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Propagation from cuttings

Making plants from plants is a subject close to most gardeners’ hearts, and here in the mediterranean-climate areas we are no different. Our green-fingered friends seem to know by instinct how best to break off a piece of an interesting plant and make it grow, but the rest of us need guidance. Below you’ll find that in abundance. First of all garden designers Jennifer Gay and Piers Goldson give the basic information about the taking of cuttings. Then other members give their personal experience and their sometimes unorthodox methods of propagation. A commercial rose grower reveals his way with traditional roses.

Propagating in the Mediterranean
by Jennifer Gay and Piers Goldson – notes from a workshop held at Sparoza for the 2007 MGS AGM Symposium

Three techniques for cuttings
by Andrew Polmear TMG No. 71 2013 – Andrew discusses his success in using various methods of propagation from cuttings in his garden in the south of France where he is not a permanent resident.

Perlite: how to use
by John Calderwood TMG No. 15 1998/9 (part). John uses perlite for all growing mediums, including for cuttings.

Perlite and cuttings
by Maggie Logothetis in a private letter to Sally Razelou, published with permission. Maggie describes how she uses perlite alone as a medium for striking cuttings.

Propagation by cutting for non-green-fingered gardeners – my experience so far
by Fleur Pavlidis

The nursery at Sparoza
by Peter Dinning TMG No. 61 July 2010 - Peter was already an experienced gardener from the UK when he took up the post of Garden Assistant at Sparoza, but he had to relearn many of his skills in propagation in these harsher conditions.

Traditional rose varieties - propagation from cuttings
Lecture by Yan Surguet at the Rose Festival, Château de Flaugergues in October 2010, reported by Chantal Guiraud

Propagating in the Mediterranean

Jennifer Gay and Piers Goldson are both past Garden Assistants at Sparoza and have gone on to be successful garden designers in Greece. At the MGS Symposium in Athens in November 2007, they gave a workshop on propagation and here is the part of their notes concerning propagation from cuttings, including layering:

An introduction to taking cuttings
Any material selected for vegetative propagation must be true to type, free from pests and diseases and not flowering. If flowering material is selected all flower buds must be removed as the plant will use energy to produce them rather than develop a new root system. 

It is important that the medium for rooting cuttings is firm and dense so it will hold the cuttings upright, and it must retain enough moisture not to need constant watering. Commonly used mixes for cuttings are:

  • 50% pulverised bark (fine grade) and 50% fine perlite
  • 50% sharp sand and 50% coir
  • 50% coir and 50% pulverised bark
  • 33.3% peat, 33.3% pulverised bark, 33.3% perlite

Cuttings can be treated with a rooting hormone (auxin) to increase their propensity to form roots, to hasten root initiation and to increase the uniformity of rooting. Plants that root easily do not benefit from an extra supply of auxin, and it is best to save rooting hormones for those that are difficult to root.

1. Root Cuttings
Some perennials with fleshy roots are propagated from root cuttings taken in the dormant season. Lift the plant, and after cutting off a few strong, healthy, pencil-thick roots, replant the mother plant. Use the smaller lateral roots. Cut across the top at a right angle and trim the bottom at a slanting angle to give a larger surface from which the new roots can develop. This will also help you distinguish top from bottom. Cuttings to be raised in the open should measure at least 10 cm while those kept under protection can be 5 cm. Before inserting the cuttings into gritty compost, it is advisable to dust the surfaces with a fungicide; there is no need for rooting hormone. The tip of the cuttings should be level with the compost and covered with one centimetre of gravel.

Keep the cuttings dry to prevent them from rotting. Root cuttings can also be taken from woody plants which have a tendency to sucker from the roots such as Albizia, Aralia, Catalpa, Chaenomoles, Populus and Robini. Acanthus mollis and perennial poppies also propagate successfully with this method.

Select small lateral roots for cuttings. When cutting the roots, trim each section straight across the top and slanting at the base in order to distinguish the top from the bottom (1). Insert the cuttings into compost the correct way up so that the top is level with the surface. Cover the compost with a 1 cm layer of gravel (2).

2. Softwood Cuttings
Spring and autumn are the time to take softwood cuttings of shrubs and perennials. Choose young vigorous growth that is still soft and green and will root without too much difficulty. Because softwood cuttings wilt very quickly, put them in a plastic bag and keep them in a cool place if you are unable to set them in compost straight away.

