Free Plants from Cuttings: Propagating Pelargoniums and other Woody HerbsBy Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologist)
August 5, 2010
Propagating Pelargoniums (aka scented geraniums) from cuttings doesn't require tricky methods or complicated equipment. This easy method will work for most woody herbs or perennials, especially those whose growth habit makes layering difficult.
The end of summer is a great time to take cuttings. Growth slows down, and new stems have started to thicken up. It's best to take cuttings just a little further down than the new green growth, making your cut where the stem is "half hard," meaning a little thicker and a little stiffer and often a darker color. Strip off all but a few leaves at the top of the cutting, and re-cut the end with a sharp knife. Pinching back the tip will encourage the cutting to put its energy into making roots. Once the cutting "takes," the pinched top will branch out to start forming a bushy little plant.
Most seem to root best when stuck in lightly moistened potting mix. Attar of Roses' and ‘Cocoa Mint Rose' are two that root readily in water for me. Some varieties just seem harder to root than others, so take more cuttings than you think you'll need. Finding homes for extras is never a problem; everybody loves their fragrance! Herb guru Tom DeBaggio says to hold Pelargonium cuttings overnight in a sealed plastic bag, to "heal" the cut end and increase rooting success. What about powdered rooting hormone? I haven't noticed much of a difference whether or not I dust some on the stem before sticking the cutting. I use it when I have it, just because it makes me feel better.
If you're feeling informal, you can simply strip the lower leaves from cuttings and stick them right in the pot where the parent plant can provide a bit of shade and protection. Keep the pot watered, and odds are that at least one or two cuttings will strike roots. At the end of the summer when I'm taking cuttings to overwinter, I get more deliberate with my methods.
You can stick single cuttings in two inch pots or groups of three to five cuttings in four inch pots. Either way, fill the pot with lightly moistened potting mix. Adding additional perlite to the mix can improve drainage, and a pinch of moisture crystals can also be helpful. Dibble a hole with your finger, or just stick the cutting straight down into the potting mix. Firm up the soil around the cutting with a trickle of water, being careful not to saturate the mix.
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Now you need some way of holding a little extra humidity around the cutting, to keep it from wilting before it roots. This can be anything from a propagation tray with a tall dome to a little zip-front plastic "greenhouse" if you're starting a lot of cuttings. If you just have a couple of pots, try topping each pot with a plastic bag propped up on a couple of chopsticks to keep the plastic away from the leaves. You don't want the cutting to touch the plastic, or condensation may lead to rot.
Once roots start to form, the cutting will be able to take up moisture from the potting mix. Before roots form, the leaves need humidity, but too much moisture will rot the stem. If in doubt, dry it out! I always make a few holes in my propagation dome or leave a little gap in my plastic bag cover, to make sure there's not too much moisture. If you see more than the tiniest puff of mist inside your canopy or moisture dome, the potting mix is too moist, and you need to remove the humidity cover for a few hours.
You'll have better control over heat and other conditions if you root your cuttings inside. Bright indirect light or a light shelf will work best, as direct sunlight will cook your cuttings. In cool weather, bottom heat from a seedling heat mat may speed rooting, but I've never bothered with it.
Sometimes cuttings will strike roots in just a few days; other times it may take several weeks. As long as the cutting looks green and crisp, just give it time! You can tell when roots have formed when a gentle tug on the cutting meets with resistance. If you tug too hard and pull the cutting right out, roots and all, don't worry. Just stick it back down into the pot and give it a splash of water to settle the soil back around the roots.
Scented geraniums can also be propagated from seeds. For most varieties, this would mean expensive hybrid seeds. However, Pelargoniun 'Coconut' will set viable seeds. In fact, growing from seed is the best way to propagate this variety, since its growth habit makes it hard to get good cuttings.
Your new little scented geranium is ready for larger quarters when its roots have filled its starter pot. Especially if you pinch them back regularly, they will survive the winter in four inch pots, but they'll appreciate a larger pot or a spot in the garden once warm weather arrives. Don't forget to harden off your plants next spring by gradually getting them used to outside conditions.
It's easy to get hooked on scented geraniums, with their wonderful fragrances, foliage textures, and bloom colors. Propagating them from cuttings makes Pelargoniums easy to overwinter. Trading cuttings is a great way to expand your collection, too. Like potato chips, one is never enough!
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus. Move your mouse over images and links for additional information (let the cursor hover for a few seconds, and a popup caption will appear).
For more on growing and using the plants you propagated, see Super Scented Geraniums: Pelargoniums for Fabulously Fragrant Containers.
Most of what I know about propagating cuttings I learned from Tom DeBaggio. For more information, check out his wonderful little book, Growing Herbs from Seed, Cutting & Root: An adventure in small miracles.