Gardening in El Lago

Trowels & Tribulations in a Suburban Garden - May Issue

By: Donna J. Ward, Certified Texas Master Gardener (Note: This is a reprint of Donna's article that appears in the La Ventana del Lago.)

Wow - It's pretty obvious you spent much time (not to mention $$$) perking up your landscape. Your spring flowering shrubs produced an outstanding display, the colorful annuals are an attention grabber, and those trees are looking pretty happy judging from the verdant green color of their leaves. The veggie garden is producing as planned, and you need not do much more than water, pull a weed or two and harvest these days. So - why are you sitting out on the deck or patio having a cool libation and reveling in your horticultural successes? You did a good job, and kudos are well deserved, but do you want to pay that nursery/garden center for subsequent landscape specimens when you could easily be doing your own propagation?

With a little effort and a little knowledge you can increase the horticultural specimens in your landscape by hardly spending any money except for some potting soil and a few small plastic pots which you already have stacked somewhere in the back yard. Take a couple of cuttings from that pot of yellow chrysanthemums, and by fall you'll have three pots of yellow chrysanthemums!

Cuttings are grouped into four basic types: softwood, greenwood, semi-hardwood, and hardwood.

Softwood cuttings are taken from new young growth in spring or early summer. Those that do well are chrysanthemums, salvia, impatiens, butterfly bush, hydrangeas, ivies, and many more.

Greenwood cuttings are from plants that have non-woody stems. All annual plants, for example, are herbaceous (fleshy as opposed to woody) and easy to propagate.

Semi-hardwood is a bit more mature (think 'teenager') and are taken from midsummer to fall. You might try camellias, honeysuckle and azaleas, any of these usually root well from cuttings.

Hardwood cuttings (think 'adult') such as your deciduous (those that lose leaves in fall) shrubs, climbing vines, many berries and trees.

Look for a healthy plant; those with soft and non-woody stems are the easiest to propagate. Select a decent sized plant, one that will not suffer if you take a cutting or two. New tip growth is easier to root than those woody, older stems. First find a node (that spot or joint on the stem where a leaf is or was attached) and with a sharp knife, razor blade or sharp by-pass pruner make a clean cut just below the node. The node is the point where new roots will form. The cutting doesn't have to be too long, I prefer to cut down at least below the second node from the tip end. Remove all leaves except the top two leaves on the tip. The aim is to concentrate on root production, not sustaining leaves. Too many leaves will drain energy from the attempt to form new roots. If the leaves seem to be too large in proportion to the stem (it's a judgment call) there's no harm in cutting them in half.

Now you're ready to get down to the business of planting. Be sure you have pots with drainage holes, we don't want to plant a bog or swamp garden. Those drainage holes have to be covered to keep the soil in, but allow the water to drain out. My preference is a paper coffee filter placed over the drainage holes. Fill the pot with a good purchased potting soil from your favorite garden center/nursery. Don't scrimp and dig dirt from the back yard - you'll be sorry. Tamp it down ever so slightly, but don't pack it into something as hard as a brick. Then get that chopstick you brought home from your last Oriental restaurant meal and insert it carefully all the way to the bottom of the pot, being careful not to poke through the coffee filter. If you don't frequent that style of restaurant- use a pencil. Now some gardeners will advise you to use a hormone rooting powder, but I never do, preferring to let Mother Nature do what she does best without any help from me. Hormone powder was not even invented when my grandmother was gardening, and she managed to propagate her plants like the experienced gardener that she was. If using a rooting powder will give you more confidence, by all means use it. Insert your cutting(s) into the holes you have created with your chopstick or pencil. Insert the cutting so the leaves on the tip are just above the soil line, preferably all nodes should be below ground. Gently water until water drains from the bottom of the pot. I can't over stress how important it is that soil and stem get 'touchy/feely' - all air pockets surrounding the stem should be forced out by the gravitational flow of water. Stem to soil contact is absolutely necessary for root development. This is also true of seed to soil contact, otherwise the seed coat will not soften and allow germination. Set your 'babies' in a shady spot (and cool if that's possible), see that their moisture is consistent. Cuttings from those delicious spring tomatoes will be ready to go into your fall garden. If they dry out the game is lost and you'll be going back to the garden center.

A few months from now you'll be patting yourself on the back and accepting congratulations from family and friends when they see how you have increased your landscape and decorative specimens. Don't get discouraged if all of the cuttings don't produce roots. Even the professionals at Mercer Botanical Gardens occasionally experience failures, so why should we amateurs fare differently? Good luck, think positive - Hope is firmly planted in the heart of a gardener.

Did you know that Trowels & Tribulations is published on the city site ( on the first of the month? Under Our Community you will find Trowels & Tribulations listed below Gardening in El Lago.

Varigated Ivy