Knowing how to take hardwood cuttings is an invaluable skill. You’re basically cutting a branch up into little sticks, and then each stick grows to become a brand new plant! It’s practically magic. I use this technique all the time to get free plants for my garden. It also gives me some gardening work that I can do even in the dead of winter! (in Zone 5, where it snows).
With the hardwood cutting technique, you essentially cut a section of branch from a plant, which then creates new roots and becomes a new plant. This propagation technique is generally applied to deciduous trees and shrubs, anytime from late fall to early spring, when plants are dormant.
There’s many different ways to take the cuttings and get them to root. And a few details that are important to get right. Read on to learn all about the various methods, as well as which plants work best with this method.
Taking the Cuttings: Timing
The best time to take hardwood cuttings is in the late fall, just after the leaves have fallen off the plant. At this point, the maximum amount of the tree’s energy is stored in the wood. But anytime up until the early spring should work fine.
The reason is that you want the cuttings you take to have as much energy stored in them as possible, which they will use to try and grow the roots they need to become a new plant. As fall approaches, deciduous trees and shrubs withdraw the energy from their leaves, before they drop them to the ground. This is what people mean when they say that a tree is ‘dormant’.
As the winter goes on, the tree moves its energy to the roots, which may keep growing during this time. When spring approaches, the tree sends its energy back up to make leaves. Anytime during this dormancy period, you have a good chance of getting hardwood cuttings with ample energy for becoming a new plant.
Taking the Cuttings: How to Cut Them
Take some branches from a plant you want to propagate. It can be convenient to take cuttings when you are already doing some pruning – the branches that would be discarded can be used. You will want to cut sections that are 4 to 12 inches long (10-30 cm), at least pencil-thickness, and have at least 2 nodes. Nodes are little bumps in the stem, where the leaves previously came out of, and where new leaves normally bud out in the spring.
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These spots along the branch can become new leaves, but can also become roots, when we put them underground. You want your cuttings to start at a node, and end at another node. So cut just a bit under a lower node, and just above a higher node. Later, you will bury most of these nodes, and leave a few at the top to become the plant’s first new leaves. This is why you need at least 2 on each cutting.
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You want to make sure you keep track of which direction in the branch is up. If you plant a cutting upside down, it will die. The sap flows a certain way in trees, and so you don’t want to plant it upside down. It will get confused and die. People generally handle this by cutting one side flat, and another cut at an angle. I usually cut at an angle at the bottom, and flat at the top. This makes sense to me, because you are stabbing the pointy side down into the ground. But I’ve also heard of people making the sloped cut at the top, so that it can act as a little roof, and shed water off of the cutting. Either way works.
I’d recommend using a good pair of clippers. Another option is to use a small hatchet. Either way, make sure your cuts are clean and smooth – you don’t want it looking like you chewed your cuttings apart.
Getting Your Cuttings To Root – 3 Ways
Now you have a few options for getting your cuttings to take root – In pots, in a growing bed, or right in the field.
Planting Cuttings into Pots
Fill pots with some damp potting soil or sand (or sand mixed with compost) and put 1 or 2 cuttings into each one. I put 2 in each, because, if one dies, you won’t end up with an empty pot.
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Ideally, stick your cuttings most of the way into the dirt, leaving between 1/2 and 1/4 of the cutting above ground. This reduces the chances that they will dry out and die.
Keep the soil damp, but not soaked. If they are too wet, they will rot.
I put a plastic bag around my cuttings, to help keep them moist. This is mostly used when taking softwood cuttings, but I feel that it helps for hardwood cuttings as well. If you can, keep the pots in a low temperature spot, ideally in the low 40’s Fahrenheit (about 4-8 Celsius), but colder is fine. If they are too warm, they may focus on growing leaves before growing roots, and you don’t want that. If they start growing leaves too early (in the middle of winter), strip them off, and put them in a colder place. Plant them out in the spring.
Plant Your Cuttings Outside, in a Growing Bed.
A large bed of sand is often used. Simply make a little trench, by inserting a shovel into the soil and wiggling it back and forth. Bury your cutting 1/2 to 3/4 of the way in, and move the dirt back around them firmly.
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Again, keep the soil moist – not too wet, and not too dry. Leave them ideally until the next fall. Then, carefully dig them up and transplant them out.
Planting your Cuttings Directly in their Final Home
You can also just stick your cuttings in the ground right away! This method may have a lower chance of success, but it still works decently, and is extremely easy and straightforward. Again, make sure to bury the cuttings as deep as possible, ideally 1/4 to 3/4 of the way in. Don’t be shy when burying them. You can use a wooden or rubber mallet, or even a thick stick, to hammer the cutting in.
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If you want to plant your cuttings directly like this, consider making larger cuttings, perhaps 8 inches to 2 feet (20-60cm) in length. A straighter cutting will be easier to pound down into the ground.
Alternatively, you can bundle your cuttings together and stick them all in a bucket of sand, and plant them out in the spring.
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Chances of Success
Not all your cuttings will live. Consider that this is like doing plant surgery – you are essentially using surgery to clone a plant. You can consider 50% success and up to be great. Biut there’s a couple extra steps you can take to increase your odds.
Wounding is when you make light scrape at the bottom of the cutting, using a knife or your clippers. This exposes some of the inner bark (also called cambium) which is the green layer of living bark where the plant’s sap flows. This encourages rooting, and can add to the chances of success.
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You can buy a synthetic rooting hormone at a garden center. It’s a kind of powder (sometimes gel or liquid) that you can dip the bottom of your cuttings into before sticking them in the ground. Stick the cutting half an inch or so (1-2 cm) into the powder, and tap off the extra. Then stick it into the soil as normal. You might want to pre-poke a hole in the ground, to make sure the powder doesn’t rub away as you bury it into the dirt.
You can also make natural rooting hormone by making willow water. Willow trees are extremely good at rooting, and you can give other plants a boost by making a tea from willow leaves and twigs, and dipping your cuttings into it.
Another “rooting hormone” for your cuttings is raw honey. While it isn’t actually a rooting hormone, it is a great anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, which will help the plant root. It isn’t as effective as store-bought synthetic rooting hormone, but still definitely helps.
Which Plants Can I Take Hardwood Cuttings From?
There are LOTS of plants which can be grown from hardwood cuttings. It’s a safe bet to try with any deciduous tree or shrub (one that loses its leaves during the winter).
The easiest, for sure, is willow (Salix spp.).
Other good ones include:
Dogwood (Cornus spp.)
Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)
Grapes (Vitis spp.)
Mulberries (Morus spp.)
Most if not all berry bushes, such as currants, gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries, Elaeagnus spp. etc.
Various trees, such as maples, poplars, etc.
Fruit trees such as apples, pears, figs, etc. (Although not all of these grow true)
And several ornamental plants, like: Hydrangeas, Jasmines, Roses, etc.
The best way to learn to take and grow from cuttings is to try it. The cost and effort input is extremely low, and you will learn much more from trying it out than you ever will from reading. Often plants are pruned anyways, and it doesn’t hurt to take the extra branches and see if you can get them to grow. So, with that, happy planting!