Tips for Propagating from Stem Cuttings

Stem cuttings on garden potting bench

Propagating stem cuttings is one of my favourite ways to grow free plants from my existing garden. It’s an easy propagation method (and fun for kids too!).

Different Methods of Propagating Using Cuttings

For any cutting method, it is best to start with a healthy donor plant. This helps avoid spreading issues to offspring and/or placing a weak and vulnerable donor at risk. Many plants can be propagated from cuttings, including stem, leaf, and/or root cuttings. In this post, we’ll focus only on stem cuttings.

Stem cutting methods differ slightly depending on the maturity of the stem being cut for propagation. Green cuttings are from fresh growth, and typically used for propagating houseplants, herbs, and other small soft bodied plants. Softwood cuttings are taken from the branches of plants and shrubs before they mature. Hardwood cuttings are taken from the more mature woody growth. We’ll look at each type in detail below.

Propagating Plants from Green Stem Cuttings

Green cuttings can be taken from a suitable plant at any time. This is a popular propagation technique for annuals and other herbaceous plants that don’t mature into woody stems. Green cuttings are quick to root and regrow. Rooting in water makes it an easy and inexpensive propagation experiment.

Propagation Method:

  • Select a suitable healthy stem. Ideally, it will be around 5-10 cm long (may be shorter for small plants), with nodes or leaves but without any flower blossoms/buds. If you must use a flowering stem, cut off the top before rooting for a better change of success.
  • Use a sharp clean tool to cut the stem. Cut on a 45 degree angle, where possible, to maximise the exposed rooting area.
  • Gently nip or cut to remove the bottom set(s) of leaves to fully expose the stem that will be buried/submerged for rooting.
  • Apply rooting hormone to the cut end (optional).
  • Place the end into a container of water or a pot of prepared cutting mixture to develop roots.
  • Keep them in a warm bright (but not direct sunlight) location.
  • For water cuttings, change the water periodically as needed. For mixture cuttings, keep moist.
  • Transplant once roots have developed.
Propagating Vietnamese mint from stem cuttings

Herbs are my favourite green cuttings. They’re quick and cooperative for rooting, which makes for easy propagation. Kids also like seeing their little cuttings take root in water and watching them grow.  The example above shows Vietnamese mint, which is used as a lovely shrubby ground cover in our current garden. It’s rarely eaten, but often smelled! Haha! Anything that makes weeding more enjoyable is ok with me! It roots easily in water or even straight into the ground if kept moist. Perfect.

Propagating from Softwood and Semi-Ripe Cuttings

Softwood cuttings are taken using fresh new growth, often taken in springtime. Shrubs (especially deciduous varieties), perennial flowers and herbs, and some trees make good candidates for softwood stem cuttings.

Later in the growth cycle, stems mature into semi-ripe (semi-hardwood). These stems are still current-season growth. They are firmer and more developed than softwood, but not yet fully ripe or woody. Semi-ripe stems are hard at the base, but still soft at the tip. These types of cuttings are typically taken in late summer to early fall, but if you have a temperate climate (like ours) some plants can be cut this way throughout the year. Climbers, shrubs (especially evergreen varieties), perennial/woody herbs, and certain trees make good candidates for semi-ripe stem cuttings.

The cutting process is similar for both types of propagation, although semi-ripe stem cuttings are typically longer and will usually root slower.

Propagation Method:

  • Select a healthy stem. Ideally, it will be around 5-15cm long (may be shorter for small plants), with at least one node near the cut end, but ideally more. It should not have any flower blossoms/buds. If you must use a flowering stem, cut these off before rooting for a better chance of success. 
  • Use a sharp clean tool to cut the stem along a 45 degree angle to maximise the exposed rooting area.
  • Gently nip or cut to remove the bottom set(s) of leaves to fully expose the stem that will be buried/submerged for rooting. For larger/thicker pieces, you may also wish to lightly score the bark near the cut end for additional rooting areas. 
  • Apply rooting hormone to the cut end (optional but recommended).
  • Create a hole and place the end into a container of prepared cutting potting mixture.
  • If your cutting has large upper leaves, you may wish to cut some of them in half from the tip and/or control humidity to reduce moisture loss until the roots are sufficiently developed.
  • Keep in a warm bright (but not direct sunlight) location.
  • Transplant into a larger container if/as needed during development.
  • Plant out once the roots are developed. If you’ve had the cutting in a controlled environment, ensure the young plant has been suitably hardened and acclimatised before planting.
Propagating pineapple sage from stem cuttings

Pineapple sage (salvia elegans) and hydrangeas are some of the easiest to root stem cuttings in our garden. I skip the potting mixture all together for both. Pineapple sage (much like my Vietnamese mint, often sniffed, rarely eaten) smells fantastic! It’s also a bee-friendly favourite. It will happily root in water or straight into the garden as long as it has suitable moisture for settling in, and isn’t fussy about the technique or season. Hydrangeas grow well from both younger stems and hardwood, making it irresistible to take advantage of replanting trimmed broken young stems or rooting seasonal hardwood prunings. They’ll also root if planted straight into our garden. Free plants? So easy!

