Propagating from Cuttings - Take Two

Before I launch into this weekend's propagation saga, let me show you one of the main reasons for the propagation effort - the new path - and one of the main reasons it has gotten off the ground - Mr Woodrat and his woodworking skills:

I guess when Woodrat came home from our Big Sur mini-vacation, he was energized. This wonderful path he dug continues around behind him curls up to the flat top where our house sits. Now we can walk around the hillside comfortably. I mapped out some small footpaths too. So now we can stay on the paths and off the rest of the soil, as much as possible.

But in the process of making the path the ground was, of course disturbed. It was actually disturbed soil to start with -- it was what was on the flat top before it was flattened to build our house, we think. Also we removed the big broken bay tree from lower in this area in spring.

For erosion control in the short term, we'll put down jute netting, and I'll also try sowing seeds of Nasella lepida. It's the easiest thing to grow from seed, so maybe it would survive direct sowing. I'll probably try flinging a few other seeds down there that are lying around supernumerary to this year's requirements. In the longer term, I want to plant local natives all around this area to stabilize and beautify and restore the slopes.

That's why yesterday I got more perlite and mixed it with sphagnum moss, about 75% perlite to 25% moss, by volume.

Nevin Smith says 10% - 25% peat (Native Treasures page 49). I went for 25% peat because these are mostly woodland plants, and also I don't know how often I can mist them and peat is for moisture retention, while perlite is for aeration.

Disclaimer. Other than information like the above which I took from books, this blog narrates the experiences of a greenhorn. I'm attempting to get informed as I go along. This is my second effort to start cuttings and I hope I have learned something from the first effort - Garrya elliptica - dang a bust again - A tragic story of cuttings that all slowly died, one after another.

This is not an ideal time to do cuttings. I'm not really clear about when the best time is and I'll perhaps come back and fill in those details later. But I was encouraged by my propagation group to have a go, because plants will always surprise you, they said.

(By the way, I will go back and update informational blog entries to correct factual errors. I have already done so. For example, I should not have used native soil in my seed mix. What was I thinking? Now I don't know what the heck is coming up in the seed trays! Oh well, some of them could be serendipities - that would be nice. Next time though: no soil in the seed mix.)

So, thinking about helping cuttings to survive, I had an idea how to make a bench out of some corrugated roofing we have lying around. There is a semi-shady spot under an oak tree, along one side of the horse corral. The corral is lower on our property and runs alongside the road. It tends to be a bit cooler there, but it's sheltered. Mr Woodrat said it wouldn't be much trouble to knock together what I wanted, and he built this great setup out of scrap wood and the corrugated roofing - metal underneath and fiberglass up the back. (I made him pose for this shot btw.)

I read that the best time to gather cuttings is the early morning, so accordingly Duncan and I set out early Sunday morning for the nearby dirt road, where I've seen thimbleberry. I like to keep Nevin Smith's attitude about collecting in mind as I go:

I have a personal compact with Mother Nature. I relieve her of a few twigs here, a few seeds there. In return I promise to work diligently to make more of what I have taken and to distribute it generously (Native Treasures page 41).
We collected thimbleberry, and a few other things, not too much from any one spot, and making reasonable pruning cuts so the plant wasn't too damaged. Duncan was very patient and sat still - most of the time - when I was gathering. Here he is examining where best to take material from this thimbleberry bush (Rubus parviflorus):

On my trip I took a day pack, a bottle of water, paper towel to wet, many plastic bags, clippers, note pad and pen. And camera. If you're going off for a longer collecting trip, ice and ziplock bags are apparently helpful. One tip I read is if you are collecting and have no water, exhale into a plastic bag with your cutting in it, and then tie it off or zip it up.

I had envelopes with me and also collected some seeds of hairy honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) - I wish I had remembered to take a photo - they are very deep red and almost gooey looking. And seeds of Common Madia, Madia elegans. Actually I'm only sort of sure it is Madia elegans. It seems so much taller than in the spring, and the flowers don't seem so large - maybe that's what happens if it reblooms in the fall. Or maybe it's another species of Madia.

