Please read at your own risk, because propagating houseplants from your own cuttings is habit-forming and I can’t be held responsible if your home becomes more jungle than living space.
It happened to my wife, Mary, and I, requiring us to carve out a niche in the wonderful greenery so we can still see each other across the dinner table.
Forty-some years ago, in a horticulture class while a student at North Dakota State University, I learned a method for starting new houseplants from cuttings, and I’ve used it ever since. This “ice cream bucket method” creates a miniature greenhouse that keeps cuttings cozy and humid until they root. It’s also a great project to encourage children’s interest in plants.
A ”cutting” is a gardening term for a piece of a plant that’s cut away from the mother plant and coaxed to produce its own roots, creating a new plant. Although some cuttings root easily in water, using vermiculite or perlite produces stronger, well-branched roots that transition more successfully into potting soil, once rooted.
The type of cutting depends on the type of plant. Houseplants with leaves spaced along stems such as ivies, pothos and coleus are easily propagated from “stem cuttings.” With a sharp knife or shears, snip a 3- to 4-inch section of stem plus attached leaves from the tips of outer branches. Remove leaves from the lower inch or inch and a half of stem.
Some houseplants can be propagated from “leaf cuttings”, consisting of a single leaf and its leafstalk (called the petiole.) African violets and jade plants are examples.
Cuttings are best taken from firm, fresh growth. A day or two before taking cuttings, water the mother plant so leaves and stems are turgid and fresh. Wait to take cuttings until you reach the appropriate step in the procedure below.
- A 4- or 5-quart ice cream bucket or similar pail.
- A clear plastic bag large enough to hold the bucket.
- Vermiculite or perlite, available from garden centers.
- Six to 10 houseplant cuttings.
- Poke or drill six holes in the bottom of the bucket to allow excess moisture to drain.
- Packaged “media” like vermiculite and perlite are very dry. After opening the bag of the product you’ve chosen, moisten well and stir to distribute. Then fill the bucket two-thirds full.
- Take stem or leaf cuttings from your favorite plants. Each bucket can hold six to 10 assorted cuttings, depending on their size and type.
- Rooting hormone powder, available from garden centers, isn’t necessary for most houseplant cuttings, but can be used if desired. It does aid difficult-to-root plants. I didn’t use it for the cuttings I prepared for this demonstration.
- Insert each cutting into the moistened media and pack media firmly around the cuttings so they don’t wiggle.
- Even though you’ve pre-moistened the media, water again after all cuttings have been inserted to further firm media around cuttings.
- Enclose the bucket in a clear plastic bag, and fasten the top loosely.
- Place the bucket in a window receiving filtered sunlight, but not all-day full sun, which might be too intense. The humidity and warmth inside the miniature greenhouse speeds rooting.
- The cutting bucket won’t require much extra water, as moisture condenses and recirculates inside. Add a little water if the media begins to dry.
- Open or close the bag slightly as needed. Light condensation on the plastic is good.
- Most cuttings take two to four weeks to form roots. Resist the urge to pull up on cuttings to check, as tiny roots are tender. Instead, insert a fork into the media and gently lift the cutting. Replant if roots are still small.
- When roots are 1 to 2 inches long, transplant cuttings into pots 3 or 4 inches in diameter, and increase pot size as the plants grow.
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Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.