bookcase2Winter is a time for research, and not just of the deeper contents of one’s drinks cabinet. Are there techniques that you’ve been wanting to know a little bit more about? Perhaps you want to familiarize yourself with some of the great garden essayists, or prepare yourself to visit a few of the big name gardens this year.

Carpe diem. Winter will be gone before we know it, and spades will replace reading glasses as the gardener’s tool of choice. Even now I am getting daily emails for spring events, tours, workshops, and lectures that both excite and terrify me. As much as my heart sinks during the ritual of the Early Morning Thermometer Reading, it is lifted in knowing that I am completely absolved from putting on my grubbies and spending a good chunk of the day out there.

This winter I have been delving into an old favorite from Lewis Hill – his 1985 Secrets of Plant Propagation – and making a renewed effort to up my game in the hardwood cuttings department. This new enthusiasm stems from a dive into yet another book: Christopher Lloyd’s The Adventurous Gardener (1983), where Lloyd discusses the necessity of using rooting hormone (most cuttings have a certain amount inherently present). Historically against the stuff, he is forced to reconsider when a tip off from a colleague induces him to exchange his 25 year-old bottle for fresher compound. The resulting difference in rooting is significant.

“Ah ha!” thought I. My bottle is 15 years old, and the first fivhormodine years of use could hardly be counted since I was striking cuttings like coleus and wax plant that didn’t need any encouragement. In recent years I too have wondered if the stuff is worth the extra effort. This was the push I needed to replenish stocks.

Rooting hormone comes in three strengths – much like porridge, beds and chairs. The lowest strength can be found in aspirin sized bottles in nurseries and retail chains – the purchase of which instantly makes us feel as if we’ve taken a monumental step forward in our craft. In reality, and as I mentioned above, many herbaceous cuttings will root in damp vermiculite on their own, or rot trying. Meanwhile, the professional propagators who are rooting semi-soft or hardwood cuttings are using something a little stronger out of the medicine cabinet.

The problem is, they are also using a lot of it, so such compounds are only available in much larger quantities (AM Leonard, Hortus, Amazon in a pinch). Which of course means that if you visit my garden next year, you should not be surprised to see 15,000 evergreen and deciduous hollies lined up in pots outside the barn.

I do so hate waste.

As for choosing between powder or water soluble tablets – powder makes the most sense for the home gardener modestly pottering away when and if the mood strikes him. This year the mood struck me full across the face when my teenage son and his friends with hobbit-sized feet staged an air-soft battle on our property and took hardwood cuttings for me – in the roughest possible manner. They are at this time still alive, but only just. The cuttings are fine too.


A pocket full of cuttings after the night of the long [trampling] feet.

So for now, a motley assortment of boxwood, holly and various succulents are sitting like interrogation suspects under lights in the basement – the box under a humidity tent and the succulents wondering why they ever left California. And, thanks to Hill and Lloyd, my fingers are itching to try something a little harder next summer when new growth starts to harden – abelia perhaps, or chamaecyparis.


It’s all an experiment, but one that is facilitated by a bit of deep study in the deep winter.