While saving seeds is a great practice and every budding grower should be starting a personal seed bank, certain plants and trees are better propagated via cuttings. This is particularly the case with many fruit trees because they won’t produce the same quality of fruit as their parent plant.
While it can be a good idea to produce a variety of species and encourage the sowing of wild oats, so to speak, most of the time we want to know the apple trees we are planting are going to supply a tasty treat. Cuttings, but not seeds, provide us with a replication of the apples we got from the parent tree, so in this case especially, it makes sense to use them.
It has become the custom for people to go to a nursery to get young sapling fruit trees, but that can be very costly while propagating from cuttings is inexpensive, exciting, and entirely doable. Plus, if we learn to multiply our own supply, we have the ability to share (or sell) trees, as well as reproduce our favorite trees for larger harvests.
More or less, there are two options for rooting fruit trees from cuttings: softwood and semi-hardwood. The basic technique is the same in that the cuttings should be removed with a very sharp, clean knife from a branch of the tree, and they should be at least 15 centimeters long but no longer than 30.
Any leaves should be removed from the bottom half of the cutting, and any fruit or buds should be taken off as well. The cut end of the cutting should then be dipped in rooting hormone and put in a moist rooting medium (info below). The medium should be kept damp, and the rooting cuttings should be kept at around 21 degrees Celsius.
- Softwood cuttings are generally taken in the spring when new branches are green and no blossoms have appeared. These are generally flexible but will snap when bent enough. They also have the tendency to dry out very quickly, so they should be transferred in moist paper towels until planted. Roots should begin to form at about a month.
- Semi-hardwood cuttings can be harvested in early summer, when the new growth is beginning to harden, the green being overtaken by bark. These should still be a little pliable, and they also dry out quickly. For semi-hardwood cuttings, roots might not take hold until about six weeks has passed.
- Hardwood cuttings are possible, but they can take up to six months to root, and they are the least likely to take. They likely will require a greenhouse and automated misting system. Why bother? But, just for the knowledge, these cuttings should be taken while the tree is dormant from the ends of higher branches, where the growth is new.
Once the cuttings have roots that reach about three centimeters, they can be placed in individual planting pots with sterilized potting soil. They should be planted at the same depth at which they were rooted, and they should be grown protected from weather extremes for at least a year.
Rooting Hormones and Rooting Medium
There are many options for natural rooting hormones. Human spit is said to work. Diluted organic apple cider vinegar (consider about a shallow teaspoon for every liter of water) has lots of trace elements helpful to plant growth and with protecting from bacterial issues. Cinnamon is also good at protecting the cuttings from fungal and bacterial problems, and it’s often used in conjunction with willow water, which encourages root growth.
As for rooting mediums, these should be light and absorbent, likely not involving soil at all. We want young, new roots to have enough water and plenty of open loose pathways to move through. An easy recipe would be equal parts coarse sand, perlite and/or vermiculite, and Sphagnum peat moss or coconut coir, depending on what’s more sustainably available.
Air Layering (Courtesy of Velacreations)
Root without Cuttings
Another option is to root new trees without cuttings. Instead of removing a portion of branch, this method leaves the “cutting” on the tree. This is called “air layering”. Air layering is particularly good for trees that are proving difficult to root.
This accomplished in the spring by selecting a section of branch just below a leaf nodule and roughly the diameter of a writing pen. Using a very sharp knife, shallowly slice the branch just half a centimeter below the leaf nodule and then again three centimeters below that. The goal is to remove just a strip of bark without cutting into the wood.
Rooting hormone—the same as above—should be applied to the stripped portion of branch. Then, the prepared area should be encased in either moist Sphagnum moss or coconut coir, and that should be wrapped in plastic, fastened in place with tape, twine, or cut rubber bands. The area should be kept moist through the growing season. Some people like to then cover this in foil to prevent the sunlight from causing issues.
Once the roots have formed, the branch can be cut beneath them, and the rooted cutting transferred to a pot.
- An important consideration when using this method is whether or not the host tree was grafted. Some say grafted trees aren’t good candidates for this because rooted cutting won’t have the same qualities as the root stock. However, one would have to debate that normal cuttings would have the same issue, wouldn’t they?
Grafting is a really common method, especially in larger commercial outfits, for creating new fruit trees that are true to their name. These often begin with plants that are grown from seed or to take advantage of the rootstock of more stable and vigorous native varieties. A scion of the desired plant is fused with the host plant, providing developed roots, and a new tree is grown.
Grafting is not the same as growing from cuttings. With cuttings, the roots will form from the actual piece of wood we take from a mother plant. Using cuttings is also much faster as there are no seeds to propagate.