Still, color for fall. That's a good thing. They are cheerful, though yellow daisy type flowers are not my favorites. On the madia was - and I'm glad I saw before I disturbed her (or she me) - a large spider enjoying a meal.

I think it's a green lynx spider, Peucetia viridans, eating a grub of some sort. They are not web weavers, but instead ambush their prey. I could be wrong - I got two answers to my "mystery spider" question on the GWN forum and that's the one I think is more accurate. I saw no web, and I did see her munching down on that grub right there on the twig.

Duncan and I returned triumphant with cuttings of the following.

A Rubus parviflorus Thimbleberry
B Holodiscus discolor Cream Bush
C Arbutus Menziesii Madrone
D Corylus cornuta Western Hazelnut
E (Oops)
F Artemisia californica
G Lupinus albifrons (I think)

I put the letter on each plant stick and also in a MS Word table I've made to track progress or lack thereof. (I'll get plants that grow closer to home such as toyon and coffee berry in the next few days.)

Here is what some cuttings of Holodiscus discolor looked like after I had a go at them (For some reason Blogger is rotating some of my images today):

You make the lower cut just below a leaf node. The node is where roots can grow. You don't want a lot of greenery either. That is something I'm trying for the first time: clipping the larger leaves. Less transpiration, water loss, wind blowing about etc. You strip off the lower leaves so the twig can slip into the planting medium (some of the examples in the photo above haven't had that part done yet). At the propagation group an experienced person showed me how to make cuttings from a small discarded branch. I was amazed how little green was left, and how short the cuttings were. I did all different lengths depending on the space between nodes and how promising things looked. I figure if I do enough different things, one of them might work.

I did use some rooting compound. It is a liquid called Dip n' Grow - I used it entirely on impulse and with no research, because someone at the nursery said it worked. I read in Nevin Smith's writings that often you don't really need any rooting powder or liquid. But he didn't say that using it got in the way, so I figure if it can't hurt, it might help... It does have some dire warnings about poison control and flushing skin for 15 minutes so I'm guessing Indole-3-butyric acid and 1-Napthaleneacetic acid must be pretty nasty. I wonder how it works?

I made a hole with a pencil and put the cuttings just deep enough that they don't fall over. An inch or so is good. Mine usually went deeper I think.

You are supposed to take cuttings of soft, medium, and hard wood at different times of the plant's growing season - but I haven't sorted all that out yet. I've read about it five times or more, and it doesn't sink in. I decided to just plonk whatever looked viable and not totally woody into the trays and see what happens. Experience will create hooks for learning to hang on. I know this from experience.

I also read about different treatment for the tip, the mid section cuttings, and a side branch used as a cutting - When you are taking a side branch, you can rip a bit of the heel of the main branch away with it and that gives you more of the root forming cells, maybe.

With the Holodiscus discolor cuttings, I attempted to label which part of the plant the cutting came from, so I can maybe learn which of the cuttings do better and why. If any of them take at all, that is.

Books also say to snip the tip off if it is too soft. I'm glad I didn't have to snip any soft tips off today - seems so sad, those hopeful little tips. But it's late September and the tips are not soft.

Today it was cool nowhere. When I started working with the plant material (as I've learned to call the twigs) I realized that my cuttings would need that "hothouse environment" I read about. They were already wilting. Cuttings, of course, have no way of keeping themselves moist - no roots. So it's up to the gardener to maintain a just-humid-enough, just-warm-enough environment until they can get some roots out - that's the idea anyway. Books can't really tell you what is "enough" so I figure that as I can't go apprentice myself to a gardener I'll just have to learn from experience.

I applied to Mr Woodrat with my most winning squeaks and in almost no time flat he had built a frame to drape plastic over. (We have a roll of plastic left over from another project.)

The final object does involve a bit of duct tape, but not as much as the first greenhouse effort (scroll down if you click, to see a picture). That one was so securely taped down I couldn't get in to water the plants! Also the plastic top bellied down with rain. We hope this time we've improved the design - And here is the finished object, about 20 feet long:

I covered over the lower part in case I want to use that space at some point - I would just have to seal the back up, the part next to the fence to stop the draft.