There are two types of softwood cuttings, nodal and internodal:

2.1. Nodal Cuttings
Nodal cuttings take the soft tip just below a leaf node. Look for strong new growth with a healthy leaf bud at the end (not a fat flower bud). If you have never taken cuttings before start with something easy like sage (Salvia officinalis). With a sharp knife cut just below a leaf joint or node and remove the lower leaves. You can dip the base in a rooting hormone powder although cuttings often root just as well without. A fungicidal dip is a useful precaution, or remove wilting or rotting material as soon as it becomes obvious. Insert the cuttings round the edges of a pot of freely draining compost such as one part compost to one or two parts sharp sand. Generally less commonly used than semi-ripe and hardwood cuttings in colder climes, softwood cuttings are easier in the Mediterranean. Try Hebe, Lonicera, Philadelphus, Parthenocissus, Perovskia, Pyracantha and Wisteria with this method.

Gather softwood cuttings early in the morning and have everything ready in advance so you can insert them without delay. Trim the stem just below a leaf joint (here Pelargonium) and remove the lower leaves from the cutting (1). Insert the cuttings in sandy compost (2) (stand the pot in water first so that it is thoroughly moist).

2.2. Internodal Cuttings
Internodal cuttings are used for plants such as Buddleja davidii that have a lengthy stem between the leaf joints (known as a large internodal spacing). The cut is made at a point roughly half-way between two nodes. Internodal propagation allows the cutting to shoot from the base rather than develop a short stem.

This technique is used for climbing plants with a lengthy stem between the leaf joints or internodes. Trim above a leaf joint and insert about 2-3 cm of stem in gritty compost. Remove some of the leaves to cut down on water loss.

3. Semi-Ripe Cuttings
Shrubs, trees and climbers including evergreens are often propagated from semi-ripe cuttings in late summer (or from hardwood cuttings taken during the winter months – see below). Take semi-ripe cuttings when the new season’s growth starts to harden towards the end of the growing season. Box, cypress, Eleagnus, juniper, jasmine, Nandina, Pittosporum and Trachelospermum are among the species which are commonly propagated this way. Cut terminal growths with all the current season’s growth in late summer, 10-15 cm long. Remove leaves from the lower half of the stem so they do not come into contact with the compost. Because the stems have begun to produce bark some semi-ripe cuttings may require wounding.  Make a flat cut below a node. If the bark is thick wound the specimen then dip the base in rooting hormone and insert into soil or gritty compost, topped with a 2.5 cm layer of sharp sand, in a shaded protected place. To reduce water loss and save space, cut large leaves like cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) in half.

Trim the stem immediately below a leaf joint (here Choisya) and remove the lower leaves from the cutting (1). Dip the base of the cutting in rooting hormone powder and remember to tap off any excess. Insert the cutting through the layer of sharp sand so that the base of the stem sits just below the surface of the compost.

A number of conifers and evergreens will root more reliably if cuttings are taken with a heel. This means pulling side shoots from the main stem so they come off with a small strip of old wood known as a heel.

Pull off a young side shoot (here rosemary) in such as way that a strip of the previous year’s growth is attached (1). Trim off the ragged tail of the heel, dip in rooting hormone powder, remembering to tap off any excess, and insert in gritty compost (2).

4. Hardwood Cuttings
Easy subjects for a first experiment with hardwood cuttings are dogwood (Cornus), poplar, plane, Hibiscus and Weigela. The aim is to induce the cutting to produce roots before the buds grow in spring. In winter just after leaf fall, cut lengths of hardened woody stem bearing at least three buds. Trim the bottom end at an angle and the top end level, just above a bud.  Insert the cuttings into a V-shaped trench in open ground leaving the top buds showing and firm them in. In heavy clay mix some sharp sand into the soil and also place some at the base of the trench to ensure good drainage.

Insert hardwood cuttings in a V-shaped trench in open ground. Backfill with soil and firm in. The layer of sharp sand or grit at the base ensures good drainage so the cutting does not rot.

5. Layering
Many shrubs and climbers can be propagated by layering. This method differs from other methods of vegetative propagation in that the new addition is induced to produce roots while it is still attached to the parent plant. Once rooted this new plant is then severed from its parent and allowed to grow on its own roots unaided. This method of propagation produces a much larger plant in a shorter time compared with other methods of propagation. The easiest plants to produce by this method are those that naturally produce suckers. Many, such as blackberry, naturally reproduce themselves by this method.

Climbers are also easily reproduced by layering, with Jasminum making an especially good subject. During the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries layering was widely used and often was the primary method of propagation due to the fact that it costs nothing.

