Grow a garden - for free

with care, patience, and a few supplies, you can turn cuttings into whole plants

Lots of plants are very good at having families. Have you noticed? Their flowers turn into seeds. The seeds fall to the ground and make new plants.

But seeds are not the only way to get new plants. You can (carefully!) cut off little parts of plants and make new plants from them. These are called "cuttings."

"It is quite amazing," says gardening expert Clare Bradley. You can "take a little piece of a plant and encourage it to grow its own roots and become a plant in itself." Not only that, but "you are getting something for nothing, which is even better." Be sure to ask permission of the plant's owner first.

Which plants are the best ones to take cuttings from?

"A cutting is a nonflowering side-shoot," Ms. Bradley says. "So if a plant has nonflowering side-shoots, it is quite possible you could take cuttings from it. The thing is just to try.... If you aren't sure, just try."

An easy place to begin

Start with a spider plant, Bradley suggests. Spider plants form miniature spider plants on long arching stems - they're not like other cuttings at all. Snip one off and plant it (not deeply) in a pot filled almost to the top with "cutting compost."

You can make cutting compost yourself. It's half sand (sandbox sand is fine) and half peat. Mix it together and moisten it with a little water. Don't make the soil sopping wet, Bradley says. Roots need air, and if the soil is too wet, they won't get any.

Cuttings do not like having their leaves dry out and shrivel before they start to form roots. It helps to cover a pot of cuttings with its own private "greenhouse."

You can make a little greenhouse for your cuttings by poking four sticks into a pot, around the edge. Put a clear plastic bag over the top, and secure it with a rubber band. (See illustration on the facing page.)

Cuttings need light, but not full sun. A shady windowsill is best for "softwood" cuttings, such as spider plants. Don't let them get too hot, or the compost may dry out quickly.

Put the pot in a saucer. If the soil does dry out, put water in the saucer. It will be drawn up into the pot through the hole in the bottom.

You might be wondering what a "softwood" cutting is. It's a cutting taken from a plant in spring or early summer, when it is putting out new growth -right now, in fact....

Cuttings taken in midsummer are called "semiripe" cuttings. The stem of a semiripe cutting is a little firmer at the base than is the base of a softwood cutting.

Many plants stop growing in winter. They become "dormant" (from the Latin word for "sleep"). "Hardwood" cuttings are taken from a plant when it is dormant. They may have no leaves on them. These cuttings are "the easiest of all," Bradley says. You stick them in the ground, and they just sit there all winter. In spring, they start to grow."

How to grow a plant cutting

First, prepare your pot. Cover the hole in the bottom of the pot with a small stone. Fill the pot almost full with cutting compost. Now set the pot in a bowl or pail. Pour water in the pail until it comes up just below the rim of the pot. Let it stand about a minute. When you see moisture appear on the surface of the compost, slowly lift the pot out of the water. It's ready to plant.

Get a pair of small, sharp scissors. Nail scissors, perhaps. High-quality paper scissors are OK, too.

Find a plant you like. Go and ask permission of its owner.

Cut off several side shoots. Do this on a cool day, or early in the morning, or in the evening. Never take a cutting in the heat of the day.

Carefully put cuttings in a plastic bag. Make sure they don't dry out.

For softwood cuttings (spring or early summer), cut the side shoots so they are about three to four inches long. Shoots with flowers or flower buds on them won't work.

At home, lay the plant shoots on a hard surface, like a cutting board. Ask an adult to use a sharp knife to make a clean cut just below the lowest leaf joint (called a "node").

Cuttings for midsummer, fall

Semiripe cuttings (taken in midsummer) are done the same way. This time, though, choose side-shoots that let you make cuttings about six inches long. Again, don't take any with flower buds on them. These semiripe cuttings will be soft at the top, but harder at the bottom. Carry them home in a plastic bag, as before. Strip off all the leaves on the lower half of the stem.

