7) Potting New Plants

Comes the great day in September when we think our June cuttings are ready to venture outside the cocoon of the cutting bed. We’ve opened the bed a few days earlier to give the fledglings a taste of what is to come–and some welcome fresh air and light.

Probing the rooting media to begin loosening a new plant

We’re impatient. Autumn is reviving our garden and we want to take cuttings of plants we missed in spring. The new cuttings will start growing roots in balmy fall weather and spend the winter in the bed till they are potted in spring.

We want to rush the old-timers, but there’s no point. They’re going from a cozy shelter right into the wild woolly world of wind, storms, and critters. If they’re potted before they’re ready, they sit and sulk, or worse.

Plant dug with media still clinging to roots

So we will probably leave some of them to share the bed with newcomers. Some plants actually require an extra year in the cutting bed before they can be transplanted.

We begin by gently, gently tugging on plants. Fragile roots can tear easily. If we feel resistance we explore further by patiently working soil away from a few plants with our fingers.

We choose cuttings that show healthy new growth, also a sign that a plant is ready to be potted. But we get surprises. Sometimes cuttings that look prosperous have negligible roots. They may begin with gusto, put out roots, then stop growing. High temps? Rooting media that is too wet? Too little light coming through white plastic and shade cloth?

Left, root initials already present under the stem surface (e.g., hydrangeas) hasten root growth. Right, fibrous roots growing by cell division. Photo from Success with Cuttings by Chris & Valerie Wheeler

Moisture and light are most likely the culprits. Cuttings that are trying to root need more moisture and humidity and less light than those that have already rooted.

In large beds that hold a variety of cuttings, the needs of pokey cuttings must be balanced with the needs of rooted and growing plants. Here is where small containers with only one species have an advantage.

If we are satisfied that rooting is fairly vigorous, we use our hands or a trowel to scoop the plants out, collecting only one variety at a time and keeping as much media as possible around the roots. If necessary, intertwined roots will be separated gingerly (not ever a problem when plants are rooted in individual pots).

Holding the rooted cutting while pouring media into the pot allows the roots to spread out naturally

Unlike Bob, I happen to be an angel of mercy to plant waifs, so I give all hopefuls, even the Johnny-one-roots a chance. These I bundle into one pot along with a generous dose of hope. Surprise! This often works.

To minimize shock, we pot rooted cuttings immediately.

We fill a pot halfway with potting soil, then hold the plant over the pot with one hand and scoop moistened medium into the pot with the other hand, allowing the roots to spread out. We continue to pack soil until the plant is nestled in the pot at the level it was growing in the bed.

New plant nestled in pot with teaspoon of slow-release fertilizer

We have never planted rooted cuttings directly in the ground, though that’s not to say it can’t be done if you are willing to give them extravagant TLC. Or at least some Very Warm Wishes for Survival.

Technically, plants should be put in small pots initially, so roots fill the pot and take up moisture quickly. Otherwise, excess water that cannot drain quickly (i.e., from crashing downpours) may cause waterlogging and eventual root rot.

But we have other lives besides potting plants, so we skip this step and go right to the ¾ gallon size. We admit that this is a gamble. Soil stays wetter longer when small roots flounder in large pots. Weaker plants may lose the race.

Compare the fineness of rooting media with the coarseness of the potting media we use. Coarse potting media is also excellent for growing camellias in pots

We compensate for the short cut by using a planting medium that is quite coarse, coarser than most nurseries use. It’s a combination of pine bark, sphagnum peat moss, sand and peanut hulls that drains more quickly than peat-based potting mixes.

After potting, our new plants get a teaspoon of slow-release fertilizer sprinkled on top of the soil, good for about six weeks or so, and a gentle watering until water runs out the bottom.

We label all hydrangeas because we can’t tell one from another unless they’re in bloom. We know the

There is always a variety of plants resting in our pot ghetto before moving to the nursery

rest of our plants pretty intimately, so each variety gets only one label. Once plants mature, and before a sale, we hand-write tags for all plants. This is known as low-tech labeling.

New plants spend recovery time from the indignities of being jostled out of bed by resting in light shade for several days.

Once they begin to thrive, they graduate to dappled sunlight.

New pyracantha cuttings taken in late fall, wintered over, potted in spring, with flower buds pinched out

If we have transplanted in hot weather — a gamble but one we take if we need space in the bed — we do not fertilize a second time. There’s no point. The plants – and we — are waiting for reasonable temperatures before they actively grow.

Fall transplants will not be fertilized a second time, either. The last thing we want is tender growth going into winter. Once spring comes, our new plants receive a teaspoon of slow-release fertilizer and a couple of jazz-grow jolts from liquid fertilizer from time to time.

As to watering, it is hard to resist over-watering. “Get out the hose!” we cry. “The pots are dry!” How many times have we done this and learned the pots were not dry. Too much water kills more plants than too little water. To avoid this, some growers plunge pots into beds filled with moist sand to regulate moisture and keep roots cool.

This recently potted gardenia will have the center stem pinched to encourage more compact growth. The pruning can become a cutting for a new plant

Instead, we do a low-tech check by putting a finger into the pot to see how cool the soil is below the surface, coolness being a casual measure of moisture.

More accurately, moisture meters plunged into the pots tell an astounding tale. Dry dry dry in the first half inch. Moderately moist below. Wet wet wet near the bottom, all this within a scant six inches of pot height. Pools of moisture that we find on the landscape cloth when we pick up pots confirm the tale, especially for young plants with small bundles of roots.

As roots fill pots and take up more water, soil dries out more quickly. So it’s a judgment call as to when we water and how much.

