GARDEN CUTTINGS FOR WINTER WINDOWSILLS

Late summer is the best time to take cuttings from your favorite herbs, annuals and tender garden plants to bring indoors.

In a time when old-timey tasks are becoming main-stream and hip- you know, like sharing starter sourdough yeasts, encouraging natural cultures in pickles, yogurt and Kimchi, or saving heirloom seeds which is nearly as popular today as beards are – maybe it’s time to get back into the habit of propagating ones own tender plants instead of buying them every spring? OK, I’ll admit it first – I’m just as guilty of taking the easy-route – buying new abutilons, brugmansias and salvias at the garden center each and every spring spring. Coleus, fuchsia, cuphea – at a couple of dollars each, where is the harm in letting them freeze?

My collection of old-fashioned double rosebud pelargoniums need to be propagated often, to reduce any effects of virus which can affect older plants. I plan to keep my specimens pinched well, rather than training them into standards this time. Using only the strongest shoots to root, these from the bottom, are as thick as my finger.

There was a time when even I would have had to drive out to a specialty greenhouse like Logee’s Greenhouses in Connecticut to buy unusual tender plants for the garden, but today, the trend is hot, and even my supermarket had brugmansia and salvia plants this year, but at a cost. Some unusual varieties remain more difficult to find, but that fact aside, imagine the cost savings with the many plants you can start by rooting your own from cuttings?

Pelargonium (geranium) cuttings will root easily in most any soil, even a glass of water, but they prefer sharp drainage and some organic material. Old books encourage a clay, sandy soil – weak in nutrients, but I’ve found that although they bloom best when grown lean, some balanced nutrition aids in the plant producing strong foliage.

Once a popular, if not necessary garden chore – the idea of snipping off cuttings of various garden plants to keep through the winter has its merits, even today. Not all homes can offer the perfect climate for wintering over summer garden plants, but if one has a cool window, sunporch, unused bedroom or of course, a greenhouse, keeping cutting of your favorite tender garden plants through the winter make good, smart sense.

If you are a plant collector, there are even more reasons why you may want to propagate a plant. I do it as an insurance policy, for keeping three or four cuttings of a hard-to-find, expensive or even rare plant ensures that if one dies (or if the greenhouse freezes) the one kept indoors or on a windowsill will perpetuate the collection. While cuttings of other plants that might be impossible to find every year at a garden center, or which sell out fast makes just plain good, economical sense.

Then, of course, there is the share-ability-factor. Rooted cuttings of your favorite plants could make a unique and cherished gift at the Holidays – imagine a set of rooted herb cuttings for a topiary enthusiast or for the foodie in your office?

Herb cuttings, especially those from woody herbs such as rosemary and scented geranium, only do well if you can offer them a cool, if not cold, sunny window in the winter.

Some plants do make good houseplants as well. Rooted cuttings of abutilons and many succulents do perfectly well on the winter windowsill. Geraniums (pelargoniums) often do better indoors in the winter than they do in the summer, blooming endlessly until spring if kept in the sunniest window that you have.

Herb cuttinsg will root best if placed into sharp sand and perlite, in a 50/50 rooting mix. The addition of a rooting hormone is beneficial, especially with woodier stems. One wants to encourage many roots, not just a few.

Since I have a greenhouse, the idea of propagating my own plants is even more practical. Many tender plants winter over so easily in cooler conditions, if not under cold glass (abutilons, cuphea, fuchsia) at least they will in a cool cellar window or a garage window. Yes, gardening chores are often the last thing one wants to think about in August, but just go back a few months and think about what you dished out for that awesome, tall salvia or brugmansia. At $7.00 or more per pot, those cuttings you are going to take the weekend will really add up.

Unusual pelargoniums, geraniums, cuphea ignea, even brugmansia, fuchsia and abutilon cuttings from last weekend’s harvest in the garden. I want to be stocked up this coming year.