Constriction must be induced within the stem to restrict the natural flow of auxin which acts as a rooting hormone at the point of restriction. The exclusion of light is thought to speed up the production of wound tissue and hence increase the speed of rooting.

In autumn, late winter or early spring select a strong new stem that will reach down to ground level and prepare the soil at this point by forking in garden compost and grit. Pull down the stem and constrict it to encourage root formation, either by making a slanting cut a third of the way through, twisting the stem or girdling it. Peg the cut branch down into the prepared soil with the end tied vertically to a stake. Water in dry weather. The developing layer may produce sufficient root growth by early summer, though sometimes it takes a year or two. Sever the layer as close to the parent plant as possible, and after four to six weeks carefully lift it. The layer can either be placed in its permanent position, or containerized and grown on.

This is a reliable method of propagating shrubs with low-growing branches such as magnolias, Photinia, bay and lilac. Climbers can be increased by pulling down a long shoot, wounding the stem and pegging it down.

Twisting is achieved by rotating each end of the stem in opposite directions and pinning down.
Girdling involves removing the top layer of bark, as shown, with a sharp knife.
Create a wound or ‘tongue’ by making an incision into a third of the thickness of the stem.

Three techniques for cuttings
by Andrew Polmear TMG No. 71 2013

The last time I wrote in The Mediterranean Garden (No. 62, October 2010) I dismissed the idea that it was worthwhile for an occasional gardener, that is, one who is away from the garden for most of the year, to propagate plants in a mediterranean climate. As soon as I emailed the article to the editor I began to wonder whether this was true. I know now that it isn’t. For a year I have tried to grow plants from cuttings in our garden in the Languedoc, using three different techniques. While there were some failures, the successes have given me huge joy, and a number of viable plants.

The year I chose for my trial, 2011 to 2012, was a testing one from the point of view of the weather. I potted up my cuttings in September 2011 and left them in three different settings, described below. I watered them once and left, expecting the autumn rains to take over. Instead the dry weather lasted until mid-October, when it rained for three weeks. A further dry spell followed, lasting from November to March 2012. In that February the temperature fell to minus 9 degrees Celsius at night and failed to rise above freezing for two weeks, while 100 km/hour winds blew from the north. From March growing conditions became ideal for those plants still alive. It was warm with substantial rain at least once a month from March right through until July, when the rain finally stopped until September.

Having potted the cuttings out in September 2011, I was in the Languedoc again in November, when they did not need watering, in February when I didn’t dare water for fear that the plants would then freeze, in April, and in June when, again, they didn’t need watering. So they really looked after themselves after their initial watering.

The three settings I chose were a plunge bed, a crevice garden, and plastic pots with a water reservoir. All three were sheltered from the wind. The first two were open to the rain while the third were placed just inside the open door of a former pigsty.

A plunge bed is made by digging out a trench as deep as the pots are tall, placing the pots in it and filling the gaps between the pots with sand, leaving only the tops of the pots showing. The idea is that the pots will absorb moisture from the earth beneath them and dry out much more slowly than a pot that is exposed. It will also keep them warmer. I dug the bed in light shade in the least dry part of the garden, but it is still fairly dry, being on a steep slope whose terraces are held in place by drystone walls. In fact I used soil not sand between the pots but regretted it later because the growth of weeds in the soil rather dwarfed the cuttings in the pots. My first inspection of the plunge bed in November was a shock. First, the white plastic labels had all disappeared, although I later found a few some yards away. I suspect magpies or squirrels. Fortunately I had a map of the pots and could still identify them. Second, the bed was covered with leaves from the ash, mulberry and Montpellier maple trees that were providing the shade. However, once leaves and weeds were cleared almost all the cuttings were showing some growth. I covered the whole bed with wire netting and had no more trouble with leaves. The cold dry winter coped with the weeds.


The plunge bed

The crevice garden is a small bed in full sun into which I have sunk slates placed vertically so that most of their height is underground. The idea comes from the observation that a crevice in a rock which is deep enough to hold water will often house a plant despite the most arid conditions around it. Even when there is no rain, moisture may form on the exposed slate from mist or dew and slide down the slate’s surface into the soil. Without the slate the water would stay on the surface of the soil and evaporate in the sun. In addition, angling the slates east-west gives a small patch of shade where the cuttings can be inserted into the soil. The most influential crevice gardener is the Czech, Zdenek Zvolanek, known as “ZZ”. It was his huge crevice garden at Wisley that inspired me.


