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Taking hardwood cuttings for propagation and grafting

Late winter is the perfect time to take hardwood cuttings and scions from shrubs and trees you want to propagate later this spring. February and March see plants at their peak readiness for this. Sap is starting to rise slowly as lengthening days trigger hormone changes to prepare for breaking dormancy. To the trained eye, buds are even beginning to noticeably swell.

Though Anchorage is currently buried beneath more than 4 feet of snow, it’s time to get your hand pruners out and select strong, healthy growth from this past year. Cut long stems with at least three buds each: two will be buried beneath your planting medium and one will remain above soil level. If the plant was especially vigorous, feel free to take more than one length of cutting off vigorous stems.

Great choices for this task include boxwood, lilacs, junipers, all varieties of willows, poplars, aspen, maples, wisteria, grapes, Virginia creeper, the list goes on and on. I try to experiment with at least a few new varieties each year that I haven’t tried before. Some meet with complete failure, but others have pleasant surprises in store!

Once you have as many cuttings as you desire to try, be sure you allow for at least 50% extra to account for failures. Though it’s okay to make quite snips “in the field,” I usually follow up by cleaning things up once I get everything in one place. I snip the top of each cutting perfectly horizontally to assure a minimum of water loss as it dries. Make sure this cut is at least a quarter inch above the bud, so natural desiccation doesn’t kill the top bud! For the bottom cut, I like to assure it from gets planted “down” and the tops of each cutting stay above soil by making bottom cuts all 45 degrees. This allows more surface area for rooting hormone to stick and also maximizes the “wounded” area that can form roots from the undifferentiated cells of the cambium layer. In response to dark moist conditions of being buried and well-watered, the undifferentiated cells trigger hormones that create roots instead of leaves, stem tissue, bark or some other type of cell.

You can leave some cuttings untrimmed for use as grafting scions another month or two from now. I dip these in a solution of 1 part bleach in 10 parts of water to sterilize them of pathogens. Then I place them in a large Ziplock bag with a “barely moist” paper towel. Excess moisture encourages mold and fungus, so it’s important to minimize it without allowing the scions to dry out. After waiting for the sap to rise strongly in root stock I plan to use for grafting, I can graft later, but for now, they keep safely in a drawer in the bottom of your refrigerator.

Last year, I constructed a large cold-frame and filled it with sand. It was placed on the southern side of the house and worked great during the early cold part of the season. Extra sunlight heated the bed. My greatest challenge was keeping neighborhood cats out of the structure to use it as a big kitty litter box, but a section of chicken wire eventually won the battle for me. I lined that cold frame with literally dozens of cuttings; from fruit trees, vines and shrubs I pruned all through late winter and early spring.

By summer I had nearly a hundred new plants to pot up in gallon-size containers and nurse through the remainder of the growing season and sell any precocious ones at the local farmer’s market. It was a great experiment and paid for a little gas and labor too! I encourage you to try propagating this year.


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