In hot weather or before we leave town, we water with an overhead sprinkler to cool and drench our nursery. Overhead watering cannot substitute for regularly watering each individual pot until water runs out the bottom, but it perks up the plants, like an afternoon of gentle rain.

Dappled sunlight in our nursery caresses new plants

Even though pots may be left for ten days or more in summer, it’s rare for us to lose a plant. Minimal fertilizing, which makes for slow growing, and pruning larger, older plants are allies in keeping plants healthy while we are out of town. Rare summer rains also boost plant morale.

But our biggest allies are the trees. Pots in our nursery are naturally shaded in summer, treated to waves of dappled sunlight moving over the land, glancing through tree leaves. No burning, scorching sun, ever, to dry out pots.

The trees come through again in fall, when pots are ever so gently, day after day, tucked in for winter by a grand variety of leaves and pine straw. Air spaces in these blankets prevent matting after heavy rains and temper extremes of cold. Bowsers can’t find tender shoots, and weeds can’t find a patch of soil.

Pots naturally mulched by leaves falling from the shade trees in our nursery

Our one imperative in this arrangement? Removing the coverlets in early spring before new growth begins. Otherwise we can expect to see pale, weak, twisted plant growth.

The crumbling brown leaves we remove – and they are a considerable pile — we use as mulch on garden beds.

At this time we give each plant its teaspoon of tonic, trim scraggly branches and generally shape new plants, which have not received much trimming before this.

The trees give great gifts, but they exact a return. Some years ago, when plants were not filling out as they should, we shifted efforts from coddling to sleuthing. Early in the seaon, strong roots in pots overjoyed us, but as plants languished, our delight turned to bewilderment and then to suspicion.

We finally turned over a pot, cut its roots away from the landscape cloth, and laid it bare. Strand by strand we unraveled the roots. Slowly it began to dawn that there were two sets of roots in the pot. One set was fine and limited; the other was aggressive and pot-binding.

Landscape cloth is underlain by heavy duty plastic to prevent tree roots from invading pots

It was a eureka moment. Now it makes sense, we said. Tree roots will do whatever they can to seek moisture.

What a bonanza they find in our nursery! In dry summer weather, they send out the call: “Wet pots in the nursery!” “Wet pots in the nursery!” Then they stampede, or so it seems to us. Once they poke through the damp landscape cloth, they are off and running through a pot. So much for the truism that roots only grow down.

We who were propagating for fun now had a passle of work. Pots had to be emptied of roots, plants bare-rooted and repotted. Then we had to figure out how to stop the great invasion of the tree roots. Our only solution, barring lumbering the area, was to underlay the landscape cloth with plastic. Dicey business because drainage would be compromised.

The solution seems to have worked. Water that pools on the landscape cloth evaporates fairly quickly and cools plants on hot days. Since we’ve finally learned to grow our plants on the dry side, they may welcome the bath.

Nice roots on a two-year-old, ready to be planted. Note cluster at bottom left. Apparently we forgot to rotate this plant for equal time in warm sun

We are still moving plants, however. Some plants simply seem to grow so vigorously their roots poke down through the landscape cloth.

“Give us liberty, or at least a bigger pot,” they’re telling us. They’re amiable enough. They seem not to notice our cutting or tearing at their roots, so we accommodate them by up-potting and moving them regularly.

Along these lines, we try to rotate our pots once in a while to foster balanced root growth. Roots tend to gravitate to the “warm” side of the pot, so if light (and warmth) comes only from one direction, roots will naturally grow toward that side of the pot.

As we’ve said before, we grow our plants lean, so they rarely look like Garden Beautiful when they leave home for other gardens. Unless they sit in their pots for two years or more before they are sold, they are typical juveniles, small, sometimes gawky, maybe floppy, still finding their ways toward handsome adulthood, runty ducklings compared to preened, professional nursery swans.

This juvenile abelia needs trimming to make it attractive

They’re streetwise and healthy, though. They’ve experienced all kinds of weather and warded off attacks from all manner of rogues in the garden. We don’t give them much help.

Horticultural oil spray against scale on camellias is all we use, and that only on occasion. Much as we hate to, we simply throw out the few problem plants, or plant them in our own garden where they may or may not have a fighting chance.

But no matter how long some of our plants hang around (and some of our ducklings do linger until they begin to look like swans), their lean diet prevents them from becoming potbound and needy.

Blue hydrangea backed by evergreen Kleim’s hardy gardenia are two favorites of ours that have pleased local gardeners, too

Our joy comes when people come back year after year and tell us about their successes with our plants, and about how half their yard is landscaped with plants from our nursery. And it was all done for pennies!

It makes us feel good. After all, when you are giving or selling a plant you absolutely love but which looks like a duckling next to a swan, you need those kind words of reassurance.

We stand in awe of these plants, formerly four-inch rootless sprigs. Once grown, they are tougher than we could ever have imagined.

That’s what makes our low-tech propagation so intoxicating. It’s one grand experiment, new plants to try, new techniques to explore, new imaginings and ponderings as we go. After all these years, we are still hooked on propagating with stem cuttings. We hope you get hooked, too.

These hydrangeas in our nursery, about three years old, truly look like swans

For more on propagating with stem cuttings see our June 2012 post,

Plants for Pennies  and check out the links below:

Propagation: Stem Cuttings         Pamper your Pruners         Using Hormones    

Soilless Media?    Small Pots or Large Beds for Cuttings?     Choosing Candidates

Taking Cuttings      Potting New Plants

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One Response to 7) Potting New Plants

  1. bbom says:

    i found this post really informative. thanks.

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