As a gardener, my greatest satisfaction is relaxing among the blooms in my garden. But my joy is in sharing those blooms with others. Many garden plants are perfectly designed to reproduce themselves by seed or by cutting, and I often take advantage of this characteristic to pass along my favorites to friends and family. In fact, this is the way that most of our heritage plants arrived in Texas, as a cutting or a sprout from the parent plant in another state.
Today we have many varieties of flowers that have adapted and now thrive in our dry Texas environment, but probably none more spectacularly than the EarthKind and Antique Roses.
Fortunately for us, most of our better adapted roses grow well on their own root stock and do not require grafting. This makes them a perfect candidate for propagation by stem cutting. I learned the skill from my PaPa, who was a great lover of roses. In the fall when his bushes began to drop their blooms, he would raid my grandmother’s kitchen for the large mason jars that she used for canning. His mason jar method is historically highly successful, and probably the most utilized method for home gardeners.
Although roses can be propagated at any time, the home gardener’s best chance for success is in the fall. While you will not have 100 percent success, there are some things you can do to improve your chances.
Selection: Cuttings are best when taken in the fall, before the first hard freeze. I usually do this toward the end of October. Begin by taking a good look at your rose bushes one month before cutting. Select plants that are healthy and free of insects. Consider the varieties of roses that you have available. Most roses propagate easily by stem cutting and will produce hardy, healthy plants. There are, however, a few exceptions. Roses that are under patent protection (17 years from the date of introduction) by law should not be propagated. Grafted roses such as floribunda and grandiflora are not a good choice because the resulting plant will not be hardy. A rose that suckers, such as Gallica or Rugosa, will also not be a good choice. Other than these few exceptions, all other roses will propagate easily.
Preparation: Plants you select for propagation should not have fertilizer or insecticide applied for at least one month prior to cutting. Select a sheltered location for your cuttings to take root. Although roses prefer direct sun, your cuttings will require shade. Bright, indirect sunlight is best. The south side of your house or other garden structure will provide shelter during winter. A spot near the drip line of a roof will provide regular moisture as water condenses and runs off the roof. All of these factors are important considerations.
Once you select the site, examine the soil. Sandy loam is best. Sand will allow for good drainage, and loam will provide adequate nutrients for the cutting. If the soil is clay, or if you are uncertain about the quality, amend the soil in the area with three inches of compost. For clay soil, you may also need to add expanded shale. The planting area should be tilled or spaded well so that the soil is soft and well mixed with the compost. Water the area well. Water should drain through the soil and not remain standing on the surface.
Begin collecting your supplies. You will need mason jars, quart size or larger. Two liter plastic bottles will also work. You can cut off the bottom and retain the lid, which is helpful in controlling moisture. You will need rooting hormone, which is available at most garden supply stores. You will also need a sharp, clean knife or pruning shears, labels, and a pencil.
Cutting: Water the plants well the day before cutting so that the stems will be plump and full of moisture. Stems that are best able to grow a root will have a spent bloom or a developing rose hip. Remove these by making a 90 degree cut just above the last set of leaves on the stem. Measure six to eight inches below this first cut, and make your next cut. The second cut should be 45 degrees just above a leaf node (the spot where a leaf grows out from the stem). The resulting cutting should be six to eight inches long and have three of more sets of leaves on it.
It is normal for roses to drop their leaves in winter, and because of this all the leaves may be removed from the stem by making a clean cut as close to the stem as possible. It is important to keep the cuttings moist. If you are not immediately placing them into the soil, then put them in an ice chest to preserve the moisture in the stems. If the stem gets too hot or too dry, the cutting will not survive the rooting process.
Wounding: Rose stems that have been wounded will naturally produce a growth hormone that begins the rooting process. Use your knife to wound the stem just above the 45 degree cut. Peel off the outer layer of tissue and cut into the stem up to ¼ inch above the 45 degree cut. Dip the damaged stem into the powder rooting hormone and thump it to remove excess powder.
Sticking: The placement of the cutting in the soil is important. You want at least half of the stem buried in the soil. It is helpful to have one of the leaf nodes positions at the surface of the soil. Use a pencil to make a hole in the soil to the proper depth. Place the cutting in the hole, being careful not to disturb the hormone powder, and tamp the soil up snug to the stem. Place the cuttings six to eight inches apart. Water well, and place a jar or a 2 liter plastic bottle over each cutting. Label the cuttings with the variety of rose and the date the cutting was taken.
The jar or plastic bottle is an important element in the rooting process. The stem must remain moist and protected throughout the rooting process or it will die. The goal is for the cutting to remain consistently moist, not too wet, and not too dry throughout fall, winter, and early spring. This may mean that your water the area every day when there is no rain. During days of extreme cold, you will need to cover the jars to prevent frost damage.
During the cold season, the cutting will develop a callous over the wounded stem. In the spring as the soil begins to warm, the callous will sprout roots. By April or May, the plants will have an adequate root system to grow new leaves. The jars may be removed at this time, but do not transplant until the following fall or winter. These plants will be particularly fragile during the hot summer, and will continue to need consistent moisture.
Transplanting: In the fall, the new plants will be ready to move to a permanent location. They will be small, but most varieties grow quickly and produce flowers the following spring. Prune back long shoots and thin the plants sparingly just before transplanting. The best time to transplant is during the naturally dormant season in late winter. They can be removed with a ball of soil, or as bare root. Place in a pot to give away, or plant in a sunny location with at least 8 hours of sun per day.
PaPa must have propagated hundreds of roses over the years to share with friends and family, and I’m proud to say that I’m continuing the tradition. It’s a skill that I am happy to share with you as well. Now is the perfect time to examine your roses for possibilities. You have my very best wishes as you start your own tradition and the help of the Master Gardeners if you have any questions.