The crevice garden before adding soil

To make my reservoirs I took one- and two-litre plastic bottles, cut them in two horizontally, threw away the cap, turned the top half upside down and jammed it in the bottom half. Water poured in through the top collects in the bottom half while potting compost tipped into the top half stays there, suspended above the water. Cuttings are put into the compost which is kept moist by the water below.

Results

The reservoirs were ultimately a complete failure, despite staying moist throughout the year. As the old surgical joke goes, the operation was a success but the patient died. In November most of the cuttings were thriving: several different sedums, Rosa banksiae var. banksiae, Arbutus unedo, Salvia fruticosa, Helichrysum orientale, mallow and ballota. Only the Elaeagnus × submacrophylla (syn. E. × ebbingei) had failed, which was odd because the elaeagnus cuttings that I had stuck straight in the ground at the same time had survived (only to die later in the cold). By February all cuttings were growing but looking less happy: pale and spindly, which I attributed to the poor light in the pigsty. I kept them there, however, because, if moved out of doors, the reservoirs would have been flooded if it rained. By July they had all died, despite being in moist but not sodden soil. I was puzzled until I tipped the compost out and smelled the unmistakeable sickly smell of anaerobic decomposition. By sealing the water in I had deprived the compost of any exposure to oxygen and when the oxygen in the soil ran out the plants died. Had I not sealed the water in it would have evaporated, so I don’t see a solution to this (except perhaps a drip hosepipe which I am trying now).

The crevice garden was more successful. Half the plants survived: Gormania spathulifolia (syn. Sedum spathulifolium), Sedum spurium and S. kamtschaticum, Delosperma cooperi, Sempervivum ‘Red Delta’ S. ‘Jet Stream’, S. ‘Spring Mist’, and S. tectorum. Some of the failures were predictable – Saxifraga burnatii and S. longifolia ‘Tumbling Waters’ – but others surprised me: Delosperma congestum ‘Gold Nugget’, D. densum, and Sempervivum arachnoideum.

The plunge bed was the most successful, with well over half the cuttings ready to be planted out at the end of the year: Gormania spathulifolia ‘Purpureum’ (× 8), Sedum spurium, S. tetractinum ‘Coral Reef’, Aucuba japonica, Phlomis fruticosa (× 5). Only the cotoneaster, Salvia fruticosa, Hertia cheirifolia (syn. Othonna cheirifolia), Arbutus unedo and the rosemary died. The rosemary was a real surprise because I usually just stick cuttings into soil in full sun, water once only, and they almost always survive. Perhaps it was the light shade that killed them.

Of course, if I were doing the trial now I would do it differently. I would put several cuttings of each plant in each of the three sites, for a proper comparison. And perhaps in a different year the results would have been different. But I do feel I’ve come to conclusions that will guide my future attempts:

  • Push cuttings that tend to do well directly into the soil in September, water once and leave. Provided the autumn rains do not fail, this will work well in full sun for rosemary and in partial shade for some salvias, especially Salvia fruticosa and S. officinalis subsp. lavandulifolia, and for helichrysums and elaeagnus.
  • Use a formal crevice garden if I have a sunny spot for it for small sedums, sempervivums and other rockery plants. Alternatively, just push a single upright slate into the soil of an open bed on the sunny side of the cutting to shade it while it’s small and possibly to catch some water from the air.
  • Enlarge the plunge bed, using sand between the pots, with a robust frame of wire netting over it, and in the pots put cuttings from all my favourite shrubs. There will always be casualties in the garden that need replacing and always friends who are grateful for a few pots. Even if there aren’t, the joy of watching a cutting grow despite an almost total lack of human intervention makes it all worthwhile.

More photographs from Andrew’s trial.

Perlite: how to use
by John Calderwood TMG No. 15 1998/9 (part)

Perlite is a most useful, sterile substitute for sand in all kinds of potting composts. The white, lightweight aggregates are produced by heating a volcanic mineral to 1,000 °C. The small particles have two important, beneficial advantages for pot-grown plants. The surface absorbs a large amount of water, which is slowly released, and the particles greatly assist in compost aeration. Their size and structure help to prevent pot composts from compacting, thus enabling the roots to breathe, with an easy exchange of gases.

Rooting cuttings
Fill small pots, clay or plastic, with dampened Perlite. Water the pots with half-strength liquid fertiliser, low nitrogen, high potash, as used for pot plants. For ease the pots may be stood in a shallow tray of the solution until the Perlite is wet, and then drained. Insert the prepared cuttings around the circumference of the pot and lightly firm the moist Perlite. Place a clear plastic bag over each pot. Don’t tie it around the pot, leave it loose. Place the covered pots in a shady, sheltered area, no direct sun. The inside of the plastic bags may become rather wet – best to turn the bags inside out every second or third day, to minimise fungal problems. When new growth appears at the top of the cuttings check for rooting. If rooted, leave the bags off for a few days before potting on, singly, in suitable compost. You will find that Perlite particles cling to the fine root systems: don’t disturb. Perlite remaining in the pots can be re-used.

