By Jay White
PROPAGATE — verb (used with object), propagated, propagation. 1. To cause (an organism) to multiply by any process of natural reproduction from the parent stock — definition from www.dictionary.com
Hands down, propagation is my favorite of all of the garden activities I perform. My earliest efforts at propagation were an act of self-preservation. My wife has an old-timey begonia that came from her grandmother. My wife loves this plant and I have always known that she would be very upset if we lost it. So, each winter I bring her pots of begonia inside and I take a dozen or more cuttings just in case something happens to the plants in those pots.
While I had propagated begonias for quite some time, I never really thought of using my propagation skills as a cost-effective way to increase my stock of plants. That changed several years ago while I was training for a charity bike ride. While riding outside of Cat Springs, Texas, I came upon a very unusual sight: a cedar tree covered in big white flowers. I knew that couldn’t be right, so I pedaled closer. When I got up to the cedar tree, I discovered that its white flowers were coming from an incredibly large Cherokee rose bush (Rosa laevigata) that had grown all the way up the back of the cedar tree and hung over the front almost down to the ground. I decided that I wanted a big sprawling rose like that at my house, so I rode up to the property owner’s house and asked if I could take cuttings of their rose. Ever since that day, I have been propagating a whole lot more than begonias.
My first attempt at propagating antique roses produced six rose bushes from the 12 cuttings I made on that bike ride. I was excited. It finally dawned on me that the propagation skills I had gained while protecting my wife’s prized begonia could be used to decrease my planting budget and increase my collection of beautiful plants. Since then, I have cuttings growing on my back porch most of the year.
Propagating antique roses from cuttings is a fairly easy process. In fact, there are several ways to successfully make new rose bushes from your existing plants. Some, like layering (which involves holding a rose branch against the ground with a heavy object until it roots) are very easy. Some are more complicated and still others are downright wacky (like sticking a cutting into a potato). Through the years I have tried several of these methods and I have had some luck with all of them (except the potato method). The method I now use involves just three steps. I start with quality cuttings, plant them in quality potting mix and grow them out in a moist, high-humidity environment.
Before I make my cuttings, I gather my supplies. When I propagate, I use the following tools: sharp shears cleaned in a mild bleach solution, pots of some sort (I use little Solo cups but just about anything that is 3” to 4” deep will work), high quality potting mix (I use Miracle-Gro Potting Mix), a watering can and a dozen produce bags saved from grocery-store visits. I no longer use rooting hormone. Though I used it when I was learning to propagate cuttings, I have learned how to be successful at getting my cuttings to root without it. However, many people swear by it and because there is absolutely nothing wrong with using it, I feel it is worth the small cost and minimal effort for beginners.
Once you have gathered your supplies, you are ready to take your cuttings. There are several things you can do to increase your cutting’s chance of rooting. First, take your cuttings from new wood that has just finished blooming. In my experience, this is the single most important factor in getting a cutting to root. I have taken cuttings from stems that have not yet bloomed and they almost always fail to root.
Almost all roses bloom in the spring, so this is generally thought of as the best time to take your cuttings. I would say this is generally true. However, many roses bloom in the spring and the fall. You can be just as successful with fall cuttings as you will be with spring cuttings. Though it is possible to get cuttings from year-old wood to root (especially from old-garden varieties like Lady Banks that only bloom once in the spring), you will have much more luck with new, green wood.
Stems that have just bloomed are full of plant hormones call auxins. Auxins are the chemicals that make plant cells grow. They also help damaged plants heal and they stimulate root growth as well. The rooting hormones sold for propagation are various forms of auxins. If your cuttings come from branches that have recently produced a flower, they are full of auxins. This is why I do not feel the need to pay for supplemental rooting hormones. Cuttings taken at the right time do not really need them.
I have heard much discussion about which part of the branch you should cut to make a proper cutting. Some people say cut above a bud or a leaf scar and others say cut below. I don’t pay too much attention to this. Roses are like tomatoes; they can produce roots anywhere along their stem. Because of this, it really doesn’t matter where you take your cutting. Just find a branch with a spent bloom and use your sharp shears to make a 45 degree cut to create a cutting that is about 6” to 8” long. Leave a few leaves on the cutting. While many roses will root on bare stems, you will be much more successful rooting cuttings that have a few leaves on them.
The second most important part of this process is preventing your cuttings from drying out. While this is most important when you are rooting the cutting, I try to keep my cuttings hydrated throughout the entire process. In order to keep my cuttings fully hydrated, I put them in a grocery or freezer bag with a wet paper towel in the bottom, seal them and then place them in the refrigerator until I am ready to pot them. If you are going to pot them immediately, this is not necessary. However, even when potting immediately, I drop the cuttings into a container of cool water.
