If the January thaw momentarily hit in your part of the state at the beginning of the month, the smell of spring was in the air. Just as the aroma of an apple pie baking triggers vivid memories of being in Grandma’s kitchen, the scent of thawing ground triggers ideas of getting into the garden.
The January thaw is only a tease, of course, and before we knew it, we were back into more seasonable weather — indeed, some extraordinary winter weather last week — with gardening only a hope for the future. Even so, now is the perfect time for at least one gardening undertaking: propagating woody plants from cuttings.
As home horticulture expands its audience, propagating plants from stem, root and leaf cuttings has become vital in commercial production. Many plants we buy for our garden are propagated expressly by this asexual means. And whereas traditionally vegetative propagation was reserved for woody and perennial plants, nowadays even some annual plants are propagated this way.
Such vegetative propagation has many advantages from which both producers and consumers benefit. As home gardeners, we obtain enjoyment from both perspectives when growing our own woody plants from stem cuttings.
If some commercial propagation methods are adapted to scale for home use, propagating stem cuttings can be inexpensive, simple, and will yield results quickly. From just a few stock plants, many offspring may be grown in a limited space.
A good propagation manual will help you find which cuttings should be obtained during the winter months. Cuttings taken now will be hardwood cuttings: They are mature stems obtained during dormancy. Some plants that perform well when taken as hardwood cuttings include privet, willow, poplar, dogwood, potentilla, grape, quince, mulberry, hardy rose, spirea, honeysuckle, juniper, yew, false cypress, forsythia and gooseberry.
The plants obtained from cuttings will be genetically identical to the parent plant. In general, cuttings will result in greater uniformity than plants grown from seed. Commercially, this lack of variation has obvious benefits for those who market and merchandise the final product.
As gardeners, we reap the benefits of clonal culture in plants that display dwarfism, consistent and unusual color and form, weeping habits and many other “unnatural” ornamental effects.
As this method of starting new plants has advantages, it likewise has disadvantages. Ironically, one of the biggest advantages of cuttings also may be one of its downfalls. Physiologically speaking, plants grown from cuttings are clonal — identical to their parent. While this guarantees no genetic diversity and basically ensures uniformity, it also means offspring inherit the faults of the parent plant. Thus, an absence of resistance to insects or disease in a parent can mean that an infestation of such pests could be detrimental to the new clones.
On the other hand, if the parent plant possesses a resistance to another set of unfavorable conditions, this may be viewed by the gardener as beneficial. For example, some vegetative clones of lilac show resistance to powdery mildew, offering these offspring some protection against the disease.
In future weeks, we’ll step through the process of selecting, preparing and creating an environment which will enhance the propagation of woody cuttings.
Diana George Chapin is the NEWS garden columnist. Send horticulture questions to Gardening Questions, c/o Maine Weekend, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. Selected questions will be answered in future columns. Include name, address and telephone