Failing to Grow Herbs from Stem Cuttings

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Photo by Pixabay/Hans Braxmeier 

Just as gardeners can be divided into those who like giant alliums and those who think they are silly, so can gardeners be divided into those who successfully propagate plants from cuttings and those whose cuttings die a lingering death. I can speak with some authority for this latter group.

I have read the literature, and I have watched other gardeners in action, and it’s pretty simple on the surface. My mother used to just lay a begonia leaf on some damp sand and have baby begonias in no time. My mother-in-law can stick a twig of almost anything in a glass of water and have a mass of roots practically overnight. My esteemed colleague and author of the accompanying article has lined the windowsills of his home with plantlets propagated from a single sage and a single lavender to the point that there’s no room for dust to collect.

I, on the other hand, have taken cuttings of tender lavenders, rosemary, scented geraniums, pineapple sage, various artemisias, curry plant, and mints of every description; have inserted them in water, sand, potting soil, vermiculite, peat, and dirt; have misted them or not, talked kindly to them or kept them in solitary confinement; put them on pebble trays, enclosed them in plastic, tented them with a host of high- and low-tech materials, kept them warm or cool; and drenched or dehydrated them. My reward has been a sickly forest of cuttings with shriveled tops, slimy stumps, and/or moldy branches. And no roots.

The problem defies analysis. One could conclude that it’s all my fault, that I’m hopelessly inept, but an occasional event confounds these assumptions. While working on this issue of the magazine, for instance, I decided to give it one more try. I took two virtually identical tip cuttings from a single rose geranium plant. I stuck each in a small block of moist florist’s foam, put them side by side on a saucer in indirect light in my fairly humid laundry room, and draped them loosely with a plastic bag. Same plant material, same treatment. Within two days, one cutting had keeled over and begun a serious rotting routine; two weeks later, the other one had actually struck roots-one of my few successes. Perhaps they were in cahoots.

I talked to our assistant editor, Betsy Strauch, about this, thinking that she would give me the gospel. Her garden is always lush, and every plant she’s ever given me (except for a few that I abused) has thrived. “I recently threw out the lemon verbena cutting that I tried to root at exactly the same time and under the same conditions as some pineapple sage, which looks fine,” she said. She thinks part of the problem might arise from not taking the cuttings at just the right time. “Sometimes you take cuttings in the fall because that’s when you think, ‘Oops, there’s the lemon verbena and it’s going to freeze tonight.’ Maybe the cuttings would do better in the spring.”

She also thinks it makes sense to ask the question, “Why bother?” Given all the heat and electricity and time and worry that some of us might invest for little return, we could just go out and buy a bunch of new plants. I like this line of thought. On the other hand, my seedlings never damp off.

Linda Ligon is editor of The Herb Companion, believe it or not.

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