Its May! Time to Propagate!

Ode to Propagation

Taking cuttings with a snip
Is so easy, then you dip
Pretty soon you’ll have another
One for you and one for your mother!

It’s May! The best month for vegetative propagation! Yes, you can do it in other months, but there are more plant options now. I’ve included a list of plants and their recommended method of vegetative propagation in May. On the list is also indicated if the plant has rhizomes, if it does that is a good indicator that the plant propagates itself and forms clumps, but some do this slowly. If “best” is next to it, that indicates that separating the clumps is more successful than other methods. Let’s review the methods, easiest first.

Layering: This is great for a lot of shrubs. My mom used to bend a branch of anything she wanted to root down to the ground and put a brick or heavy rock on it. At the end of the season, in the fall, she would dig it up with roots intact, cut it off of the main plant and place it in the landscape where she wanted it to develop a stronger root system over the winter. That is still pretty much a great formula. You can also cover the part contacting the ground with some soil if you like.

Cuttings: can be divided into softwood and hardwood. May is the biggest vegetative propagation month because of the abundance of softwood available. This applies not only to shrubs but also to vines and herbaceous perennials. Softwood is the new growing stem. Hardwood, as its name suggests, has already become rigid. The method for taking the cuttings is the same.

1. Take cuttings with 4-6 leaves or leaf nodes. The cut should be done with a clean, sharp knife at an angle. You want as much surface area as possible, but you do not want to crush the stem, crushed cells rot. Take more cuttings than plants you want because some will not survive. If you wind up with too many plants, you can be a generous friend!

2. Remove all but the top two leaves. The tricky part about cuttings is the leaf surface that you allow to remain. It is a double-edged sword. On one side the leaf photosynthesizes to produce food so the cutting can grow roots, on the other side water is lost through evaporation from the leaf, and until the cutting has rooted the only surface area it has from which to take up water is that cut edge on the bottom. To hedge your bet, you can take many cuttings and vairy the amount of leaf surface you allow to remain. For large-leaved plants like hydrangea, cut the leaf to 1/3.

3. Dip the cut end of the stem in a rooting hormone and shake off the excess.

4. Then place it in your rooting medium. It is better if you dampen the medium first rather than watering later. Watering later can wash the rooting medium off. Push the stem all the way down in the medium until almost the leaves. This allows the stem to root at each node. Everyone has their favorite medium they like. Plain old garden soil can work, but I like a seed-starting mix to which I’ve added a good bit of sand. I like this because when I transplant them later there seems to be less damage to the roots when I take them from the pot.

5. Label and date it because you will not remember how long it has been since you started them!

6. Place a water-retaining cover, like a plastic soda bottle, over the cuttings and put the cuttings in the shade. (Full sun will cook them.)

7. Periodically check the soil for moisture, it should stay moist, but not soggy. It can take more than a month for your cuttings to root.

8. After a month, IF you have new growth of leaves you can transplant, but don’t be in a hurry; these are babies, give them time.

Division: The table mentions “root division”. This is different from plant division, and I have honestly never attempted root division. There has always been an alternative with which I am more familiar.

Plant Division: All the rhizomatous plants can be divided. For the herbaceous plants, this is usually a good time simply because you can see them! Dig up the whole plant and divide so that root, stem, and leaves go with each division doing the least amount of harm to the root system as possible. Use a sharp, clean knife. Replant immediately and water in. Expect a little dieback around the edges. For shrubs, I would wait until the fall so that the root system has the winter to reestablish in its new location.

Go Forth and Propagate!

Green stems typically do not have a lot of surface area to absorb water.
A mini soda bottle green house to retain moisture.

Violets and Bees, if You Please!

Violets! I know. You didn’t buy them. They didn’t cost you anything to get them; in fact, you may have spent money to try to get rid of them. We are a consumer society; we value what we pay for. I’m surprised that anyone values beautiful sunsets or a moon-lit night anymore, or do they?
I saw my first violet today, it struggled up between the sidewalk and a rock that borders the garden in front of our home. Why is it so amazing? Because it provides both pollen and nectar to the early emerging bees. Oh, and I just saw my first opened ground-dwelling bee nest.

