Have you ever been in someone else’s garden and wished you had the exact same plant? Would you believe me if I told you that you could? And no, it doesn’t involve a late night trip and a shovel! It involves a type of plant propagation – using stem cuttings. Stem cuttings are small parts of a plant that come from the tips of the stems. And the great thing about using stem cuttings is that you’ll wind up with an exact genetic replica of the plant you’re duplicating – it’s a clone.

Variety of rooted plants

Lots of plants will root by cuttings, including butterflybush, hydrangea, beautyberry and boxwood (and more)!

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

Wounding stem

Wound your woody cuttings by scraping the bark down to the green tissue beneath.

Photo Credit: Daniel Overcash

Rooting hormone

A light dusting of rooting hormone helps speed up the rooting process.

Photo Credit: Daniel Overcash

Spray bottle and plastic bags

Use a spray bottle and a plastic bag to cover your plants to create a quick and effective humidity chamber.

Photo Credit: Daniel Overcash

Rooted Barberry

This barberry cutting developed a new set of roots.

Photo Credit: Daniel Overcash

Now you may be wondering which plants you can propagate by stem cuttings. As a general rule, the woodier the plant is, the harder it is to root. For example, a poinsettia – an herbaceous plant with soft stems – roots easily. Shrubs, like hollies and azaleas, root pretty well if you use a little rooting hormone. And trees, like oaks, are very difficult to root no matter what technique you use.

Many annuals and perennials can be propagated by stem cuttings: from coleus and basil to rosemary and chrysanthemums. Some of your woody shrubs and trees may take a little more practice (and some just plain don’t root well this way at all). But trust me – you’ll get better at it with practice. And a good way to learn is to experiment with lots of different plants – just be sure to include some herbaceous ones when you’re getting started so you’re assured some success.

Let’s take a look at a step-by-step approach that’ll help you get the most cuttings to root:

  1. First, take your cuttings early in the morning. This is when the plants are cool and turgid, which keeps them from wilting too quickly. Take the cuttings from the tips of the stems where there’s new growth. This area is less likely to be as woody, making your cuttings easier to root.
  2. Wound the part of stem that goes into the soil. Wounding causes the plant to secrete auxins, which promote root development. Just stripping the leaves off your herbaceous cuttings may provide sufficient wounding to get them to root. To wound a woodier cutting, use a sharp knife and lightly scrape the bark off the stem until you see the green tissue just below. Also, remove any leaves along the bottom 1/3 of the cutting, so that they’re not buried in the soil as the plant roots.
  3. Next, dust your cuttings with a little rooting hormone and place them in potting soil out of direct light. Light actually causes your cuttings to dry out, which is dangerous since your cuttings no longer have roots to take up more water. You can’t dillydally – once the cuttings are removed from the mother plant, you’re in a rooting race. You need to get them planted quickly to promote new root growth before they start to die.
  4. You need to provide your new plants with enough moisture to keep them hydrated. Most commercial operations set up elaborate systems that spray water on the cuttings every minute for 2 seconds. These systems work well, but they’re costly and certainly not practical for the home gardener. I’ve had good results using a really low-tech alternative: a spray bottle. I mist the cuttings twice a day and cover the plants with a clear plastic bag to maintain a high-humidity environment. Some garden centers sell trays with a clear plastic cover that also works well to create a miniature greenhouse.
  5. Be sure to keep an eye on the temperature. For the most part, stem cuttings aren’t taken during winter (it’s just too cold), but spring through fall temperatures are optimum. The best soil temperature for rooting is 70-80 degrees F. I’ve found my cuttings root well under the shade of trees at the edge of the yard. Placing cuttings in the shade does two things: It keeps the soil and air temperature from getting too hot, and it keeps the cuttings from drying out too quickly.

I’ve enjoyed trying to get different plants to root since my high school days, when I first learned you could take cuttings from plants. To this day, it still amazes me how I can take a piece of a plant with no roots and create a fully-functioning plant just like its mother. Go give it a try – you’ve got nothing to lose. And the next time you see a plant in someone else’s garden that you’re just dying to have, ask if you can take a cutting sometime – with a little work, you could grow your own!