Perlite and cuttings
by Maggie Logothetis

In a letter to Sally Razelou, the Custodian of the MGS garden at Sparoza, Maggie Logothetis writes:

…perlite and cuttings: as easy as falling off a log and a success rate of 99-100%. I have those plastic oblong ‘jardinières’, the deep ones; they measure 98 cm by 22 cm with an inside depth of 18 cm. I fill one with perlite, water it well, let it drain, and stick in the cuttings. No rooting powder or hormones, they’re absolutely not necessary. Water every day and when the temperature is over 30°C it may need twice a day. The water drains straight through but the perlite retains moisture, thereby avoiding the roots drying out. I have never had die-back using perlite as there is no waterlogging. I leave them as they are for five to six months before gently tipping them out on to a large plastic sheet and teasing the well-developed roots apart. I plant them into small pots filled with my own mix: one part sieved earth, one part peat, and two parts perlite,; I water well and thereafter only when necessary. So cuttings taken in March are potted up in October/November. All my present cuttings are in the greenhouse which has that special yellow plastic which cuts the sun’s rays and keeps down the heat. The doors and windows are open so they are quite safe from the elements. They will go back into the greenhouse after being potted up and next year in early summer they will be potted on and left out under the shade of the trees. They will be ready to plant out that autumn.

Propagation by cutting for non-green-fingered gardeners – my experience so far
by Fleur Pavlidis

It was Olivier Filippi who encouraged me to start propagating with a passing comment as I stuffed my suitcase full of plants from his nursery: “Buy one of each and make more from cuttings,” he suggested. I took him at his word, and although I’m still quite a good customer at my favourite nurseries, when I planted out four new beds this autumn/winter I reckon that 60 – 70% of the plants planted were home-produced. So as I potted on yet more pots of rooted cuttings this spring I took a mental stock of what I’ve learnt by experience over the past five years. I’m certainly enjoying the process more now that I’ve worked out my own methodology and got rid of the main frustrations.

I decided that my basic principles are:

  • It’s supposed to be fun
  • Make it simple
  • Accept failure.

It’s supposed to be fun
When I first started to propagate in earnest I cleared an area of ground by a boundary wall, marked it with a perimeter of stones, laid down gravel and set up a central spray for irrigation. It looked good initially but that didn’t last. The daily irrigation meant that weeds grew promptly up through the gravel and would overwhelm the pots before I got round to weeding. Meanwhile the animals wreaked havoc: cats chased each other over the pots scattering the soil and knocking the spray sideways, hedgehogs overturned pots looking for worms and, worst of all, rutting tortoises knocked over everything before them.

This was no fun at all so I took the decision to invest in a fenced-in nursery on the logic that with such a big garden to fill it had to be worthwhile to propagate some of the plants. However the first quotation I got was so exorbitant that shipping the plants in from France might have been cheaper. Fortunately the second offer was perfect – a young man did it for free for love of my daughter. Now I have a protected space with shading and the ground covered in horticultural sheeting to suppress the weeds and, in the areas where the larger plants stand, flag stones to prevent the roots from leaving the pots. My work space is right next to the nursery, not too far from the house and I can spend many happy hours literally pottering about among my plants.

Make it simple
I make it simple by obeying very few rules and cutting corners and taking a chance elsewhere.

Cutting corners? I never wash pots and always recycle cutting compost and gravel (in the pots for potting on). If I lose a crop of cuttings because of some nasty disease or pest my children won’t go hungry, after all. And that’s the point, the amateur is free to take chances a professional can’t. The Nursery Stock Manual* tells you exactly when to take cuttings of most plants to ensure maximum success and although I’ve noted it all carefully in one of my many gardening pads, I continue to take cuttings at any time outside the hot summer months – mostly when I’m doing an odd bit of pruning or if I happen to carelessly break off a piece of something nice, or even if I need cheering up. Such haphazard working has special requirements because one most important rule learnt from bitter experience is: plant without delay. This is only easily possible if everything needed to pot up the cutting is constantly to hand. So, let’s say I’ve snipped back a Solanum rantonnetii (now renamedLycianthes rantonnetii)which has sent out a branch which spoils its shape. I stop whatever I’m doing, hurry back to the work space and immediately prepare some cuttings:

Choose healthy, straight twigs of 10 – 12 centimetres in length and trim to below a leaf node. if there’s no choice 6 cm will do but ignore the leave node rule and pull off the shoot with a little of the ‘skin’ of the stem.

