge of a pot or if heeling in leave at least 10-15cm between each cutting. The important thing is to firm well. If outside the cutting is left to its own natural processes, if kept inside then after months of ignoring you will have to remember to water or move outside to a cold frame in spring to help it start up. It will take a season for the roots to develop so you could pot on or reposition in summer.
Field grown cuttings are often left until autumn to be lifted and transplanted to final place in their next dormancy.
That’s the what’s what of hardwood cuttings. It’s easy, its eco-friendly, it’s extending the plants you grow and harvest from without much effort. Well worth having a go.