Propagating Plants from Hardwood Cuttings

Hardwood is the final stage of current-season growth (or older) when stems are fully mature and woody. Hardwood cuttings are often taken in the autumn or winter when plants are approaching dormancy or dormant, with preference to the shoulder periods just after leaf fall or just before bud burst. I like to sneakily combine my seasonal pruning with taking cuttings, but have had hardwood cutting success all through the year in our relatively moderate climate. Climbers, shrubs (especially deciduous varieties), brambles, and certain trees make good candidates for hardwood stem cuttings.

Propagation Method:

  • Select a healthy stem. Since we want the mature hardwood, we’ll be cutting down well below the young green and softwood growth, and trimming that off of the top of our cutting. Depending on the type of plant and length of stem, you may be able to make several hardwood cuttings from a single stem/branch before it becomes too mature (bottom) or too young (top). Ideally, each hardwood cutting will be around 10-20cm long (may be shorter for small plants), with at least one node/terminal bud just above the bottom cut and just below the top cut.
  • Use a sharp clean tool to cut the bottom of the stem along a 45 degree angle to maximise the exposed rooting area.
  • Gently nip or cut to remove any lingering bottom leaves or side shoots to expose the stem that will be buried/submerged for rooting.
  • For larger/thicker pieces, you may also wish to lightly score the bark near the cut end for additional rooting areas.
  • Apply rooting hormone to the cut end (optional but recommended).
  • Create a hole and place the end into a container prepared cutting mixture to develop roots.
  • Keep in a warm bright (but not direct sunlight) location.
  • Transplant into a larger container if/as needed during development.
  • Plant out once the roots are developed. If you’ve had the cutting in a controlled environment, ensure the young plant has been suitably hardened and acclimatised before planting.
Hydrangea stem cuttings in water

Tip: If you taking multiple cuttings at the same time, have a container of water handy for placing the cut ends in while you collect so that your stems don’t dry out during collection before you are ready for recutting and rooting. When you’re trimming hardwood, this can be particularly handy for access or getting cuts in good position on the remaining plant and then trimming the removed stems into a good angle and node position for rooting.

Cutting Propagating Troubleshooting Tips

Setting Cuttings Up For (the Best Chance of) Success

Work with clean sharp tools to minimise the risk of transferring or creating extra points for disease. In addition to starting with healthy donor plants, it may also be beneficial to treat your cuttings with a gentle fungicide or cinnamon since rooting usually takes place in moist, humid, fungus-friendly conditions.

Cuttings are vulnerable to their ambient conditions. Set the cuttings while fresh, and maintain a clean, moist, warm environment for the cuttings while setting root. Don’t let your cuttings dry out whilst rooting. Keep your water fresh and sterile potting mixture moist but not soggy. Tenting the top of your cuttings can help retain moisture, if needed. If conditions require, you may need to control the temperature. Allow good air circulation and remove any diseased/rotting material. 

Cuttings Not Setting Roots

Struggling to get things to take root? Double check your plant variety and cutting technique and timing to ensure things are well suited to the plant you are trying to propagate. Remember that cuttings from older stems and hardwood can take significantly longer than green cuttings to set root. Some plant cuttings may not show signs of growth until their dormant season passes. I get this often with my winter hydrangeas. 

If everything was well-suited and conditions were good, but your cuttings don’t root as expected, don’t despair. It’s not uncommon for cutting to fail, especially for difficult to root plants. Make a few notes in your garden journal and try again, adjusting the technique, timing, or condition.

Reducing Transplant Shock

When the time comes to transplant, be gentle and work to reduce transplant stress like you would for any replanting and remember to harden if shifting from a controlled environment. 

If you are planting a new cutting rooted in water into soil, it is often more stressful than moving a soil-based plant to a larger pot or out into the garden. Some of the water-grown roots may break or die back, and the new plant might regress a little while setting newer stronger roots into the soil. 

If there was a lot of growth on the top of your cutting during rooting, you may need to cut it back to help the roots settle and develop as well as promote bushy growth. If your new plant is looking rather lanky, it may also be that the source cutting was longer than ideal. You can try cutting back to encourage the plant to branch/bush out. In both cases, you might even have new cuttings to root from the trimmings! 

A Footnote on Rooting Hormones

I decided to add a little footnote to this post after being asked by a neighbour about rooting hormones and alternatives. Shops were closed at the time, but they were keen to get on with garden project.

What are Rooting Hormones?

Gardeners can but a variety of rooting gels, compounds, dips, powders, and more. Generally, these all contain some form(s) of rooting hormones to help cuttings develop roots. They’re helpers, but not essential for rooting. Some plants are enthusiastic rooters, and other more reluctant.

Unless I don’t have it, I use rooting hormones for most of my cuttings. They’re inexpensive and easy to use. If I’m making the effort to take cuttings (especially woody cuttings), I’ll take all the help I can get for success!  

What about Homemade Rooting Compounds?

There are a lot of options for making natural rooting compounds if you prefer to try something homemade instead. Whether they work is subject to opinion and debate. These are not hormonal treatments so won’t encourage roots, but may have some small effects on healthy development. For example, cinnamon or honey, have anti-fungal properties that may help reduce the risk of rotting before rooting.

Tips for Propagating from Stem Cuttings


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