Cut or rub the leaves off the lower third to half of the cutting and if the tip is too floppy thumb-nail it off.

Fill a 15cm pot with a mix of about half and half bought potting soil and vermiculite. I do believe that my success rate has improved since I changed to this mix but I must admit an additional plus is that I find it aesthetically pleasing the way it sparkles. Also when the time comes to pot on the cutting it’s easy to knock of the vermiculite mix when you’re trying to disengage the roots. I collect up the knocked-off mix and save it for next time. If you can only get perlite that’s good too, and it’s produced in Greece. Back to our cuttings.

Poke the cuttings around the edge of the pot only. Six-eight per pot, depending on its size, is enough. Just because you have more material doesn’t mean you need to fill pot after pot or jam lots of cuttings into one. Exercise restraint.

Write a label with a fine-nibbed paint marker noting the name and the month and year the cuttings were taken and anything else of interest, especially if it’s from someone else’s garden. In my experience only a paint marker can withstand a season of mist watering followed by a life in the sun.

Soak the pot in a bucket or baby bath up to its rim. Drain and put in a shady, protected place preferably with automatic watering for the simple-lifers.

Accept failure
My slapdash approach does not get a high success rate but I regard this as an advantage because I only need a few plants of each kind. Once you start potting up dozens of rooted babies the space available for protecting and watering them gets used up much too fast, so better only two or three successes per pot. Similarly, I don’t take complete failure as a set-back. It took three goes to propagate from a mystery bush in an MGS friend’s garden. The first cuttings got forgotten at the bottom of my handbag, the second lot failed to root entirely, but from the third try I managed to produce two healthy plants, and although I got the plant properly identified on the MGS Forum they’re now growing as “Fulla’s plant” in the middle of a bed. Potting on is another hazard. I tend to do it in the spring but this means that the little plants have to survive the summer when, despite my yearly resolution not to do so, I inevitably leave the nursery to its own devices. Too many plants fail the survival of the fittest test, but come the autumn I find all sorts of goodies I’d forgotten about and can start the best job of the year – planting out.

*The Nursery Stock Manual by Keith Lamb, James Kelly & Peter Bowbrick, Grower Books (A division of Nexus Media Ltd ); Revised edition July 1995.

The nursery at Sparoza
by Peter Dinning TMG No. 61 July 2010

When I arrived at Sparoza in September 2009 I found a small but well-stocked nursery. A few weeks later, after a successful MGS plant exchange, it was sadly depleted. Knowing that we had a repeat performance to look forward to in April, I wondered how we were to restock in time. I needn’t have worried. As Sally, the volunteers and I snipped and clipped our way round the garden, Sally would instruct me to take cuttings of this or pot up divisions of that. Failures amongst the divisions were few and far between and nearly always a result of my being greedy, trying to get more from the plant than it was willing to give. The cuttings too rooted well on the whole and soon I was potting them up and adding to the neat rows in the nursery.

Then as winter turned to spring I noticed that my results were less than impressive. Many plants I considered easy were giving poor results or failing completely. At this point I feel I should add that I have been a professional horticulturalist for 30 years, both as a nurseryman and gardener. This said, I should also point out that my horticultural experience outside the UK has been limited to a few days creating a herb garden in the Brazilian jungle and filching oleander cuttings from a hotel garden in Spain. At the request of the MGS Secretary I shall digress here to tell you about a useful way I discovered to get cuttings back home safely when travelling. On one Mediterranean holiday I noticed some particularly attractive forms of oleander. We had some pink-flowered ones at home but single white, crimson and cream forms caught my eye along with some exciting doubles. On the last day of my holiday I walked around my chosen shrubs and discreetly selected my cuttings. Looking around for a suitable container, I remembered that I had a water bottle in my rucksack with just a few centimetres of water left in it. As I sauntered about trying not to look suspicious I popped each cutting into the bottle, giving it a shake every now and again to ensure that the cut stems were all reaching the water. Back in the hotel room, with the lid securely tightened I laid the bottle in the middle of my suitcase, well padded with clothes. Once back home one can simply cut the top off the bottle and deal with the cuttings in the usual manner. In my case I didn’t have time, so left the bottle on the worktop in my kitchen – a warm and light room – but out of direct sunlight. All I did was loosen the top. By the time I got around to doing something with them they had all rooted in the water, so I simply potted them up and put them in the greenhouse.

