February 13, 2014
Start new plants with root cuttings in the fall or spring. Photo by Jessica Walliser (HobbyFarms.com)
Photo by Jessica Walliser

If you’re looking for an easy project to start soon after the ground thaws, consider making new plants from root cuttings. It’s a great and inexpensive way to expand your garden, and spring and early fall are great times to do it. Most gardeners know how to root a stem cutting by removing a portion of a plant’s stem, dipping it in rooting hormone, and inserting it into a pot of soil. Few gardeners, however, seem to take advantage of the lost art of starting plants from root cuttings.

To do it, you’ll need:

  • mother plant
  • shovel
  • clean sharp knife
  • some new plastic pots or a seeding flat
  • high-quality soil-less planting mix
  • water

It’s fun to experiment to see which plants respond best to this method of propagation, but a good place to start is with a handful of common perennials, such as Oriental poppies, bleeding hearts, blanket flowers, hollyhocks, salvia, Heliopsis, horseradish, garden phlox, comfrey or Japanese anemones. Many shrubs, including hydrangeas, lilacs, figs, mock orange, raspberries, sweetspire, Clethra and Viburnums are also easily started from root cuttings.

Begin the process by digging up a portion of the mother plant—only enough to expose some of the root system but not enough to harm it. Then, using a clean, sharp knife, remove several 2-inch long root sections. Ideally each should be about as thick as a pencil. These cuttings can be stored for a few weeks wrapped in slightly damp peat moss and enclosed in a plastic bag and placed in the fridge, or they can be planted immediately. 

To plant the root cuttings, fill a clean pot or seedling flat with the planting mix, and place the cuttings into the soil, maintaining polarity (i.e. the top end pointed up). If the cutting is planted upside down, it won’t grow. The top of the root piece should be about 1 inch below the soil’s surface. If you aren’t sure which end is up, lay them horizontally about an inch deep. Water the soil well and keep it constantly moist but never soggy. You can keep the container of planted cuttings outside on a shady picnic table or tucked underneath a tree or shrub. Keep it away from bright sun and drying winds. New shoots will emerge in a few weeks to a month or two depending on the plant species. 

If you take root cuttings in the fall, you’ll need to overwinter them in a greenhouse or in a cool, protected site. (I sink my pots of root cuttings into my compost pile, pot and all.)  If you take root cuttings in the spring, the new sprouts can be planted into the garden later that season.

Root cuttings are a great and easy way to make lots of new plants!

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