Thursday, December 29, 2011

How To Root Stuff Every Time

I suspect every gardener has their thing... something that seems to come easier than to most people.  Just like real life, I guess.  You can't be good at everything, but every so often you realize that you indeed do know how to do some stuff.

As most of you know, I have just entered my 3rd year as a real gardener.  You know, with dirt and all, and I have made a lot of mistakes.  There is only so much you can learn from books and advice... eventually you just have to plant a plant, see it die and realize that it just isn't the right plant for the space!

Now in this short amount of time I have noticed that indeed I have a knack for something.  To the tune of 100% success at doing this with absolutely no failures.  I suspect, like much of 'skill' it comes down to a little bit of skill and having the natural circumstances be ripe for the doing.

I can root things.  Any things.  I hear and read about so many people having trouble rooting things such as roses or camellias and I just can't imagine why because, like I said, no matter what I try and root, it roots.  Always.  I know there are lots of competing opinions on how to do this, but I'll just add in here how I do it and why I think I'm so successful at it.

What you will need:
-small clear plastic container
-sphagnum moss
-gallon baggie

First I start with the clear (see-through) container in which to root... something small that will easily fit in a gallon baggy.  I like to take the bottom of the either small milk containers or 16 ounce soda bottles... cut either about 3 inches deep and put a few drainage holes in the bottom.  Nothing fancy and bigger is not better.  Either for the cutting, or the container.  Take it and run in through the dishwasher.  The reason we want clear is because we want to see when the roots get established without the guesswork.

Second, after the plastic container has come out of the dishwasher, fill it to half an inch of the top with straight sphagnum moss.  Not a mix, not with a little compost, not dirt.  The reason for this is we are about to create a permanently extremely humid moist environment and we need a 100% sterile environment.  For rooting purposes, the little plants do not need nutrients.  I know that there is a lot of debate on the web about this, but let me repeat, I have 100% success this way, so I know this won't be the limiting factor.

Okay, water your container thoroughly, and leave it for a minute or two in the sink to drain a bit.   Now, go find a pencil and stick a hole in the middle of the container about 3/4 of the way down.

Next, pick up your root cutting, which should be sitting in water at this point.  Make a little diagonal cut at the bottom.  The cutting doesn't need to be more than about 5-6 inches tall.  Remove all the leaves but two.  Dip the just cut tip into roottone and immediately stick in the pencil hole and snug up the opening if there is space.  I have never not used roottone so I don't know how much help this gives, but hey, its cheap, and if it ain't broke....

Final step:  Place the entire thing in a gallon zip lock baggie, and leaving as much airspace as possible, zip it up.  Thats it.  You will not unzip it until it is a rooted plant.  Period.  Not once.  Don't do it.  I'm serious.  Leave it alone.

Pretty easy right?  The other piece of the puzzle is where to put it.  And it needs to be in a bright spot with absolutely no direct sun.  Not even for 2 minutes, or you have created an oven.  Mine all grow in my kitchen window which stays in moderate temperatures between 68-78 degrees throughout the year, and is opposite a wall that gets good sunlight, but almost all light coming through the window is reflected off of that building.  It works great.   If you grow orchids successfully, you'll realize that this is the same quality of light.  The holy grail of "rooting stuff" light.

Most things root in between 2 and 5 weeks.  Once I see roots in the container, I give it a few more days to grow a bit more, then I take it carefully out of the bag.  Often, you'll also be clued in from the new growth on top.  Water it and let it drain thoroughly, and then place it back, bagless, in the same spot for the next few days.  Check the dirt moisture every day and make sure it stays moist.   After these 2 or 3 days to acclimatize to the reduced humidity it is time to plant your new little plant in a bigger container.  I usually move up to the standard small nursery pot (5 inches) and fill with regular dirt, around the sphagnum and 'rootball' of the new plant.  I leave it in its place in the winter, or move it out into the outdoor shade during the rest of the year.  After a few weeks out in the shade, and keeping it extremely well watered, I move it to part sun, and then a few weeks later to where I think I want to plant it.  And voila. I usually keep mine in successive containers until about 6 months old, but I'm not really sure that it matters that much.  I have a Zepherine Drouhin out there that I planted while still in twig status and it's done just fine.

I guess a final note is that the cutting should happen when it best suits your climate, and clearly the plant that the cutting was taken from can't be in a dormant stage.  For some of you, thats most of the year, others, only small periods of time.  I have taken cuttings from pieces ending in a flower, one that had just finished blooming, and right before blooming.  I have had a mophead hydrangea root from the flowerhead and stem alone!  I see no difference at all in the end result, so I suspect all those rules are made up to explain away why this or that cutting didn't take.


  1. I'm still at the killing things stage!

    I tend to opt for seeds rather than cuttings, but having seen some things that grew from cuttings I might just change that!

    Maybe 2012 will be the year of change?

  2. Jess, this is one of those things that I simply have never figured out. My mother has such a green thumb with rooting you would think I would have picked it up but thus far I've killed everything I've tried to root. Will be following these instructions closely the next time I try this.

  3. Jess, I never had trouble rooting anything either, but sometimes when they get put out in the garden, some damp off or get attacked by slugs. Poor little things having such a short life. If anyone follows your steps they will surly be successful. You outlined it perfectly.

  4. Now I'm dying to go root something! Except, most of my garden is asleep and my house is coldish at night. Dang! This sounds so easy. I once rooted some rosemary when I cut it to cook with and forgot about it. I felt proud. Not that I forgot but that it rooted. Did I mention that I really want to root something now? Perfect tutorial!

  5. 100% success? Wow! I will definitely be giving this a try! Thanks for outlining your method. I can think of many, many plants I have thought about taking cuttings from, but have never tried before. But now.... Jess, you may have created a monster!

  6. You have inspired me to fill every container I have with cuttings. For things that root really easily, I use egg containers because they are easy to pull away when they are good and wet.

  7. I haven't ever had rootings fall to the damping off, though I do have lots of seedlings keel over that way... I think this is why I like rooting stuff! My success factor on the seeds taking is about 50% and living to adulthood is 10%. Pretty pathetic. Rooting is way easier!

    I meant to mention that I do suspect that the combo of sterile environment and probably perfect rooting lighting is what's making this work so well. My step mom has a window where she can also root nearly everything: super bright for the majority of the day but zero direct light.

  8. Fascinating Jess! I'm another who hasn't tried to strike much other than the stuff that would be embarrassing if it didn't take because it strikes if you drop a cutting on the ground (read: buddleia) But I'm going to have to try this method out too when the temperature drops back a little.

  9. Jess, I think you have written a perfect step-by-step article; I have your post bookmarked - thank you!

    Happy 2012!

  10. I am going to have to try this method. I keep trying to get Virginia creeper started but I think I am doing something wrong. Bookmarking this post for later!

  11. Great tutorial, Jess! You can count me as one of those people who's intimidated by the prospect of trying to root cuttings. But I've tagged and saved your fool-proof (I hope!) instructions and am looking forward to trying them. Thanks (and Happy New Year). -Jean

  12. Ok loved your post on cuttings. I have a question. You mentioned " Make a little diagonal cut at the bottom." Can you explain that statement, because I am not sure where and how you are making this cut?

    Thank you again for this post!