Back to Sparoza. With my dying cuttings becoming a bit of an embarrassment to me, I put my thinking cap on. The hotter days we were having were obviously putting too much strain on the plants and I needed to improve the system.

When Sally chose the site for the nursery she chose well. Shaded by pines, Cercis and Brachychiton and partially screened by the old dog kennels, the young plants are afforded some protection from the frequent drying winds and hot Greek sun. To novices to mediterranean gardening like myself, the value of shade is often overlooked; after the obvious water issue, shade can be the difference between success and failure when one is trying to establish plants in hostile environments. Because the nursery is close to the house and main drive, the daily attention it requires is also made easier. It is also very convenient for loading and unloading provisions and plants in and out of vehicles. The small propagating area in the nursery is part of an old dog run which is secure against stray dogs and wandering tortoises. Visitors to Sparoza will know that the place is not exactly bristling with technology and the nursery is no exception. Aware that Heath Robinson would feel at home here, I set to work on creating a more cutting-friendly environment. I remembered a propagation system of sun tunnels developed by the UK government-funded ADAS some 25 years ago which I copied successfully in my own nursery. I have now remembered, albeit too late, that I had further developed what I called a dry frame for more difficult silver- and grey-leaved plants. Genera with waxy foliage such as Dianthus did well under this regime too.

The sun tunnels were a ‘root or rot’ system. Many things rooted in days or died equally rapidly, saving me weeks of wondering ‘will it or won’t it?’ Rooting cuttings of course need the correct balance of light, water and air. With sun tunnels you almost boil the cuttings alive. Get it wrong and disaster loomed. Too little shade and the plants cooked, while too much ventilation resulted in dry air and the plants desiccating. It was certainly labour-intensive (in my system at least) although modern mist and fogging systems could make it much less so. The cold frames I had been using here consisted of no more than metal poles topped with corrugated plastic. The sides were open and the floor pea gravel. While this worked well in late autumn and winter, keeping excess rain off the cuttings, it was now providing too hot and dry an atmosphere. For my first attempt I found some green nylon shading material and enveloped the frame with it, weighing down the sides with heavy metal bars and rocks. I chose the frame in the shadiest corner of the dog run, which only gets the early morning sun. Success was almost instantaneous. The cuttings were religiously damped down each morning and regularly checked over. The atmosphere in my new frame was warm and moist and felt ‘right’. I avoided damping down in the evening as the nights were still cold and I preferred that the foliage should be dry as the temperature dropped.

I should add that I also changed the compost I was using. All the plants in the nursery at Sparoza are potted in either a 50/50 mix of the rich red ‘terra rossa’, of which we have a small mound behind the nursery, and cotton waste. Sally buys both in bulk every few years or so. Occasionally the cotton waste is replaced by our own compost from our compost pits, but generally we prefer to preserve this precious source of humus for the garden itself. The plants seemed to do well in this mix although I now add about 10% by volume of perlite. This helps to stop the soil compacting so much and aids drainage. For the cuttings and seeds we were using a mix of sterilized loam-based compost and a cheap multipurpose soilless compost. This, I felt, was partly causing the rooting problems, so now the mix is roughly one third of each of these two ingredients and one third perlite. This feels ‘crunchy’ to the touch and I have to admit to judging it by eye rather than using exact measurements. I also bear in mind what I’m trying to propagate – silver and grey plants and succulents get a more gritty mix than other plants. My personal preference would have been to use vermiculite or sharp grit but I have been unable to find either here in Attica and actually the perlite has done a perfectly satisfactory job.

Buoyed up by my success, I started potting our new little plants and our towering stacks of pots started shrinking at an alarming rate. But then disaster struck again. Fresh from their little utopia, my cuttings were ill-equipped to face the harsh reality of nursery life. A particularly hot and windy Sunday sounded a death knell to many. It was soon clear which parts of the nursery provided enough protection and which areas should be reserved only for tougher and larger plants. Some years ago Derek Toms made a shade house where Sally and I tend to put our pots of seeds and it provides a useful space for freshly germinated seedlings. One of the first jobs I did when I arrived at Sparoza was to re-roof this structure with a new roll of split bamboo. I didn’t have enough green netting to envelope the second of our frames entirely, so redesigned the system so that the netting would cover the plastic roof and provide a curtain for the front. I salvaged the old roof of the shade house and made a back and sides out of it. Where the netting didn't quite reach, more bamboo was used to provide extra shade. I was aware that my original frame, so weighed down with iron bars, was well nigh impossible for Sally to gain access to. The curtain front on ‘mark 2’ is an altogether more user-friendly access point. The rationale behind the second frame was that, by providing different amounts of shade and humidity, plants could be moved from left to right so that by the time they reached the extreme right they would be well rooted and hardened off ready to face the outside world. In addition to this I had discovered the more favourable parts of the nursery, so each batch of potted cuttings spends a week or two in these areas before being moved to their permanent residence.