Spring is here as far as many trees are concerned! Today I heard my first pollen count on the morning weather report! We are already in the medium to high range! Yes, it still gets cold at night so I will not be putting out any plants that are susceptible to a late freeze, but I’ve seen early cherry trees blooming and my ground-dwelling bees are waking up. What do you have to feed them????

The pollen today is alder and juniper (from Alders are wind-pollinated, but bees are happy to take the pollen anyway, but there is no nectar for them. Junipers are dioecious, only the male trees will have pollen and again, there is no nectar because junipers are also wind-pollinated. With a high pollen count, the bees will be fine, right? Wrong! Bees need nectar for energy. Pollen provides protein and other nutrients. Most pollen is used by bees as larvae food. To keep the buzz going they need nectar.

Here is a list of high nectar, early spring plants:
Bellwort (Uvularia) Perennial
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra) Perennial
Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans) Perennial
Violets (Viola) Perennial
Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum) Perennial
Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) Perennial
Current and Gooseberry (Ribes) Shrub
Ash (Zanthoxylum) Tree
Black cherry (Prunus serotina) Tree
Wild Plumb (Prunus americana) Tree
Willow (Salix) Tree

Of the above plants, the only ones that provide both pollen and nectar are violets, black cherry, and wild plum, but with violets, you don’t have to wait years to start feeding the bees and having beauty in your garden.

Obviously, the volume that trees can provide will by far overshadow anything we can put into our gardens; I encourage you to plant trees for the years to come and improve your environment.

Meanwhile, that lovely little plant that some people consider a weed has everything bees need. When queen bumble bees come out of the ground, they need energy food! The same is true for all emerging bees. Violets are right down there with them, they are not hard to find, unless, of course, they frighten some poor human who runs in terror to get a shovel to dig it up, or worse, an herbicide to kill it contaminating the other plants and soil. Did I mention that violets tend to be herbicide-resistant? Stop spraying!

If that is not enough, violets are also a host to the Great Spangled Fritillary. So, if you find violets where you don’t want them, count your lucky stars that you have free pollinator plants and move them to your garden. You can even put them in your veggie garden as they are deer resistant and the leaves are high in vitamins A and C and can be used in salads or cooked as greens. The flowers can be made into candies and jellies. Violets are wonderful groundcovers that can take full sun and our clay soil but prefer part shade and loamy soil. They are spread by seed and rhizomes. Their seeds have elaiosomes which ants love to eat and carry off the seed for a great meal, they then discard the seed, usually underground. This is why you see violets pop up in unusual places. Violets are also great in rock gardens.

Our cultural mentality is, “If it didn’t cost me anything, then it isn’t worth anything.” That is the mentality that has been destroying the environment and the truth is that these “free” things like good water quality, clean air, native plants and animals like insects, birds, etc. are invaluable to our existence because they are part of the environment that keeps the production of our food going. Change your value system and see the violet for the gift that it is.

For further reading see this article at Penn State Extension:

Pioneer Species: Part 2 – Green Mulch Conquers Weeds

Pioneer species are the first plants to establish in an area after a disturbance. The disturbance may be a fire, a flood, a tree uprooting the soil as it falls, a tractor tilling the ground, or a gardener pulling weeds out by the roots. These things expose the seed bank already in the earth to sunlight they need to germinate. Part one of this series gave you some diagnostic characteristics in helping you identify the pioneer species of wildflowers in your gardens that you want to perpetuate beyond their natural life cycle. In Part 2, we will examine how to avoid the seeds in the seed bank that most folks do not want in their garden – weeds!

Most weeds are fast-growing annuals; you combat them by crowding them out (low tolerance for crowding is a trait of pioneer species) by having vigorous, healthy plants in your garden. This is where green mulch comes in. Look at plant spacing in your garden. If you leave space between plants for future growth, something will grow there voluntarily, most likely something you don’t want. Now I know most of us know to mulch our gardens, but we have used brown mulch in the past and we still had to weed. Then there was the annual expense of refreshing the mulch. With green mulch, you plant it once, get more flowers, fewer weeds, and vertical layering.

Green mulch is any low-growing plant that can spread, either by self-seeding, rhizomes, or stolons, filling the spaces between the primary plants of the garden; green mulch functions as the “matrix” in the landscape plan. As the primary plants grow more prominent, the matrix plants are shaded out, but their temporary presents provide many valuable services to the garden.