This time we were just working with what was around the place. Once we know what we're doing, we may try a structure that is a bit more substantial.

I can get in to water without too much trouble, and I can let air in to a varying extent, to stop over-heating - we've had very hot weather lately but this area is in the shade most of the day. It's where our old horse used to hang out in the heat of the day. So I hope it'll be a good place for these cuttings. I may have to move them, if the weather gets too cool - we'll see.

I notice Town Mouse has updated her last post with a short update, and some information about please do have a read before you leave our blog today.

And I'll just close as I opened, with a picture of Woodrat making something, and thank him for the help, and for making dinner besides, so I could jabber on and on in this blog entry.

PS - what a difference a day makes.

That marine influence - foggy and 57 degres f at 8:30 am. Cuttings looked OK, some a bit shrivelled. But the machinery is now in place, and with great input like Barbara's in the comments - I'm marching forward. With my machinery. Um. There is a reason we don't mix metaphors!
Thanks for reading -
Country Mouse


wiseacre said…
Lots of hard work but the path is going to be worth it. Wish I could supply some stone slabs but you're on the wrong side of the country for a quick drive. I'll mail some if you want :)

Who else but a plant addict builds shelters out of used roofing, plastic and duct tape?
Country Mouse said…
You are the early bird! Thanks for dropping by.

Wiseacre - What you say is true - so true hadn't even seen it from the perspective of "plant addict" until you mentioned it!

your slabs o stone would be sooo nice along that path! But do you know how much that would cost here in CA? In fact another post in the brewing is about our visit to the stone yard on Saturday! We need stone risers for some step in the path towards the end and other places I want more steps. I asked why there was no flagstone available that was more local to our area, thinking I'd get a geological response. Actually I got a political response that made me very uneasy: California's environmental regulations are too strict for many quarries to operate profitably. Hence one ton of Cameron sand stone from Montana is being delivered today. Along with a couple ton of Sonoma field rocks, cheap, pretty, and only have to be transported across a few counties to get here. They are for low retaining walls, edging, and so on. I put wood mulch on the woodland path since that picture to give it some stability.
Anonymous said…
Thank you Town Mouse. Your propagation posts are so interesting, and I can't wait to hear how it works out.
Barbara said…
Wow, CM. Quite an entry. The reason this is not the ideal time for taking cuttings is that most plants aren't really growing now due to the heat and dry weather. In general you want to get them right when they are growing and the stems are starting to harden. Some plants are obviously more picky than others regarding timing. Arctos I think are sensitive to when the cutting it taken. Some prop better from semi-hard wood, others - as you noted - from hard wood, and still others will root from soft stems if they don't wilt down too much. At Rancho they use mostly perlite and cleanliness is the name of the game since damping off can be a problem. They use different concentrations of dip n grow, depending on experience, and keep records of exactly what they do. They place their cuttings much closer together. I used to cut the apical (top) bud but learned to leave it since it is responsible for producing the plant hormone needed for rooting. I leave it now on the Mimulus cuttings and they do better and have a better shape (no split right above the crown).

To finish, Rancho has a misting system and uses bottom heat.

I think Garrya is hard to do. Next time I go to Rancho I'll stop in the nursery to read their prop cards for it.

Amazing project. Can't wait to hear about your results.
WiseAcre said…
We have some pretty tough regulations in NY too when it comes to quarries. Lucky for me that small 'home digs' are not regulated and I've found someone who digs up some gorgeous sandstone in his spare time. Keep your eye out and you might find one.

Another thing you might want to try is going to a big quarry and see if they'll let you 'pick your own'. I've found (after a good laugh at my little pick up which they could fit two of in their excavator bucket) a couple have let me forage my own.
Country Mouse said…
Thanks so much Barbara for providing this info. One reason I'm getting going regardless is just to get practice and get the ball rolling. I noticed that some plants are actually beginning to grow, for example the Holodiscus discolor. But the hazelnut - not so much. The rules make so much more sense when you understand (and experience the effects of) the underlying principles.
Town Mouse said…
What a great post! I can't wait to come up and walk the path, and see the propagation area and the little baby plants. Isn't it fun how we're learning new things all the time by having this blog?