How magical: Stick a piece of wood in the ground and next year it becomes a plant.
That stick is a hardwood cutting, an easy way to multiply some favorite trees, vines and shrubs. They’re called “hardwood” because the pieces are mature and woody rather than young and succulent.
Not every woody plant will take root and start to grow from hardwood cuttings. Expect close to a 100% “take” with plants such as grape, currant, gooseberry, privet, spiraea and honeysuckle. But don’t even try this method to make apple, maple or oak trees.
Because they lack leaves, hardwood cuttings are less perishable than “softwood cuttings,” whose leaves can dry out rooting stems before roots form.
To start, try hardwood cuttings of willow, which I’ve seen take root from branches left out on the ground through the winter. Most other plants demand more finesse.
Take the cuttings
If you’d like to multiply a favorite plant by hardwood cuttings, start now. Look at the plant, and select shoots that grew this past season — the youngest shoots. Those most likely to root have moderate vigor; they’re not too fat or too thin for the particular species.
Cut the shoots into lengths of a half-foot or so — the upper cuts just above a swollen node where a leaf was attached, the lower cuts just below a swollen node. Remember which end was up (farthest from the root). Professionals cut the bottoms off squarely and the tops at an angle so the ends are not mixed up during planting.
After that, slide the bottom of each cutting into well-drained soil so that only the top node shows. If you plant cuttings in fall, mulch them to prevent freezing and thawing of the ground from heaving them up out of the soil. If you plant the cuttings in a nursery bed, the rooted plants should be ready to move to their permanent homes by next fall.
Planting and storing
You could stick the cuttings in the ground in spring. But I prefer fall because the cuttings have a chance to make roots before the tops start growing in spring. New shoots can’t grow until after they’ve experienced winter cold.
Spring-planted cuttings are often so eager to begin growth that new top growth starts before root growth begins. With no roots to sustain them, the shoots flop over and die.
To plant in the spring, the cuttings need to be kept cool and moist through the winter. Bundle the cuttings together and bury them upside-down in the soil.
A refrigerator works, too: Seal the cuttings in a plastic bag, wrap the bag in a wet paper towel, and then seal it in another plastic bag. Either way, plant the cuttings as early as possible in spring, as soon as winter’s excess moisture has drained from the ground.