Green mulch covers the ground preventing light from getting to the soil, thus preventing weed seed germination. It also helps cool the earth and reduce evaporation, conserving moisture and helping break up the ground with its roots thereby increasing water infiltration while also helping to prevent erosion. Some natives that work well you may think of as weeds. This is the age of natives; let go of old ideas.

You will find native groundcovers on the internet or at native nurseries. Plants you can buy either bare root or in plugs are: Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata), Creeping Phlox (Phlox stoloniferous), an early nectar plant, and Wild Strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) a butterfly host plant. In two years, two bare-root packs of wild strawberries solidly covered an eighty-square-foot slope for me. If you are fortunate enough to have natives volunteer in your yard, then consider yourself lucky! These might be common blue violet (Viola sororia), a butterfly host; Carolina Ponyfoot (Dichondra carolina), a cultivar is sold in hanging baskets; Dwarf Cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis) a butterfly host plant; and Creeping Lespedeza (Lespedeza repens), a legume that nitrifies the soil.

Not sold on the idea, but willing to give it a try? During early spring find a spot under shrubs that don’t have a ground-hugging layer of plants or a bed that has yet to fill in and begin there. As your plants proliferate, you’ll be able to take cuttings to move to other areas.

Now I’m sure what caught your eye in the description of the disturbance is “tilling the ground, or a gardener pulling weeds.” You probably do one or both, so what are your options? If you grow veggies, you have probably heard of no-till gardening. I’ve never tried it; I don’t have a place for veggies except for my front lawn, hum? There are several references on the internet. Rather than take the advice of a random article, I recommend the Extension office at the University of New Hampshire. Yes, they are in the northeast, but the information still applies. Low and No-Till Gardening | Extension (

Don’t grow veggies? You have flower beds, and it is very satisfying pulling weeds out by their roots. You feel like you’ve at least eliminated that one. Well, you did, but you also brought up more weed seeds in the process. The recommended weeding process is to cut the weed at the soil line removing the photosynthetic part, which starves the roots. The root rots, providing organic nutrients for the soil.

Suppose the weed is something like a dandelion that may resprout from the root, cut it again before it disseminates seed. Dandelions have deep taproots; trying to pull out the whole root is sure to disturb the soil, and it may resprout from any part you leave behind. It is better to starve it by continuously removing the leaves, depleting its energy, and not allowing it to reproduce. The hardest part of this is the self-restraint it takes NOT to PULL!

Read more at Gardening Know How: What Is Living Mulch: How to Use Living Mulch As A Ground Cover

The UGA Extension service has an excellent publication on weeds, but it is currently being revised: Weeds of Southern Turfgrasses, Special Bulletin 31. I don’t know when the revised edition will come out. Meanwhile, if you need help identifying your weeds, you can look to Virginia Tech’s Start – Weed Identification (

Winter Sowing

Winter sowing is the “natural” alternative to scarification and stratification. If you have seeds that call for either or both, winter sowing is a great alternative, particularly if you do not have the space or money to have a rack of plant grow lights set up in your home or a temperature and moisture-controlled greenhouse.

When we scarify seed coats, we mimic the natural weakening of the seed coat that happens out in nature due to the freeze-thaw cycle of winter. Stratification mimics the chill days of winter. So, why not let the real winter do the work?

If you are working with native seeds from the southeast, they already have built into their DNA the naturally cool, warm, cold, freezing, warm fluctuations of the southeast winter weather. Do not worry that they will sprout; then a freeze will kill them. These are NOT non-native tropical plants fooled by Mother Nature; natives have her number! Their ancestors have survived hundreds if not thousands of winters here. They will sprout according to their timetable, not yours.

By putting your seeds in containers outside, you protect them from flooding rain and critters, and you don’t have to slowly harden off seedlings from the temperature of your home to the outside.

You can start any time after the plant drops seed; after all, the seeds would be there in nature, but now is a good time. Look at the species requirements to see how long the stratification period should be. If they are already in your refrigerator, you can still put them outside in a container.

There are several good guides on the internet. My two favorites are Six More Weeks of Winter!? Celebrate by Winter Sowing Your Seeds! – Dave’s Garden( and Winter Sowing | A Simple Way to Start Seeds Outdoors | joe gardener®(

One side note: Labels – markers fade outside from UV light. Use a dark paint pen, or if you only have a marker, mark the bottom of the container that is not exposed to the sun.