Plant Propagation

The Oxford Dictionaries Online provides the following entry for propagate:


[with object]

  • 1 breed specimens of (a plant or animal) by natural processes from the parent stock: try propagating your own houseplants from cuttings
[no object] (of a plant or animal) reproduce by natural processes:the plant propagates freely from stem cuttings
  • 2 spread and promote (an idea, theory, etc.) widely:the French propagated the idea that the English were drunkards
  • 3 [with adverbial of direction] (with reference to motion, light, sound, etc.) transmit or be transmitted in a particular direction or through a medium:[with object] :electromagnetic effects can be propagated at a finite velocity only through material substances


late Middle English: from Latin propagat- ‘multiplied from layers or shoots’, from the verb propagare; related to propago ‘young shoot’ (from a base meaning ‘fix’)

Why propagate plants? For us, the reasons are quite specific. To buy seeds of the same plant every year costs money that could be better used elsewhere in the garden. If we have, for whatever reason, a difficult to obtain plant, we have no choice but to learn how to reproduce it if we want more of that plant.

Propagation is either sexual or asexual. Sexual propagation is done with the use of seeds. Saving seeds is not quite as simple as it seems. Remember that sex involves the birds and the bees. You have to know what cross-pollinates with what and how to isolate plants.

Asexual propagation does not involve seeds. With apologies to the 70s film comedy, No sex please, we’re <s>British</s> asexual, asexual propagation can be natural or artificial.  Natural propagation uses the growing parts of plants: crown, suckers, bulbill, tubers, root stock, corms, runners, rhizomes, slips. Artificial propagation uses parts and buds of the parent plant in a number of ways: cuttings, layering, inarching, marcotting, grafting and budding. Each of these techniques is further subdivided into plant specific techniques.

When it comes to seed germination, there are many how-to’s available but most are limited, if not useless, when you start to use them.  Many seeds are dormant and need to have that dormancy broken.  The term for this is stratification.  Wikipedia’s definition is correct but very incomplete and, thus, misleading.  Some seeds respond to heat.  Some respond to the use of gibberellic acid.  For most seeds, I’ve found that Nancy Bubel’s 

or here is an excellent book that covers most germination.  If it doesn’t or you are unsuccessful, Norman Deno’s self-published Seed Germination & Practice with its two supplements reflects the results of a lifetime of testing and recording results.  Apparently, at the age of 89 he  has retired and is not distributing copies of his Seed Germination & Practice publications any longer. They are now free downloads at the USDA National Agriculture Library online site.

Title: Seed germination, theory and practice.

Title: First supplement to the second edition of Seed germination theory and practice.

Title: Second supplement to Seed germination theory and practice.

There are a few books written on asexual plant propagation. Alan Toogood’s

covers a wide range of plants with excellent pictures. The green covered book with 4 photos on the cover and published by National Home Gardening Club is exactly the same as the more expensive “DK” publication.

Miranda Smith’s

is excellent. But it just gives you the techniques without a lot of detail.  Applying them is completely a trial-and-error process.

This, from another source, captures the problem. While the information looks good, it’s too general when you start to use it.

Propagation of softwood cuttings is usually done at the end of May or the beginning of June depending on the climate you are in. Trying to do softwood cuttings prior to that is a waste of time because the wood is too soft and will wilt down very quickly. The ideal time to take softwood cuttings is just as the wood begins to harden off.

So when am I supposed to take cuttings???????????????? Use your best guess and keep detailed notes of what you did when, why you did it, and how it turned out.

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3 Responses to Plant Propagation

  1. Mike says:

    Your thoughts and this documents on seed germiation and dormancy is very interesting especially the part I just looked at regarding the different delay mechanisms. I look forward to reading more of this. If you ever stumble across any serious info. on successful apple tree propagation through rooted cuttings in any of these old documents please let me know. I know that some people have had very limited success with this on certain varieties but have yet to find any good information regarding a technique that has good results. Another thought provoking post.:)

    • MikeH says:

      Here’s someone growing own-root apple trees and here’s some research on propagation of apple rootstock by hardwood cutting instead of the regular stooling or layering method. Although these are rootstocks, perhaps it would work for any apples.

      As one who has minimal experience, I can attest that starting cuttings is difficult without a lot of experience. I think that if I were trying to propagate an apple tree by cuttings, I would try grafting as well as cuttings to better the odds of success. It would be interesting to see what would happen if you layered a grafted tree. It’s likely that you would get shoots from the rootstock but would you also get shoots from the graft as well? If you did and the shoots put out their own roots as happens when rootstock is propagated this way, then you would have trees on their own roots.

      • Mike says:

        Your awesome Mike, now why couldn’t I find those articles? Guess I didn’t look hard enough. This is exactly what I was looking for…thanks a bunch.

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