Don Hanson freely admits he is a bit of a larcenist when it comes to roses.
“Of the hundred or so I have in my garden, there is only one I’ve ever paid for,” Hanson confessed. “All of the rest, I’ve propagated from cuttings.”
Cuttings can come from almost any source, Hanson says. Since he never goes anywhere without his clippers, a plastic bag and a wet paper towel, Hanson is always at the ready, should a beauty present itself and wend its way into his heart.
Over the years, Hanson has tried out dozens of recommended techniques for propagating roses from cuttings, some of which were utter failures.
“Some people have luck simply rooting them in water, but that has never worked for me,” he said. “I tell you how my mother did it: She took a cutting and stuck it in the ground. She had a raised bed on the north side of her house that never got direct sun, and that’s where the cuttings would go.”
Hanson’s “favorite technique” isn’t quite as simple as his mom’s, but is easy to follow all the same. It has a second benefit that makes it his preferred method: “My wife calls it cheap, but I call it frugal.”
Hanson shared his secrets at a recent workshop at the New Orleans Botanical Garden and broke the process down into six steps:
Step 1: Take a cutting from a blooming bush.
“The best time of year to take cuttings here is November through March,” Hanson said. “I never take cuttings in the summer, unless I’m on vacation and see a rose I have to have. Most books say to take a 4- or 5-inch cutting, but I like them about 8 or 9 inches long, about the thickness of a pencil. The best piece to cut is one that has just finished blooming.” Hanson advises making the cut at an angle about ¼ inch above a bud.
Step 2: Prepare the cutting for rooting.
“You want to remove all but the top two sets of leaves. And you want to use your fingernail or pruners to scratch the dark green tissue off the bottom inch or so of the cutting until the light green tissue is exposed. That’s the cambium layer, and it’s responsible for growth,” said Hanson. After the cutting is prepared, he urges dipping the prepared end into rooting hormone powder.
Step 3: Prepare a medium for the cutting.
Hanson says that sand (“You can buy it at Dollar General”) makes a fine medium but that his favorite is top soil from Home Depot (“It used to cost 99 cents, so when they raised the price to $1.79, I got kind of upset.”).
“If you want to get real fancy, you can buy some perlite and mix it in. Then, you fill a pot with the medium and moisten it. I wish I could tell you exactly how moist is moist enough and how much is too much, but a lot of it is just blind luck.” But Hanson offered this hint: “Most of the time when I make a mistake, it’s because it’s too wet and not because it’s too dry.”
Step 4: Plant the prepared cutting and step away.
First, use a pencil to make a hole in the medium at least twice the width of the cutting. Next, insert the cutting very carefully into the hole, taking care not to let the sides of the cutting touch the medium in order to avoid scraping off the rooting powder.
“You want to make sure you get two nodes below the surface of the soil. Then, use your fingers to gently press the soil around the cutting so that the soil contacts the cutting,” Hanson said.
Label the cutting for rose name and date. Hanson recommends using a pencil to write on a Popsicle stick because “ink fades and markers run.” In a 6-inch diameter pot, Hanson says it’s possible to fit five or six cuttings. “Not all of them are going to take, so you want to try enough so that the odds are in your favor.”
Set the pot in a 2-gallon plastic zip-top bag and zip the top of the bag closed. Place the pot in an outdoor location that does not receive direct light, preferably on the north side of a house or garage, and ignore it for three weeks.
“You have to use self-control and resist the urge to unzip the bag and peek, or else you’ll mess the whole thing up,” Hanson warned.
Step 5: Test for roots and gradually expose to more sun.
Unzip the bag and fold it down around the pot. Choose a green cutting and very gently tug on it to determine if there is any resistance.
“If there is, it means that roots have been established,” Hanson said. “But don’t you dare put that pot in full sun yet. Fold down the bag and keep it on the outside of the pot for two days, then take the bag off. For the next week, leave it in the shade and then gradually give it more sun. After two weeks, it can get a bunch of sun.”
Step 6: Transplant to permanent location.
Using something like a transplanting fork, gently lift the newly rooted plant from the rooting pot and plant in a bed or pot of its own.
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about houses and gardens. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or see @rstephaniebruno on Twitter.