Confessions of a Plant Thief

By Kim Haworth

I have a guilty secret. I am a plant thief. It must be genetic, because my granny was a plant thief too. Dearie, as she was known, would enter one jar of jelly in the local county fair just so she could get into the fairgrounds the day after the fair closed. That's when exhibitors are allowed in to pick up their entries. Dearie would move in early and pick up prize-winning fuchsias, begonias, and other picture-perfect plants that had been entered by the local garden club competitors. She would nab the goods before their rightful owners could claim them. She looked so sweet that nobody ever questioned her as she passed through the gate with her carload of booty.

Safer Thievery

I'm not as bad as Dearie, but I do help myself to seeds if they're ripe and ready. More often, though I take cuttings if I see a plant that appeals to me. I just nip off a 6-inch piece of stem. Usually the tip of a branch or stem will do, but if the plant is blooming, I have to cut in a bit deeper.

Cuttings are an excellent way to propagate most perennial plants, including coreopsis, achillea, begonia, dianthus, heliotrope, lavender, nepeta, and penstemon. I have been especially successful with stolen parts of Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii), chrysanthemum, various philodendrons, and coleus.

A Recent Theft

Just last week I was tempted by a Santolina rosmarinifolia with bright yellow flowers that looked like little pincushions. The plant was growing in a container at a local high school. This nice compact specimen was blooming its heart out. It would make a perfect addition to my garden and I had to have it!

So, with a sharp pocketknife that I always have on hand, I cut several stems, including flowers, from various locations on the plant. If you take all of your cuttings from the same area, you will leave a hole in the foliage. If you take cuttings from different parts of the plant, nobody will ever know you have been there.

Rooting the Cuttings

Once I have my guilty secret home, I remove the flowers and cut the stems into 4- to 6-inch pieces. I make a clean cut at the bottom of the stem and then remove all but two or three leaves at the tip end of the cutting. I dip the cut end into a rooting hormone such as Rootone. I place the prepared cutting into a 2- to 4-inch plastic nursery container filled with damp sand or fresh potting soil. If I use sand, I place a piece of plastic window screen over the drainage holes so the sand doesn't run out of the holes when I water. I poke a hole in the potting medium with a chopstick or pencil and insert the cutting.

I place the containers inside a clear plastic bag and use a pencil or chopstick to keep the plastic away from the cutting, and then secure the opening of the bag with a twist tie or rubber band. Humidity is a plus when propagating from cuttings, so if I place the cuttings inside the plastic bag, I don't have to mist them several times a day or water as often. I place the bag in filtered light-in bright sun, the bag of cuttings would cook. I always feel the soil before I water; it should feel dry to the touch. Since the plant has no roots yet, overwatering will only rot the stem.

Once roots have formed, the little plant will begin to grow and form new leaves. At this point, I remove the plastic bag and set the young plants in a protected location with filtered sun. I begin a mild fertilizer program using liquid fish emulsion applied at half strength every two weeks. I transplant the young plants into a larger pot when I see roots coming out of the drainage holes.

Once hardened off plants go into the garden and soon my garden becomes a place of beauty with a little help from unsuspecting friends.

Photo by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association.

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