Old-timey gardening magazines and books – especially here in the US promoted taking cuttings of garden plants for indoor pots around late summer. Garden writers and early gardening rock starts such as Thalassa Cruso promoted the task on her popular Public Television program (or in her many books) during the 1960’s and ’70’s house plant craze era. Ruth Stout even wrote about propagating garden plants as house plants in her books on organic gardening, in the same era, Crockett’s Victory Garden in the 70’s and 80’s, and even older garden writers for Horticulture Magazine annually wrote romantically about this common autumnal task which most every gardener practiced. As a kid, I would follow my parents around the garden (maybe starting in 1968?) and would practice roots all sorts of annuals and plants from the summer beds, just to bring indoors.

Last year my fuchsia collection produced loads of cuttings, which allowed me to carry on many of my favorites throughout the winter.

Maybe it was because plants were less disposable back in then? In the twentieth century, and certainly before that, one kept heirloom plants and handed them down if they were houseplants. Garden plants had to be propagated if one wanted to keep tender annual or tropical plants, since they were extremely scarce, often traveling to North America by ship, or simple just never propagated by the few greenhouses who grew and sold plants.

There is one trick which does seem to work well with pelargoniums or geraniums. That is to snap off any flowering buds in late summer once you see them, and keep the plants pinched to encourage branching. By the time winter rolls around, your plant will be so anxious to bloom, that you won’t be able to stop it.

I should add that not all garden plants are easy to winter over. Most annuals, even those written about in nineteenth century gardening books which certainly do well under glass in cold greenhouses such as antirrhinum (snapdragons), marigolds and fuchsias will just sulk and be insect traps if grown indoors under modern conditions. My mom was famous for keeping rooted cuttings of impatiens and wax begonias indoors every winter, I think they were more about feeding whiteflies, aphids and spidermites.

There is nothing like a lemon-scented geranium when it is also in full bloom, in March.

CAUTION:

It is your responsibility to check if the plant you are propagating is labeled as ‘PPAF’, or if it has a ®.

Contrary to popular belief, taking cuttings from any plant labeled as ‘PPAF’ or if is is registered is illegal, even if you are a home gardener (PPAF stands for ‘Plant Patent Applied For’). I know this seems silly but look at it from the plant breeders perspective. Plant breeders are essentially inventors, and many dedicate their entire lives to breeding new, and better plants. I have a good friend who is an independent plant breeder (believe me, I don’t know of any who are rich, if anything, it’s the contrary). He explained to me that registering a plant to be ‘PPAF’ costs him aroung $1200 per plant, and he only gets to see a few dollars of that coming back when nursery sells his plant. So, as an inventor myself, I get it.

Surely we will all still snip a cutting or two, probably without even knowing it – but I try to follow the law as best I can. For this reason, I won’t take a cutting of a my Brugmansia ‘Snow Bank’, since Terra Nova nurseries owns the rights to propagate it. I have thought about writing them to see if I could take one cutting, since the plant I received seems to have some problems, as if it was micro-propagated and it is almost cresting with small shoots. I would love to know if I could take one cutting from the base of the plant, and destroy to mother plant. But I imagine that such questions to Terra Nova would be silly, and yes – I could just take a cutting an no one would know the better. But I would love to know what they would say to me if I followed the proper protocol? Laugh if you will, but the US patent law is law. Besides, I just wouldn’t feel ‘right’. This may be my ‘squidgy reasoning’, I know, but in the end, it is up to us plant folk to enforce these rules. You can identify trademarked cultivars as they will have a ™ or a circle R ®, or have a ‘PPAF’ number.

We should all work together to support plant breeders so that they can to continue to breed stronger, better and more resistant plants that are interesting (think:Proven Winners, Terra Nova, etc). I’m not getting all righteous on you, but really – plant breeding is invention, and invention is a business and an art which we all should respect.

Beyond all that, I do suggest trying a few of your favorites garden plants to keep through the winter. Geraniums are easy, but rosemary – not so much. I only have luck wintering over herbs in the cold greenhouse, but if you are daring and pay attention to what they need, you can find success even with the persnickety rosemary – I have a friend in a penthouse in New York City who keeps an entire collection of herbs, some even trained as elegant topiary trees (the artist Abbie Zabar). She excels particularly rosemary, and if she can do it, surely you could as well! Just remember, cool conditions, moist air, and brilliant winter sunshine. If not? Then stick to geraniums, at least they will bloom like crazy. Remember, dare I say it — winter is only a few months away for many of us!

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