A Guide to Starting Plants from Cuttings

By Frank Rauscher
Published: December 13, 2019 | Last updated: May 4, 2021 08:54:58
Key Takeaways

Want some new cultivars for your garden, but also want a way to guarantee their quality? Well, this is a perfect opportunity for some DIY cuttings.

Why would anyone want to go to the trouble to start a plant from a cutting when it is so easy to just go out and buy a small plant at the nursery?


Well, think about it: it’s not always so easy to locate that certain plant you want to grow, and it’s even tougher to find it in a healthy condition. And what if you want certain unique characteristics in your specimen?

Not every plant with the same genus, species or even same variety will have the same exact traits. Only clones, or cultivars, can guarantee identical characteristics.


Grafted clones can be hybridized to produce certain benefits, such as sweetness or health, or to create a new type of fruit. If you’re not so interested in developing some new type of fruit or plant, remember that grafting allows you to produce as many of that awesome tomato plant you had last year as you can.

Another reason for wanting to start a new plant from a cutting could include the fact that the original or mother plant doesn’t produce many seeds; a new plant started from a cutting off the old one can produce more seeds.

So, let’s get started looking at how we can start a plant from a cutting. The basic process after we have selected the plant we want to clone involves cutting off a section from the mother plant and getting it to create some roots so we can transplant it.


That sounds simple enough, but if we aren’t particular about what time of year, where on the plant we cut, what we cut with and how we plan to get the new roots started, it’s not likely we’ll have easy success.

Plants are generally woody or herbaceous. Woody plants have three categories: arborescent (single trunk, such as an ash tree), fruticose (large and woody with many trunks, such as a ligustrum) and suffrutescent (shrubs or vines that are only woody at the base; these are often also considered herbaceous). The suffrutescent group would be the easiest to start from a cutting within the woody grouping.


Read also: Mother Plants and Cloning: Love Your Mothers

Herbaceous plants are generally the easiest to start from a cutting. These also have three main sub-groupings: annuals, which only live for one season or one year (the celosia is an example); biennials, which complete their life cycle in two years (for example, carrots); and herbaceous perennials, which continue for at least three years (an example would be asparagus). Tomatoes are an interesting case as it they are actually perennials that are cultivated as annuals and are, in my opinion, one of the easiest to start.

The best time of year to take a cutting from a plant will depend on what type of plant it is. We want to try to get soft wood or new growth cuttings. The interior cellular walls need to be active and so more easily encouraged to reproduce. For outdoor plants, the odds favor spring. For indoor or hydroponic plants, it will depend more on the plants current life cycle than the time of year.

You want the plant specimen to be in top health. No signs of nutrition insufficiency or disease. The plant should also be properly hydrated. Not overwatered or suffering from drought. The cells in the plant tissue will need moisture in order to begin knitting themselves back together and creating the root system you need.

Do a thorough inspection of the proposed plant before deciding. Don’t forget to look for insects. Chances are many of the insects that might be on your plant are too small to see without a microscope or at least a good magnifying glass.

Next, prepare for cutting and restarting. You will need pruners; a razor blade (box cutters provide safety); distilled water; containers for disinfectant, water and rooting hormone; containers with drainage for potting, bleach, soilless potting mix, plastic wrap or plastic bags or a humidity dome, and a pencil or Q-tip (for making soil holes).

After selecting a good, healthy specimen, you will need to perform the cutting. You’ll want to prune off your specimen where it grows and then bring it inside where you are set up to do the rest of your starting process.

Make sure your pruners are sharp and clean. Cut your specimen from green non-woody stems near the tip of a branch, not near the base. Once inside the house, you will make your final cuts before restarting. Use a sharp knife for this cut is key as it will reduce trauma and avoid failure.

The blade should be cleaned and sterilized. Any bacteria or fungi present on the blade will have a serious negative effect. Wash with soapy water first to remove any dirt or grease, and rinse using distilled water. Dilute the bleach at 10 parts to one, submerse the blade and rinse again. Wipe dry with fresh tissue paper.

Now cut back your specimen to just below a node on the stem. Nodes exist where a leaf or petiole was attached. After you make this cut, you will want to remove all but a few leaves with your blade (so keep this in mind when choosing where you cut; the larger the leaf, the fewer needed). The new little root system will need to provide nutrients for the leaves you left on the specimen.

Too many leaves are stressful on the new roots and too few will not provide sufficient photosynthesis. Make a final cut on the specimen at the middle of the end node. This is the spot where the plant has the best chance to generate roots. Before planting, wash off the tip in distilled water to assure cleanliness. The amount of time between this final cut and insertion into your prepared potting mix is critical. Be prepared and transplant at once.

While rooting hormone is not always necessary (some plants will even root in water), it does stimulate a plant to generate new roots and can increase your chances of success. Put an adequate amount of hormone into a container (you cannot return the unused hormone to the bag).

Dip the new cutting in the water and then into the hormone before putting into the potting mix. Only a moderate amount of hormone should be on the cutting, so tap off any excess. Whether you prefer rooting in water or soil, it will take a week or two before the cutting is ready to transplant.

Read also: The Various Forms of Rooting Hormones & Organic Rooting Stimulants

There are pros and cons to rooting in water. While you can see the roots and moisture is always available, some plant types do better with more oxygen available and sometimes transplanting into soil later can be an issue.

If you choose to root in soil, a good quality potting mix is very important. Soil has clay, silt and sand in it and can inhibit tender new roots. A sterile soilless mix with only fine particles is best. After all, you don’t want all your efforts to be wasted because there pests in the soil.

Germinating mix is pre-sterilized, but you can sterilize your own in the oven at 180°F for about 30 minutes (just don’t let the temperature go over 200°F). Pre-moisten the soil with your distilled water (avoid using tap water that could contain chlorine), but do not saturate it.

The combination of adequate air and moisture is what your fragile little plant needs to develop roots. Use your pencil for making an inch-deep hole in the potting mix—this step reduces any trauma created by pressing the stem into the mix and helps the hormone to stay attached.

Keeping the potting mix adequately moist is your next concern. Covering the pot with clear plastic, but allowing enough room for the leaves and making a couple small holes for ventilation, will do the trick. By reducing evaporation like this, you won’t need to be adding more water and risk drowning the plant.

The new plant needs UV light but not strong direct sun. After a week or two you can poke some more holes in the plastic to allow oxygen and drier air to help it adapt. During this period you will need to check and add water. Don’t ever overwater, though; plants need air in the soil as well as moisture.

A gentle tug on the plant after a couple weeks will indicate if it has developed roots and is ready for transplanting. Remember that insects love little new plants like this, so even after transplant, you might want to keep it indoors for awhile.

Though the process sounds a bit complicated at first reading, it is actually quite easy once you understand it and have tried a couple times. If this is a first time for you, you might want to try a tomato plant.

Tomatoes are super easy to root and almost assure your success. Starting a plant from cuttings is a fun new way to take your next step in gardening. Try it, and don’t give up if you don’t succeed at first. The end result is a plant that you will certainly be proud to show your friends.


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Written by Frank Rauscher | Writer, Owner of Garden Galaxy

Profile Picture of Frank Rauscher
During his many years of service in horticulture, product development and sales, Frank has performed innumerable visits to landscapes to facilitate a correction for struggling plants or assist with new design. He also writes for Southwest Trees and Turf and The Green Pages, is the owner of Garden Galaxy and manages several websites. He has four children and eight grandchildren.

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