Gardening: At the cutting edge

By Leigh Bramwell


My best experience of plant propagation was with grapevines.

We'd just built a house on a two-acre block and decided a long, winding fence covered in grapes would be the go.

We banged in a whole heap of round posts, strung a couple of wires along them, made friends with the owners of a local vineyard and went there with a wool sack at pruning time.

Without the benefit of any information or knowledge whatsoever, we trimmed the cuttings, dipped them in rooting compound, stuffed them into the soil and waited.

They grew. All of them. By mid-summer we had what looked like a very healthy baby vineyard and we felt absurdly proud of ourselves. Until we met the bronze beetle.

The adult version of the grass grub, it's a night owl, and it feeds on leaves. "Feeds" is a bit of an understatement. Having an infestation of bronze beetles was like watching the devastation caused by a plague of locusts.

Within a few nights, the beetles had eaten all the leaves off the grapevines. They seemed immune to spray, so we went out every night with flashlights and picked them off. Sadly, they had many relatives ready to step in, so they won, we lost, and the vineyard didn't produce a single grape, much less the hoped for few bottles of chardonnay.

I'm not propagating grapevines these days, but I am growing cuttings from other plants from my own garden. This time, I've done my homework.

Certainly, sticking the grapevines in the ground worked a treat, but I have to acknowledge there is a bit more to it than that.

There are a couple of common techniques for this and success will depend on whether you choose the right one for what you're planting, where you're planting it, what the soil is like and what the winter's going to do. I've picked the weirdest method because, in my experience, off-the-wall things usually work.

When doing hardwood cuttings of deciduous plants, you should wait until the parent plants are completely dormant. To be sure, wait until you've had a couple of decent frosts.

Making a deciduous hardwood cutting is pretty straightforward. Should you not want a vineyard, - wise decision - start with hydrangeas. I've found them very easy to propagate.

Collect canes from the parent plant of your choice and clip them into cuttings about 15cm long. There should be little bumps along the cane where next year's leaf buds or nodes will appear.

Make your cuts just below a node at the bottom end and about 2cm above the node at the top. The 2cm stem at the top will show you which end is up - planting them upside down makes you look really, really silly. It also gives you a space to hold the cutting without damaging the top node. Make the top cut at an angle to allow water to run off.

You can also try wounding the basal end of the cutting to stimulate rooting. Make a 3cm vertical cut down each side of the base of the cutting. This method is used with evergreen cuttings, but it's thought it might be useful on deciduous cuttings, too.

Once you have a decent number of cuttings ready, dip the bottoms in rotting compound and tie them into bundles with the bottoms even.

And here's the weird bit. Choose a sunny spot in the garden, dig a hole about 30cm deep and put the bundle in - bottom side up. Yes, I know I said that was silly but wait, there's more. Cover the cuttings with about 15cm of soil, mark the location so you can find them again and wait until spring.

Placing them upside down allows the bottoms to absorb heat from the sun and that's good for root development. It also discourages top growth so the plant doesn't waste energy.

Wait until the chance of frost is well gone and carefully dig up the bundle. The bottoms should have developed some callous build-up, but if you don't see that, plant them anyway.

Choose a nice, sunny spot and this time plant them the right way around.

If this all sounds too peculiar, you can plant them out as soon as you've made the cuttings. I'm doing it both ways. Watch this space.

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- Hamilton News

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