An Introduction to Plant Propagation

This is the most exciting trick of the gardening world: you can turn one plant into infinite plants. How does one do this? By propagation. Propagation is “the breeding of specimens of a plant or animal by natural processes from the parent stock.” This may sound like cheating, but hey, it’s a natural process, and you’re just giving nature a helping hand. Propagating common houseplants is relatively simple. You don’t need to be a scientist to do it right. All you really need is a plant to start with, and a decent amount of patience. 

Below are a few of the easiest ways to make more out of your everyday houseplants. Keep in mind that specific plants have their own needs and growing habits, so what works for one may not work for all others. This article is meant to provide a simplification of the process so that you get an idea of what is involved in plant propagation (and hopefully some excitement to do some propagation of your own)! 

Propagation by Division

Division is the easiest and quickest way to propagate plants. It works best on plants that have several stalks emerging from the soil. This method simply involves taking the plant out of its pot (or out of the ground) and separating it into two or more pieces. If the stalks are all connected by one big root ball, you may need to break up the root ball with a knife. It won’t hurt the plants; just separate, and plant in different areas. The divided plantlets will eventually grow to fill up the space they are given. Ideally, divide your plant before the growing season begins (early spring) to avoid sending it into shock. 

Common houseplants that you can propagate by division include ZZ plants, peace lilies, aloes, and sansevierias. These plants grow in a special way; rather than branching or vining out, it’s the roots that do the branching, creating new plants (often called pups) that pop out of the ground next to the mother plant. These are ideal for separation by division. If you separate the pups to grow on their own, they will become the new mother plant and eventually create their own new pups.

Propagation by Cuttings

Taking cuttings is a very common way of propagating plants. Many plants need to be trimmed periodically for their own health, so you might as well turn those trimmings into new plants. This process can be as simple as taking clean scissors, cutting the end of a plant, and placing it in a new growing medium. For some plants, you’ll need to be conscious of nodes; they are the bumps on the stems that will eventually produce the roots and new shoots. Include nodes at the base of your cuttings to ensure your plant will produce a healthy root system. For plants that don’t grow from nodes, such as herbs, you don’t have to worry about this. The process of taking cuttings varies from plant to plant, so for the highest chance of success, make sure you look up what will work best for your specific species. 

After separating your cuttings, you can either root them in water or in a substrate.

Rooting Cuttings in Water

Any container without holes will do. Roots grow better when sunlight doesn’t reach them (as they grow underground in nature), so consider an opaque vase or cup. Fill your container with water, and place you cuttings far enough down so that the node is covered, but making sure not to submerge any leaves. People may suggest changing the water every day, but this is definitely not necessary. Try to aim for changing the water out once a week, or really whenever it starts to look murky. Some plants may push out roots within a couple days, but some can take months. Be patient, and don’t give up on your cutting! As long as it still looks healthy, it’s got a chance. Once you see some sizable roots (an inch or so) you can carefully transplant your rooted cutting into soil. For the best way to do this without harming your new plant, see here. And if you’re looking for a fun and stylish propagation station, here are some great ideas.

Rooting Cuttings in Subsstrate

If you don’t want to root your cuttings in water, you can place them directly into a substrate. (I personally prefer water, mainly because it’s fun to see the roots forming.) The substrate, in this case, can be regular potting soil, but some people prefer other mediums such as vermiculite, coir, or sphagnum moss. You’ll take your cutting the same way listed above – using a healthy end of a plant (that includes a node, if applicable). 

The big difference here is that in some cases, you should let your cutting sit out for a day or so so that the end can “heal” before going into soil. This will reduce the chance of disease. Once the end heals over, simply plant it in your desired medium. Depending on the plant, you’ll either water right away or wait a few days. My rule of thumb is to wait a while for succulents, but most other plants I water right away. For dainty plants with thin leaves (such as herbs), pot up and water immediately after cutting. Thinner, more fragile cuttings cannot survive being left out for too long.

For non-succulent plants, increasing humidity can help the propagation process. I often take a gallon-sized ziploc bag and use it as a dome to trap in heat and moisture. Let your new plant receive good indirect sunlight, and water when it starts to dry out (being careful not to overwater). It may take several weeks, but your cutting will eventually start rooting. If you gently tug on the stem, and it feels secure in the soil, you’ll know that it has taken root. 

Everyone seems to have different propagation methods and tricks that they swear by. I find that there is no reason not to keep the process simple. It’s really trial and error; take a few cuttings, try different methods, and see what you like best. Not all of your propagation efforts will be successful, but you’ll quickly learn what works best for you.

Check out some great propagation stations here!

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