The Wonder of Cuttings

Elsie Sydnor, Editor,
American Fuchsia Society

Jim Lewark of Santa Clara Valley Branch grows beautiful fuchsias, and he attributes his success to good cuttings. He experiments with new ideas each year, but the essential ingredient for any cutting is a good root system. Thankfully, fuchsias root easily. He says we are lucky we d not want to root pine trees, which often takes two years!

In his presentation to his Branch members, he showed how to set up a surefire way to grow cuttings—in a floating garden. Of course, he did not take credit for inventing this method. The Aztecs of Mexico were ahead of him by centuries when they filled barges with soil and created floating gardens of vegetables and flowers.

Jim uses water, though and plenty of oxygen. To show the importance of oxygen, he made a mini-hydroponics garden with two plastic cartons. One carton held a small Color amount of water. The cutting was held over the water by a plastic champagne glass turned upside down with the end cut out of it. Another plastic container fit inside the first container to form a "greenhouse". Inserted in the water was a line connected to an aquarium bubbler. The air bubbles burst in the champagne glass and furnished the cutting with extra oxygen enabling it to grow copious roots in just two weeks.

It is hard work to construct a root system from scratch. The plant needs oxygen for this, just as we do when we work hard. Oxygen helps convert carbohydrates into energy.

To set up a tray of cuttings, Jim uses a plastic tray like the ones sold in general garden stores. In the tray he places a flat piece of styrofoam covered with a capillary mat. The mat needs to be large enough to wrap around the two ends of the styrofoam so that the water can have contact with it and travel along it.

Tiny oasis cubes provide a base for the cuttings, although he does not use the pre-made holes in the cubes. Instead, he turns them upside down, with the widest side to the bottom. With a wooden skewer, he makes a small hole for the plant stem.

The best cuttings are without flowers or buds because those with flowers are not in a growing mode. He chooses the fattest, healthiest, strongest stems from the top of the plant or from the base of the plant. Have you ever noticed how vigorous the new growth is at the base of a standard? He cuts the cutting large, because he double cuts it, just as we do when we cut roses for an arrangement. Leaving four to six leaves on the stem, he paints on the rooting gel, Clonex®, manufactured in Australia. He puts it on the stem all the way up to and above the first set of leaves. He gently pushes the stem into the tiny hole in the oasis cube, just far enough to keep it upright.

All the oasis cubes set on the capillary mat, with space between for air circulation. Each cube has a tiny label with the fuchsia name and "birth" date on it. The water in the tray is not touching the oasis cubes and there is no need for misting or watering them daily. A plastic cover keeps in the moisture. Jim uses an aquarium thermometer to check the water temperature, which he maintains at 70°-72°. To maintain temperature he uses a heat mat under the tray.

Since cuttings root better with more light, Jim sets up a shop light with cool florescent tubes over the new plants. He does not use the more expensive grow lights because he feels they are not needed. The light needs to be close to the plants (2-3 feet), and moved up, as the plants grow taller. With a timer he provides his cuttings with sixteen hours of light each day.

Watch the cuttings carefully. If a plant has rust or other problems, those problems will multiply in the closed environment. Watch the roots grow! With the Clonex® on the stem roots will appear above the oasis cube. In fact, they will grow faster in the air above the cube than in the cube itself!

Replenish the water as necessary, always pouring in into the tray, not on the plants themselves. Jim puts a small amount of fertilizer in the water from day one. Currently he is using Dyna-Gro® (Liquid Grow 7-9-5 formula) one teaspoon per gallon.

Peat Pot Strips—tiny peat pots connected in fives—are wonderful for cutting transplants. Jim wants the planting medium to be very airy so that the roots still get plenty of oxygen so he mixes 2/3 perlite with 1/3 coconut fiber (de-salted from The Netherlands). He wants a very hardy root system on the cutting before he puts it in soil. The cuttings in the peat pots go back in the cutting tray with the greenhouse lid over them. He buys taller lids to accommodate the plants as they grow taller. They can stay in the tiny pots for several weeks.

When they are ready to be moved on, introduce them gradually to the natural air. In the top of one tray, Jim has cut two holes (about 2" in diameter), to allow the new plants to adjust to less humidity. Gradually elevating the lid will get them used to the normal humidity, too.

When transplanting them to a larger pot, cut the peat pots and peel them away from the roots. Roots are supposed to grow through the peat, but that is extra stress that could be better spent in growing! Check general garden stores, hydroponics supply stores, garden catalogs and gardening websites for materials mentioned in this article.