Peter’s cold frames with green nylon shading

I am now happy with the system, but could I improve on it? Several things strike me. First, if I were staying in Greece for July and August, I would probably call a halt to propagation until September at the earliest, thus avoiding the immense problem of the hot dry atmosphere. I would also add more shade as the temperatures rose. A coarse sand or capillary matting floor would be better than the pea gravel currently in use, providing a buffer against too much or too little moisture in the pots by capillary action. As I write early in June, it’s raining and the temperature is fairly pleasant but as soon as it returns to normal temperatures I would expect to damp down two or three times a day.

The nursery at Sparoza is not a commercial concern. Its primary value is in providing Sally with plants to use in the garden here. If she has a surplus, then she makes them available to MGS members attending the twice yearly plant swaps.


The nursery in April 2010 ready for the Plant Exchange

As I prepare to leave Greece for my new life in France, I am aware that in my enthusiasm to propagate many of Sparoza’s treasures, I have left something of a poisoned chalice for Sally. All the little plants will need a lot of attention during the summer, when Sally traditionally manages Sparoza without any help at all. I just hope she won’t be cursing me and, if she is, that I will be forgiven if the September plant exchange is even more successful as a result. A recent visitor to the garden commented favourably on the nursery, and then added, ‘Well, I suppose that’s your thing, isn’t it?’ And yes, I suppose it is my ‘thing’.
Photographs by Davina Michaelides

Traditional rose varieties - propagation from cuttings
Part of a lecture by Yan Surguet at the Rose Festival, Château de Flaugergues, in October 2010,
reported by Chantal Guiraud

Yan Surguet, a qualified landscape architect, is one of the leading producers of traditional rose varieties. All his stock has an organic certification and is propagated from cuttings. His nursery, Jardin de Talos, is located in the Ariège, at Taurignan-Vieux, south of Toulouse, but he also attends some plant fairs.

Why propagate roses from cuttings?

This is the only way to ensure that the new plant keeps its genetic origin. Unlike grafted roses, suckers are never produced. The shoots that are sometimes thrown out from roses produced by cuttings are in fact identical to the original variety and do not weaken the plant. Grafted roses, such as Gallica, Alba, Moss, Damask or Cabbage roses can be beautiful for a few years, but generally deteriorate after ten years if they have had their suckers removed (suckering is a natural habit which helps the plant survive). Gallica, Alba, Moss and Cabbage roses send out a lot of suckers whereas Musk, Bourbons and Multiflora do not sucker, regardless of whether they come from cuttings or from grafted stock. Rose suppliers often graft on to rootstock as this is more cost-effective for them, success being more reliable than with cuttings. Most cuttings take eventually but may take more time. Roses grafted on to Rosa multiflora rootstock almost never sucker, unlike those grafted on to Rosa canina.

Propagation of organically cultivated roses
Cuttings are taken in the autumn from stock plants which have been cultivated in the ground for over 30 years without the use of fertilizers or pesticides. The cutting, about the size of a pencil, is potted in a mixture of loam and horticultural compost without using rooting hormones.

Potting mixture:

  • 7% fine pouzzolane *
  • 23% topsoil
  • 37% compost with added sheep manure
  • 18% compost with organic horn powder
  • 15% mixed hemp mulch
  • 3-4 cm hemp mulch on the surface

* Volcanic material (pumice or volcanic ash) also known as pozzolana, predominantly composed of fine volcanic glass.

This is quite a heavy mixture, but will produce strong plants which should recover well when planted out. The pots are placed against a north-facing wall and the young plants allowed to develop in the open air, without the addition of heat, light, fertilizer or pesticides. This ensures a more resistant plant, whose growth and flowering have not been forced and which should survive the transfer to garden conditions without problems.
The pots are watered sparingly and after 4 to 6 months the first leaves appear. The young plant can then be transplanted into a bigger pot and planted in the ground in the autumn.

See the full report on the Languedoc Branch page.

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