Once I have my cuttings, I fill my pots with my potting media and wet it thoroughly with my watering can. After the pots have been filled and watered, I simply push the cutting about 3 inches into the moist media. To ensure the rooting parts of the plant are not exposed to any root-drying air, I do not let the stem go all the way to the bottom of the pot.
If you use rooting hormone, dip your plants in it before slipping the cutting into the media. Since rooting hormone is a powder, it is easily disturbed when pushing the cutting into the soil. To ensure that the hormone stays attached to the cutting during planting, use a pencil or ink pen to create a hole in the media before placing the stem in the soil.
“Wounding” is another process that many propagators swear by. Wounding involves making little cuts at the base of the stem. Wounding really does work. Once the stem is cut, auxins rush to the wound site. These extra auxins at the wound site will increase the cutting’s chance of producing roots. If you combine wounding with rooting hormones, you will have a very good chance of getting the cutting to root.
Growing Out Cutting
Controlling the moisture for your cuttings is the most difficult part of the entire process. Roses root much more successfully in a high-humidity environment. I know people who control moisture to their cuttings by potting them in gallon-size pots and covering them with an inexpensive cloche made from a 2-liter soda bottle with the bottom removed. While I think this a great trick, I just don’t have room for pots this size. With a little practice, you can create the perfect high-humidity environment you need by placing your well-watered pots in a produce bag that you seal with a tie wrap. The moisture from the soil will quickly raise the humidity level in the bag. This will become evident when you expose the cuttings to light. The moisture will form a “fog” on the inside of the bag and you will see little water droplets trickling through the fog. If the bags do not have this “fog” or water droplets, give the cuttings some supplemental water. You can add water directly or give them a heavy mist with a spray bottle. Keep the bags sealed as long as possible. However, you should open the bag every week to make sure the soil stays moist (not wet).
Roses love the sun and the cuttings need sunlight to root. However, too much sun will dry out the soil and raise the temperature inside the bag to unbearable levels. Prevent this by starting your cuttings indoors. You can grow out your cuttings on a windowsill or under fluorescent grow lights. I grow mine on a grow rack on a temperature-controlled, enclosed porch with a glass door. This configuration provides more than enough light to get the cuttings off to a great start.
It is very easy, especially while learning the process, to create too much moisture inside the bags. If your pots are sitting in water or you notice mold or fungus growing on the pots or the plants, remove them from the bag and drain it. Let the cuttings sit outside of the bag for a day and then place them back inside the bag and reseal. If the cuttings get too wet (or too dry) they will drop their leaves. This will greatly decrease your chance of getting roots to form.
There is an old saying in the horticultural trade that says, “Water grows roots, fertilizer grows green stuff.” This saying is as true for transplanted trees as it is for heirloom rose cuttings. Leave your cuttings in their bags and only give them water until they are firmly rooted. This can take anywhere from a month to three months. Plants are firmly rooted when a light tug does not easily remove them from the soil.
Once your cuttings have firmly rooted, you can move them to larger pots. At this time they will be ready to move outside and begin a fertilization routine. If you took your cuttings in the spring, they will be ready to go outside in early September. It can still be really hot at that time of year, so be sure to place your young rose buses in an area of dappled shade. Watch them closely in the beginning and do not allow them to dry out. Dry, hot soil will kill tender young roots.
Your new rose bushes can now be fed once a week. Mike Shoup, owner of the Antique Rose Emporium (the ARE to locals), feeds and waters his roses with compost tea that he makes on site. According to Mike, his experiments have shown that roses fed with compost grow faster and have fewer problems with pests. I have taken his advice to heart. I make compost tea for my plants by filling an old sock with finished compost and then letting it sit in a five gallon bucket of water for a couple of days. I then use this to water the soil and mist the leaves using a spray bottle.
If everything has gone well, your roses will be ready for planting by late October or early November. This is a great time to plant roses in Texas. However, if you plant, then you have to be prepared to cover them up if we get a freeze that is in the 20s. Because of this I bring my new roses onto the back porch for winter and then plant in early spring.
Roses (especially old varieties) are tough plants that are easy to grow from cuttings. In fact, many of the roses that we now call heirloom roses came to Texas in a box of dirt on the back of a covered wagon with mason jars stuck over them. If you have never grown a plant from a cutting, why not give it a try with an old, heirloom rose. Creating a new antique rose bush from a cutting and then watching it grow into a beautiful, mature shrub bursting in flowers are the most rewarding things I do in the garden.
Before you propagate roses, you need to know that it is illegal to propagate and sell copyrighted plants. Antique roses have been around so long they are considered a part of the public domain. However, the very popular Knock Out roses and David Austin series are most definitely protected by law. If you propagate these plants, realize that you can never sell any of your propagules (this law actually applies to all propagated plants, not just roses).