How to Propagate Plants From Cuttings

Growing New Plants from Softwood, Semi-Hardwood, and Hardwood Cuttings

September 16, 2021
Making New Plants

Many of our favorite tender or semi-hardy garden plants won’t survive winter outdoors. To enjoy them next year, take cuttings of your plants to make new plants—for free! Plant propagation is really rewarding. Here’s how to take herbaceous, softwood, semi-hardwood, and hardwood cuttings from your garden plants—and when to do it!

One of my favorite aspects of gardening is plant propagation. Whether it’s from seed or from a cutting, I love seeing a new plant emerge and grow. Taking stem cuttings is an easy way to propagate your favorite garden plants in order to grow them again next year, fill in empty garden space, or share them with friends.

Types of Stem Cuttings

The first thing to know is that not all cuttings are not created equal. Depending on the type of plant and time of year, there are different types of cuttings that should be taken! Here are the main types of stem cuttings to know and the timing for each:

  • Herbaceous stem cuttings can be taken at any time during the growing season (spring to late fall) from soft, non-woody growth on annuals and perennials. This includes most garden flowers and foliage plants that produce non-woody stems (e.g., coleus, chrysanthemums, mint, etc.), as well as houseplants.

The growth of woody plants such as trees and shrubs changes as the growing season progresses, maturing from softwood to hardwood.

  • Softwood stem cuttings are taken in the spring and early summer—between April and July—from the tender new growth on woody shrubs, trees, and vines. These cuttings tend to grow new roots the fastest.
  • Semi-hardwood (or “semi-ripe”) stem cuttings are taken from late-summer to early fall from this year’s growth. While the base of these cuttings is woody and firm, the growth at the top should still be soft. In autumn, hormone levels are high, so plants should root and grow well.
    • Semi-hardwood cuttings can be taken from woody evergeens such as arborvitae, boxwood, holly, rhododendron, and yew, as well as other woody shrubs, like rose, lilac, hydrangea, and forsythia. Herbs such as lavender, bay, rosemary, sage, and thyme also grow well from semi-hardwood cuttings.
  • Hardwood stem cuttings are taken in late fall, winter, or early spring while the plants are fully dormant. Hardwood cuttings are taken from mature growth produced in the last season or the season before. These cuttings are slower to grow roots, but can still be grown successfully with a bit of patience!
    • Hardwood cuttings can be taken from most deciduous shrubs  such as forsythia, rose, viburnum, deutzia, Rose of Sharon, and weigela. 

    The new growth on this lilac shows the ripening wood at the base and soft wood at the top.
    The new growth on this lilac shows the ripening wood at the base and soft wood at the top. Perfect for taking a semi-hardwood cutting from!

    Plants to Propagate from Cuttings

    Even with a greenhouse, we don’t have enough room for all the plants we want to save and it’s even more difficult if you are trying to fit them all on a sunny windowsill. Instead of lugging in large containers and digging up entire plants, you can easily take herbaceous, softwood, or semi-hardwood cuttings of your favorites and start new plants. 

    Tender container plants such as coleus and iresine are at their peak in mid-summer, but when the weather turns colder, they will be lost unless you bring them inside. One way to ensure that they last through winter is to take a few cuttings and keep them indoors until spring.

    Lilac, rose, and wiegela cuttings ready for root powder.
    Semi-hardwood cuttings of lilac, rose, and weigela ready for rooting powder.

    Almost any garden plant that produces stems can be be propagated via stem cuttings. Perennial flowers, vines, shrubs, and even trees are all great candidates!

    Iresine is a good candidate for propagation.
    Iresine is a great candidate for propagation.

    Many herbaceous cuttings root so easily that they will even root in a glass of water. This includes coleus, African violet, some ivies, iresine, mints, and impatiens. (If you try this, keep the water clean and put the glass out of direct sunlight. Once roots form, transfer to soil.)

    Coleus are extremely easy to propagate, rooting readily from their stems.
    Coleus are extremely easy to propagate, rooting readily from their stems.

    Supplies Needed for Taking Cuttings

    Before you start taking cuttings, take time to gather all the materials you’ll need. If you are organized, you’ll be able to prepare a lot of cuttings in a short time. You’ll need:

    • clean plastic pots or boxes
    • a bag of sterile potting soil and perlite or vermiculite
    • powdered rooting hormone (optional, but recommended)
    • a sharp knife, clippers, or razor blade
    • rubbing alcohol to sterilize your cutting tool

    As a rooting medium, you can use a mix of potting soil (soilless mixes are best) and perlite or vermiculite to make it drain faster. I have had success using straight vermiculite as well.

    rosemary-1347087_1920_full_width.jpg
    Rosemary can be propagated via softwood cuttings (new growth), hardwood cuttings (old growth), or semi-hardwood cuttings (a mix of old and new growth).

    Taking Stem Cuttings

    Taking cuttings is easy, but the methods used for propagating softwood, semi-hardwood, and hardwood cuttings differ slightly. The techniques are listed below, but first, here are a few general tips to keep in mind:

    • Cuttings taken from the base of a plant will typically root faster than those taken from the top. 
    • Thin cuttings root better than thick ones.
    • Plants grown in shade root more quickly than those grown in full sun.

