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Maybe you found the perfect petunia.

Or the coolest color of coleus.

Perhaps a gorgeous geranium.

But the cold weather is about to take them all away. You know that you won't find that exact shade of pink or orange when you go to the nursery next spring. And saving seeds isn't an option with many plants. They're hybrids and won't bloom true from seed.

There's only one way to duplicate these beauties -- through cuttings.

Carl and Betty Walter have taking cuttings down to a science. They routinely snip off the tip of a plant, root it and start a whole new plant. As master gardeners through Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County, they have given a talk on propagating plants 47 times.

"It's kind of a winter hobby," said Carl Walter. "I've kept my geraniums for close to 20 years by taking cuttings in the fall."

The descendants of the original 1978 fuchsia geranium line the entry way to the Walters' home in the Town of Hamburg. Inside is Sanseveria trifasciata (snake plant or mother-in-law's tongue) that dates back to 1968, when a relative in the hospital received the plant as a get-well gift. There's a 10-year-old fern that came from some spores in a flower arrangement.

Carl Walter has gotten so good at propagating plants that he often throws away the original plant before the cuttings have rooted. He starts all his cuttings in terra cotta bulb pots, sometimes called forsythe pots. They're about twice as wide as they are deep.

He then puts a smaller terra cotta pot in the center of the larger pot. He plugs the holes in the bottom of both pots with florist's clay, although other materials such as cork will work. Walter then fills the outer ring of the larger pot with premoistened perlite and puts water in the smaller container in the center. Because the container is porous, the water seeps into the perlite, keeping it moist.

Walter then takes out a small matchbox that he carries with him most of the time. Inside is a razor blade, with which he takes cuttings.

"The cuttings shouldn't be much more than 4 inches long," he said. "Plant them deep enough in the perlite just to get the first node down into the perlite. Make sure to dip them in rooting hormone first."

The node is where the leaves used to be on the stem and where the new roots will emerge. In a few weeks, Walter tugs on the cuttings and if there's resistance, he takes them out and pots them up in soil.

At first it's hard to believe Walter has such a high success rate with his method. The perlite at the top of his pots feels bone dry. But he then yanks out a cutting he put down a few weeks ago. At the base are vigorous and healthy roots.

Many people root cuttings in water, but Walter said he finds that rooting in perlite gives them stronger roots. He also finds he has more success with this method than using some combination of soil or peat moss, vermiculite and perlite.

Saving annuals isn't the only reason to start cuttings. When done with houseplants, it can dramatically improve their looks.

Many plants begin to look ratty over the years. For example, pothos and philodendron vines begin dropping their older leaves.

"You end up with three yards of nothing but stems with no leaves on it," Walter said. "It looks awful and you see people with these plants all the time."

Walter takes cuttings from the original plant and starts a new one that looks lush and healthy.

While many plants in our garden today are hybrids, others are called "open-pollinated." What it means to someone who wants to keep the plant is that the seeds it produces will be identical (for the most part) to the original plant. Sometimes these plants are also called heirloom.

Wherever Joe Manuel goes, he keeps his eyes open for ripening seed pods. On a weekend trip to New York City, he spotted an unusual hibiscus at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

"It had red blossoms and the petals were split," said Manuel, another master gardener. "I had never seen that before. I did get a few seed pods. Anytime I see seeds, I pluck them off."

Before storing the seeds, Manuel first makes sure they are completely dry. He then places them in old film canisters, which he puts in his garage to keep cool. Envelopes can also work.

In the spring, he germinates the seeds indoors under artificial lights. He usually covers the seeds with a dome or plastic wrap at first to trap heat and moisture.

Manuel's father is partly responsible for his seed collecting habit. A man from Italy or Sicily gave his father some lettuce seeds.

"It's probably been in our family 50 years," Manuel said. "We have lettuce for a salad every night."

And that's not the only vegetable Manuel or his family has picked up overseas. He and his wife picked up some seed while in Bosnia Herzegovina visiting a religious site.

"The tomatoes they had at dinner were so unusual that I plucked out some of the seeds," he said. "I germinated them and they came true."

Seed Savers Exchange:, (563) 382-5990
"The New Seed Starter's Handbook" by Nancy Bubel (Rodale Books, $15.95)


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