Country & Garden: At the cutting edge

So you thought cutting bits of twigs off bushes, stripping off the leaves and sticking them in the ground was a silly thing to do? Think again.
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It is not hard to divine why "vegetative propagation" is so widely practised, even by those people with established gardens who don't have a great deal of space for new plants. We cannot help but marvel at a plant's amenability, its capacity, for example, to grow roots from a stem, something which would cause havoc if we humans could do it ourselves.

Imagine if your arm was cut off, and stuck in the ground and, in time, made a whole new, genetically identical person. After Dolly the sheep, such a train of thought has the power to make one feel distinctly queasy.

Perhaps it is also because the best of us are generous with our time and our plants, but mean with our money, and cannot resist getting something for nothing, or very little, if only so that we have a present to give a friend. If you are of this number, you will find that November is a surprisingly good time for fiddling around with a pair of secateurs, a pocket knife and a few likely bits of plant. (If you have never so much as taken a pelargonium "slip" before, this is a good time to start propagating, for the task of taking "hardwood" cuttings requires no greenhouse space, no complicated equipment nor indeed much in the way of that mythical attribute, green fingers.)

As the leaves fall in November it is the best time for this, although you can take the plunge at any point in the winter. Hardwood cuttings are exactly what they say they are: cut pieces of shoots, which have become hard, or "lignified". They have the capacity to grow a "callus" at the cut end, from which roots issue, albeit much more slowly than those of softer "softwood" or "semi-ripe" cuttings.

We have all seen how willow and poplar branches will grow roots in water, if left in a glass vase for any length of time, but there are some other trees, ornamental shrubs, fruit trees and bushes (figs, mulberries, currants, gooseberries) which will make roots almost as easily if put in the ground now.

Taking hardwood cuttings is a quicker way to achieve a plant big enough for planting in the garden than sowing seed, and you will get a guaranteed genetically identical plant into the bargain. In the case of roses, it is a way of achieving plants which grow on their own roots, rather than a genetically-different rootstock, and therefore do not have a tendency to make suckers, which, being more vigorous, are always threatening to take over. Rose nurseries propagate most roses, except miniature roses, by budding a scion onto a rootstock, as it is the quickest, easiest, surest and cheapest way of getting roses for sale. The gardener may prefer to increase his stock of roses, and avoid suckers at the same time, by taking hardwood cuttings, because he can live with the risk of failure and slightly reduced plant vigour.

A little care needs to be taken with these cuttings, but not a great deal. First make a planting trench in a spare piece of recently forked- over and lightly trodden soil, which is sheltered but sunny, and unlikely to be disturbed, or needed for anything else, in the next year. Use a spade to dig a narrow, v-shaped slit trench, with one perpendicular side, 15-20cm (six to eight inches) deep.

A layer of grit or fine gravel sprinkled on to the bottom of this trench makes sense, especially if the soil is heavy, because it prevents the cut ends of the cuttings becoming waterlogged in wet weather. Then, using a sharp pair of secateurs, cut 30cm (roughly) lengths of sideshoots from the plant in question. This should be disease-free; in particular, don't propagate blackcurrants which have great fat buds, courtesy of "big bud mite".

Cut off the tip, if it is still flexible, just above a bud, and cut below the bottom one. The cutting needs to be about 20-25cm long, to provide it with enough food material until roots are established and supporting the plant.

Place the cuttings vertically in the trench, about 15cm apart, with two-thirds of their length below soil level. Because red and white currants, and gooseberries, are grown "on a leg" (short, unbranched stem) you will need to rub off all but the three or four top buds before planting, whereas blackcurrant cuttings should have all buds retained, to encourage shoots to grow from below ground. Tread the slit trench together so that the stems are held firmly in place, and wait on events. Keep the area weeded through the season, so that the cuttings don't get swamped, water them during drought, and use a liquid feed when new leaves begin to appear.

By next November, you should be able to carefully dig up those which have rooted, and then either replant them in a nursery bed, if they are too small for their permanent position, or where you want them to grow. Don't expect them all to root, especially cuttings of highly bred roses, which can be rather iffy about striking. This method rarely works 100 per cent, but the process will have been pleasant, purposeful and will have cost nothing except a little time. And time is the one commodity in plentiful supply in the winter.

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