For hardwood cuttings (late fall), cut woody stems about 12 inches long. The cuttings could even be as thick as a pencil. (You will need garden clippers and an adult's supervision to make such cuttings.)

Most of the cutting should be hard and woody. Any soft growth at the top should be snipped off. Again, lay them on a cutting surface and ask an adult to make a clean cut with a sharp knife just below the lowest leaf joint (node).

To plant a softwood or semiripe cutting, make a hole straight down into your compost-filled (and dampened) pot. Make the hole just deep enough so that no leaves will be under the soil.

If you like, dip the cut end of the cutting in some water, and then into some rooting compound before planting. Using the pencil, lightly tamp down the soil around the cutting.

Plant cuttings all around the edge of the pot, and a few in the middle.

Hardwood cuttings are usually planted outdoors. Make a hole or trench 10 inches deep and fill it with cutting compost. Hardwood cuttings are planted deep. Only one-third of the length of the cutting should appear above the soil.

Softwood cuttings root fastest, in three weeks or so. Semiripe cuttings may not be ready to transplant until the following spring. Hardwood cuttings take all winter.

When to transplant cuttings

You can tell when a cutting has grown roots by watching it carefully. When you see it beginning to grow new leaves, it is ready to transplant. Gently pull it from the cutting compost and shake loose any soil clinging to the roots. Each rooted cutting should get its own pot. Fill it with regular potting soil. Then it will grow into a nice strong plant.

What you will need:

Plastic bag in which to put newly cut cuttings. You will need to be able to seal it tightly, so cuttings won't dry out.

Scissors. High-quality children's scissors or nail scissors are fine for "ripe" and "semiripe" cuttings. You'll need an adult with clippers to take hardwood cuttings.

Sharp knife (for an adult to use) and a cutting surface. The cuttings must be recut cleanly before planting.

A flowerpot no smaller than three inches in diameter, with a saucer.

Rooting powder (optional; half-ounce containers are available at garden-supply centers for $3 to $4.)

Sand and peat moss in equal amounts (sandbox sand is fine).

A container in which to dampen the pot filled with cutting compost.

A pencil (for making holes in which to plant the cuttings).

Sticks, another small plastic bag, and a rubber band for making a mini-greenhouse around the new cuttings, to keep them moist.

Britain's young gardening champs

Each year, the Greenfingers Challenge gives 1,000 (about $1,400) and a trophy to an outstanding group of child gardeners in Britain. The contest, now in its fourth year, is sponsored by the Royal Horticultural Society and the Tidy Britain Group.

School groups, Brownies, Cub Scouts, or others must think up and carry out a garden project. Some 880 groups have registered for the contest this year.

Last year an "infant school" (4- to 7-year-olds) near Nottingham won the top national prize. Gill Curtis, deputy head of the Oliver Quibell School (serving about 145 children), says the project began as a way to involve children in "an environmental project that would be real to them."

From the air, the garden looks like a plant. It was designed by an artist, Gerry Price, with lots of input from the children.

The central path is like the main stem, and spiral paths curl off it at intervals. "In theory," Ms. Curtis says, "all the children in the school could work on the plot at the same time without getting their feet dirty."

Every child planted, watered, weeded. Were all the teachers "keen" gardeners? "They are now," Curtis says, and laughs.

Children grew giant pumpkins, sunflowers, and sweet peas, as well as carrots, parsnips, artichokes, zucchini, potatoes, corn, and more. Most of the vegetables began as seeds planted in classrooms by the kids.

In the fall, a giant pot of soup was made - it simmered for 24 hours! Every child had some. Said 7-year-old Ashley Parkinson: "It was nice because you could see the lumps of pumpkin in it." Other pupils were not sure they liked the smell or the look of it!

In this, the second year of the school garden, the children "are just desperate to get over to the plot," Curtis says. Last year, Tommy Simpson said he wanted to live there, "because it's got everything I want."

"It's fun," says Jack Chaney, 6, "because we get our hands dirty."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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