    How to Take Herbaceous and Softwood Cuttings (Spring to Early Summer)

    Herbaceous cuttings can be taken throughout the growing season (spring to late fall), while softwood cuttings should be taken in spring or early summer. Cuttings can be taken as long as the parent plant is healthy and in active growth. This method can be used on tender and hardy perennials such as verbena, mint, and petunias, as well as shrubs such as hydrangeas and fuchsia. 

    1. Fill your containers with a potting mix and water so that the mix is moistened.
    2. Look for new, vigorous side shoots or tip growth and prune off a 3- to 4-inch piece just below a leaf node.
    3. Remove the lower leaves and any flowers or buds, moisten the stem in water and dip it into a little pile of rooting hormone (not directly into the jar because you could contaminate the whole container).
    4. Make a hole in the soil with a pencil, stick your cutting into the hole, firm the soil around it, and gently water it.
    5. Take more cuttings. Twelve plants fit nicely in a rectangular box. Always take more cuttings than you need because some are likely to fail.
    6. Be sure to include a label with any pertinent info on it!

    How to Take Semi-Hardwood Cuttings (Mid-Summer to Early Fall)

    Take semi-hardwood cuttings from mid-summer to early fall. A healthy semi-hardwood cutting includes a bit of both old and new growth. This technique works well on broadleaf evergreens such as holly, boxwood, and rhododendrons; deciduous shrubs such as lilac; woody herbs such as lavender, rosemary, and thyme; and even some conifers.

    1. Fill your containers with a potting mix and water so that the mix is moistened.
    2. Take a cutting that is 4 to 6 inches in length.
    3. Remove the bottom-most leaves and the growing tip. If the remaining leaves are large, cut them in half horizontally to reduce the amount of moisture loss.
    4. Dip the base of the cutting into a rooting hormone and stick it into a container of potting mix.
    5. Place the container in a plastic bag and blow in some air to puff it up before tying it shut. Put the pot in a bright spot out of direct sunlight so you don’t cook the cuttings. Open the bag weekly to add fresh air and to check the plants for mold or new growth.
    6. It can take 4-5 weeks or up to 6 months for roots to form, so don’t get discouraged. The firmer the wood, the longer it takes to root.

    Another type of semi-hardwood cutting is called a “heel cutting.” Heel cuttings are pulled off the plant rather than cut (see photo, below). They will have a piece of old bark from the original stem still attached, which often aids in rooting.

    Heel cutting is made by pulling the stem away from the branch rather than cutting it off.
    A heel cutting is made by pulling the stem away from the branch rather than cutting it off.

    How to Take Hardwood Cuttings (Late Fall to Winter)

    Take hardwood cuttings in late fall or winter, when plants are dormant. These cuttings can also be taken in early spring before new growth appears. Generally, this method works great for deciduous shrubs such as forsythia, dogwood, viburnum, willow, mock orange, yew, and privet.

    1. Fill your containers with a potting mix and water so that the mix is moistened.
    2. Find a healthy-looking hardwood stem or branch that you can take a 6- to 8-inch cutting from.
      • Make the cut just below a bud (aka, a leaf node).
      • Trim off any softwood growth from the top of the cutting, making an angled cut right above a bud. Having an angled cut at the top of a cutting helps to prevent rot and also allows you to identify which end should be facing up!
    3. Dip the base in rooting hormone. Stick the cutting in a container of potting soil, leaving only the top 2 to 4 inches exposed.
      • If you are making a lot of cuttings, stick them 4 to 6 inches apart in a nursery bed outside and cover with floating row cover.
      • If using pots, put them in a protected but unheated place (like a cold frame or shed) where they get some light.
    4. Keep the soil on the dry side during the winter and start to water more as the temperatures warm up. Move the pot outside to a shady spot after the last frost of spring. You should see some new growth by mid-spring.

    Cuttings in their new home. Hopefully they will root!
    Cuttings in their new home. Hopefully they will root!

    Where to Keep Cuttings

    Many people use a sunny windowsill as their temporary nursery, but if you wish to create lots of pots with cuttings, here’s any easy way to create a mini-greenhouse … 

    1. Place the box or pot of cuttings in a large plastic bag, blow in it to inflate it, and seal the end. Big zip-lock bags work great.
    2. Place this in a warm spot out of direct sun: 65 to 75°F is optimum. Bottom heat helps cuttings root faster, but is not necessary.
    3. Open the bag every few days to check for mold or wilted cuttings and to add fresh air. This helps to prevent mildew from forming in this humid atmosphere.
    4. After a week or two, if the plants look lively, you can peel back the bag and move them into indirect light. Check for rooting by giving them a gentle tug. If they resist being pulled out, roots have begun to form.
    5. Soon you’ll be able to move your new plants into their own pots filled with fresh potting soil. After a few weeks you can fertilize them and move them to their new indoor locations!

    When spring comes around and the threat of frost has passed, plant your rooted cuttings outdoors as you would a young plant. Keep an eye on them for a few weeks, watching that they get enough water and don’t get burnt up by the sun or bitten by frost. 

    Looking for information on a specific plant? Check out our Growing Guide library to see care info for flowers, shrubs, vegetables, and more!

    About This Blog

    Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.

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