Cloning plants is easier than you think

Has this ever happened to you? You go to a garden center, browse the greenhouses and fill your cart with plants that appeal to you in some way. It could be a fancy-colored daylily, a new cultivar of peony or a container filled with Montauk daisies. You plant everything in the garden and watch it grow and thrive and then two or three years later, it dawns on you that you should have bought more than just one and planted them in several spots.

When plants are carried throughout a garden, the technique is called drifting. Creating drifts of a favorite plant doesn’t have to mean spending a fortune buying multiples of everything, especially if the identity of that favorite plant isn’t even evident until you’ve actually seen it in the garden.

Some gardeners call it cloning, but most use the term propagation. While propagation is defined as growing more plants either from seed or other methods, gardeners generally use the term to describe making more plants by division or cuttings.

Planting seeds doesn’t always produce an exact replica. New cultivars are often hybrids, the result of combining two species of plants to create something new. Saving seeds from a hybrid won’t generally result in a likeness of the original plant. Instead, it could be a plant that looks like one of the parents, or even something else altogether.

I’ve written quite a lot about propagation over the years because some plants do better with one or the other methods of propagation. And some plants can’t be propagated with either method reinforcing my oft-given suggestion that a little research about a plant is always nice.

Division is probably the easiest way to create more plants. It takes about three growing seasons for the average perennial to begin to outgrow its space.

Some plants in need of dividing are obvious. The center, which contains the oldest part of the plant, may have died out. If the plant is small, cutting through it with a knife can suffice, but if the plant is large, it means digging up the plant and splitting it with a spade.

Before going to all of this trouble, it’s best to know exactly where you plan to put the extras and have their planting holes dug and ready to go. If the divided sections can’t be replanted right away or if you plan to share the wealth and give some of the divisions away, they can be temporarily planted in a holding area or container or the rootball can be wrapped in damp newspaper and kept moist until it can go into the ground. Plants can be divided anytime during the season, although its best to wait until after they have finished blooming.

Taking cuttings also is an easy method, although it takes more time to reach the end result. Using a sharp pair of pruners or clippers, cut the stem just below a leaf node or joint. Some plants, such as coleus and African violets can be propagated with leaf cuttings as well as stem cuttings.

Have a container of sterile, soilless mix or compost handy for your cuttings. Using your finger, a pencil or a wooden dowel, poke a hole in the the mixture and insert the cutting about 2 to 4 inches deep. Trim off any leaves that are in the way leaving only the top four or six leaves on the top of the stem. Water the cuttings well, being careful not to dislodge them from the soil. A mist sprayer is best for this.

Once the cuttings are placed, put a few wooden dowels around the edge of the container and cover with clear plastic to create a miniature greenhouse. Keep the cuttings moist. New growth on top usually means roots have formed underneath.

Whenever I make a cutting container, I like to keep an eye on it. Too much moisture, even in sterile soil, can grow mildew and fungal diseases. I take the plastic cover off or pull up one side exposing the cuttings to the outside air for a few hours each day. If the top of the soil begins to dry, mist again with water and re-cover.

The length of time it takes for a cutting to form roots depends on the plant. I’ve had plants take as long as three months to show new growth, while others have produced roots in as little as two weeks.