How-To: Propagating Native Plants with Nancy Shaw

Words by
Georgina Reid
Images by
Daniel Shipp
| September 27, 2017

If you’re looking for magic in your life, look no further than vegetative propagation. Take a snip off a shrub, do a few nips and tucks, plant it, water it, and soon you’ll have a carbon copy of the plant you chopped it from. Amazing! Imagine if humans could do such a thing? Actually, it’s probably good we can’t.

Some plants propagate best by seed, others by cuttings. The main benefit of cuttings is that the new plant will be an exact genetic copy of the parent plant, whereas seeds are not always true to form. Propagation via cuttings (vegetative propagation as it’s properly called) is used mostly for shrubs, succulents and trees, and there are different types depending on different plants used. This story focuses on semi-hardwood cuttings, used predominately for native Australian plants.

Nancy Shaw is a propagation wizardess. I visited her home/nursery on Sydney’s northern beaches recently for a propagation lesson. Read on for the low-down on one of the thriftiest and most exciting things you can do in the garden.

Nancy Shaw
Nancy Shaw

What you’ll need
– A plant you’d like to propagate
– A shallow tray or series of small pots to plant cuttings into
– Propagation sand or potting mix
– A stick or pencil
– Sharp secateurs
– Rooting hormone/honey (not essential)

Taking the Cuttings
Find a plant you would like to propagate from. As you’ll be making an exact clone of the plant, you’ll want to make sure the specimen you choose is healthy, strong and disease free.

Cut off some branches of the selected plant. Most of Nancy’s branches were around 30cm long.

“Propagation material is best picked early in the morning,” Nancy says. “When the sun is on the plant it dries it out. You want as much moisture in the cutting as possible.”

TIP: Only propagate during a plant’s growing season. Winter is a no-go for natives. Nancy suggests propagating only in spring, summer and autumn (in Sydney).

Your native propagation tool kit!
Your native propagation tool kit!

Preparing the Propagation Mix
Nancy grows her cuttings in trays of propagation sand. Every propagator does things differently though, and you can use potting mix or compost for propagation – there’s no right or wrong, just personal preference.

Fill the trays with sand/potting mix and wet thoroughly.

Use the end of a paintbrush or stick to make small holes in the mix for the cuttings to be stuck into.

Preparing the Cuttings
Look long and hard at your branch. Test the top, if it’s super soft and floppy chop it off. Make sure the plant material you are using is healthy and fresh – If it’s looking dry and dead at the bottom, also chop it off.

Take the first cutting just below a leaf node (the point where the leaf connects to the stem). The cutting should be around four fingers long. Depending on the quality and length of the branch you may get up to 3-4 cuttings per branch.

Remove around 2/3 of the leaves from the cutting, leaving a couple at the top. You can chop or pinch them off, depending on the plant. You’ll be left with leaf nodes but no leaves.

Cut the leaves at the top in half if they’re large – this seems rather drastic but according to Nancy “if the leaf is big the moisture will leave it through transpiration and the cutting will dry out because there are no roots to take up moisture.”

Your cutting will be looking rather sad at this stage and you’ll be thinking ‘how the hell will this mutilated stick do anything but wither and die?!’ Nip such thoughts in the bud immediately.

A 30cm cutting of your strong and healthy specimen.
A 30cm cutting of your strong and healthy specimen.
Take the first cutting just below a leaf node (the point where the leaf connects to the stem). The cutting should be around four fingers long.
Take the first cutting just below a leaf node (the point where the leaf connects to the stem). The cutting should be around four fingers long.
Remove around 2/3 of the leaves from the cutting, leaving a couple at the top. You can chop or pinch them off, depending on the plant.
Remove around 2/3 of the leaves from the cutting, leaving a couple at the top. You can chop or pinch them off, depending on the plant.
Cut the leaves at the top in half if they’re large.
Cut the leaves at the top in half if they’re large.
You’ll be left with leaf nodes, but very few leaves!
You’ll be left with leaf nodes, but very few leaves!

Planting the cutting
Dip the cutting in root hormone or honey up to the first node. This encourages the plant to develop roots but isn’t essential. Many plants will propagate just fine without it.

If you do use rooting hormone or honey, make sure you decant it into a small container and discard after use to prevent contamination.

Stick the cutting into the pre-made hole and press the mix firmly around the base of the cutting. “This keeps it upright and also pushes out air from around the base of the cutting, stopping it drying out,” Nancy says.

Cutting After-Care
It’s important to keep your newly planted cuttings warm, moist and protected. Nancy suggests placing the tray of cuttings in a clear plastic tub in a warm spot and keeping the lid ajar. Spray them regularly with a mister to ensure they’re always moist, but not soaking wet.

Dip the cutting in root hormone or honey up to the first node.
Dip the cutting in root hormone or honey up to the first node.
Make a hole with the end of a paintbrush or pencil and stick the cutting into it.
Make a hole with the end of a paintbrush or pencil and stick the cutting into it.
...and press the mix firmly around the base of the cutting.
...and press the mix firmly around the base of the cutting.
Make sure you spray your new native babies regularly with a mister to ensure they’re always moist, but not soaking wet.
Make sure you spray your new native babies regularly with a mister to ensure they’re always moist, but not soaking wet.

The Waiting Game
Most cuttings will take around one month to begin to develop roots. Nancy says she tells when they’re ready by gently pulling on the base of the cutting. If it’s firm in the mix, then it’s developed roots. If not, it hasn’t. She also checks at the bottom of the tray to see whether any roots have appeared.

Potting Up
After the plant has rooted, Nancy grabs an old kitchen knife and gently removes each plant from the propagation tray. She plants them into a small pot (around 10cm deep), careful not to damage the root system of the plant in the process.

Keep the little baby plant moist and sheltered until roots have developed. Then move to a position suitable for the plant species to ‘harden it up’ as my mum (also a very good propagator) says. This should reduce the amount of shock the plant will go through when planted in ground.

How about that? Amazing, huh? Propagate and make a garden for free!

Nancy tells me she can propagate up to 1000 plants in just one day! What a woman.
Nancy tells me she can propagate up to 1000 plants in just one day! What a woman.

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