What is a softwood cutting? To help you understand the propagation of softwood cuttings and hardwood cuttings let’s use a Burning Bush as an example.
If you watch closely as a Burning Bush develop buds in the early spring, you will see how these little tiny buds quickly develop into new growth shoots, 6" to 8" in length.
These new shoots develop very quickly, once the plant begins to grow in the spring. This new growth is very soft and pliable. As the growing season progresses, this new growth becomes harder and more rigid. By fall this new growth has hardened off to the point that it is almost brittle.
The only difference between a softwood cutting and a hardwood cutting is the time of year you take the cutting. Both are of the current seasons growth. It is always recommended that the cuttings you use are of the current years growth. If you go too deep into a plant to take your cuttings, you are likely to get into wood that is more than one year old. Using this older wood is almost certain to hamper your results.
Propagation of softwood cuttings is usually done at the end of May or the beginning of June depending on the climate you are in. Trying to do softwood cuttings prior to that is a waste of time because the wood is too soft and will wilt down very quickly. The ideal time to take softwood cuttings is just as the wood begins to harden off.
Here in northeastern Ohio, June 1st is usually our target date. Plants in this area are usually a little behind the plants in southern Ohio. We are sitting right on the southern shore of Lake Erie.
When that huge body of water freezes over for the winter, it is slow to thaw and warm up. Therefore, the temperature here stays a little cooler in the spring. Of course it works just the opposite in the fall and the lake is usually responsible for sparing us from the first few frosts.
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Softwood cuttings of many deciduous plants root very quickly and easily under the right conditions. Controlling the conditions is critical. Softwood cuttings are very delicate and can dehydrate very easily, especially under the summer sun. However, with the warm temperatures of June, and the tenderness of softwood cuttings, root development will occur very quickly, if you can keep the cuttings from dehydrating.
The absolute best way to root softwood cuttings is by sticking them in a bed of very course sand and watering them very lightly for just a few seconds, every five or ten minutes, for a period of two to six weeks. Of course this is impossible, unless you have an automatic watering system known as an intermittent mist system.
I go into much greater detail about intermittent mist propagation in my book, Free Landscape Plants! I am bringing it up here so you will know exactly what intermittent mist does, and how it works.
Knowing what it does gives you an idea of what conditions you must try and create in order to achieve success with softwood cuttings at home, without expensive equipment. I teach you easy ways to propagate thousands of cuttings at one time with my Backyard Growing System.
Preparing a softwood cutting is easy. Just clip a cutting about 4" in length from the parent plant. Take only tip cuttings. In other words, just take one cutting from each branch, the top four inches of each branch. This is the newest growth. Strip the leaves off the lower two thirds of the cutting, leaving just a stem and a few leaves at the top.
When propagating softwood cuttings, wounding the cutting slightly can help the rooting process. You can wound the cutting by scraping the side of the stem lightly from the bottom of the cutting up 1/2".
It is always beneficial to treat your cuttings with a liquid or a powder rooting compound just prior to sticking them. Rooting compounds are available at most garden centers and do help to stimulate root development. It really doesn't matter whether you use a liquid or a powder. There are different strengths available in the powder formulas. Hardwood cuttings require a stronger formula than softwood cuttings.
Most liquid rooting compounds are sold in concentrate form and must be diluted with water. I like the liquid because all you have to do is adjust the amount of water you add depending on whether you are propagating softwood or hardwood cuttings. There are instructions on the package.
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The best growing medium for softwood cuttings is a very coarse grade of sand. You do not want to stick the cuttings in soil. The sand you use must be course. When you water the sand, the water should run right through. The sand should have very little moisture retention ability. The stems of softwood cuttings rot very easily.
Preparing an area to stick your cuttings is quite simple. For softwood cuttings all you need is a wooden or plastic flat, or a small raised bed. I recommend using flats for softwood cuttings, so you can start them in the shade and move them into the sun after a period of 7-10 days.
The flats should be 3-4" deep. Fill them to the top with course sand. Make your cuttings as described earlier, dip them in a rooting compound, and stick them in the flat. It helps to make a hole or a slice in the sand first, so the cutting will slide in easier.
Softwood cuttings are not very rigid. They will break if you try and force them into the sand. Using a putty knife or a masonry trowel you can slice an opening through the sand, or use a large screw driver to make a hole in the sand.
Space your cuttings about 1" apart in the flat. Firm the sand around the cuttings as you stick them, you do not want air pockets around the stems. You can also water thoroughly the first time to make sure all of the voids are filled.
It is said that the ideal time to take softwood cuttings is early in the morning. However, that is not always convenient for me, so I have taken them at all hours of the day. I have never been able to determine whether or not morning, noon, or night yielded the best results.
Softwood cuttings wilt very quickly. Take just a few cuttings at a time and get them stuck in the sand and watered as quickly as possible. When you first take the cuttings, keep them in the shade for a period of 7-10 days. This gives them a chance to harden off before you put them in the sun. Plants need at least partial sun in order to develop roots.
Water them lightly, as often as you can, especially the first few days. Proper watering is critical. The ideal situation is to apply a very light spray of water for just a few seconds, allow that water to evaporate off almost completely, and then water again. Of course this is next to impossible without automatic equipment, but if you can at least water lightly every couple of hours the first day or so, you should realize some degree of success.
One of the readers of my propagation book, Free Landscape Plants!, called and told me he found a neat way to create a moist environment for his softwood cuttings. He said he goes to flea markets and buys old fish aquariums for a buck or two, takes them home and places strips of masking tape over the bottom and sides, leaving one inch of space between each strip.
Then he paints the aquarium with white latex paint. Once the paint dries he peels off the masking tape. The white areas reflect the suns rays, and the clear areas allows some sun into the miniature greenhouse. He then places the aquarium upside down over his flats of softwood cuttings. This keeps his cuttings moist and happy. Innovative, wouldn't you say?
If your first batch of softwood cuttings do poorly, try a new batch as soon as you realize your first batch is failing. Just a few days can make a remarkable difference in the texture of the wood as the new growth matures. Cuttings that wilt down almost immediately one day might do 100% better two days later. As the new growth matures, the wood hardens off, and the cuttings become more durable. Of course the harder wood takes a little longer to establish roots.
Softwood cuttings are delicate and somewhat difficult, but if you can keep them from wilting they will root very quickly. Propagating with hardwood cuttings are much easier, but it takes considerably longer to establish roots on hardwood cuttings. Also, there are some plants that are difficult to root using the hardwood method.
If you are an avid gardener, you might consider setting up an intermittent mist system in your backyard. The amount of space required is very small, but there is an investment in the equipment. Maybe a friend or neighbor is also an avid gardener and would like to go together with you to share the cost of an intermittent mist system.
Intermittent mist makes rooting softwood cuttings like child's play. As a matter of fact, when my youngest son was in the first grade, he took softwood cuttings, stripped the cuttings, dipped them in the rooting compound, and stuck them in the sand. That’s all there is to it, the intermittent mist system does the rest.