Days of blooming flowers and budding leaves seem far away. As snow piles up, gardeners anticipate the task of mending ice-damaged branches in the spring. But there’s a way to marvel at new growth and experiment with plants during the cold season.
Swanville botanist Carol Yee, 67, hauled a variety of woody ornamentals into the Belfast Garden Club’s January meeting Tuesday to teach club members and visitors about plant propagation — an exciting way to keep gardening year-round.
“Especially this time of year, when it’s nothing but gray or white outside, it’s so good to get together with people and talk about living things,” said Suzanne Tietje of Belfast who attended the workshop. “It’ll feel good to bring some green indoors.”
In 370 B.C., a Greek named Theophrastus was the first to write about plant propagation and explained it as a process done “through a piece torn off,” according to Yee.
At the workshop, Yee pointed to one of her prized rhododendrons and said, “It better be a bigger plant than this, and it better not be mine.”
The goal of propagation is to take a piece of a plant and coax it to form roots, thus creating a new plant. But Yee advises people to make clean cuts, not to tear pieces away.
She pulled garden shears from a leather pouch around her waist and snipped off a few pieces of the rhododendron ‘Kokardia’ and held them up, then trimmed them down so only new growth and a few green leaves remained.
There are four main types of stem cuttings: herbaceous, softwood, semihardwood and hardwood. These terms reflect the growth stage of the stock plant. Some plants will root only at a certain growth stage, and tables are helpful in determining this.
At the workshop, Yee talked mostly about hardwood cuttings because these are taken from dormant plants in the late fall, winter or early spring. Hardwood cuttings are most often taken from deciduous shrubs, but can be used for many evergreens.
Yee first started propagating plants in 1995, when she didn’t have a greenhouse and the humidity her orchids required was slowly peeling the wallpaper off the walls of her living room. That summer, she drove around Rhode Island, taking softwood cuttings from any plant she could get her hands on.
“I figured it was beginner’s luck that they all worked [rooted],” she said. “They worked because they were mostly invasive plants — honeysuckle, bad bittersweet stuff. I was so excited that I planted everything around the yard and pretty soon, I learned what Roundup [weed and grass killer] was.”
That year, she started working at one of the largest nurseries in New England, Prides Corner Farms in Connecticut, where she was in charge of newly propagated plants.
“I’d always had big gardens, but I didn’t know about this world,” said Yee, referring to the world of conifers, azaleas and rhododendrons.
“At Prides Corner, I was always sneaking in my orders and getting the weirdest plants I could find,” said Yee, laughing.
Yee started her own small nursery, Carol’s Collectibles, in 1996 in Ashford, Conn., and specialized in rare and unusual plants. In April 2009, she moved to Swanville with her partner, taking a big chunk of her nursery with her. Her nursery can now be found at 411 Nickerson Road in Swanville.
“Rooted cuttings is a much faster vehicle for upping your numbers, which for someone like me is important,” said Yee. The trick is to keep the cuttings in a moist environment, such as an aquarium, or covered by a clear plastic bag while waiting for them to root in pots of peat.
“I’ve always been into cuttings but have never had success with my own,” said Ellen Darling of Belfast. “These tips will help. Now, I’ll go home and try it.”
Two “weird things” affect plant propagation: Mother Nature — including drought, heavy rain or an early spring — and timing.
According to lists, heather, leucothoe, yew, arborvitae and hemlock cuttings are more likely to root October-December, while for juniper, it’s January.
“I take a lot of leeway with periods,” Yee said. “They work or they don’t. You get a surprise.”
Rhododendrons are one of Yee’s major interests. Rhododendrons are a genus of more than 1,000 species of woody plants, most with vibrant flowers of all colors. She takes hardwood cuttings from some “rhodies” in the wintertime and still has some cuttings to take this month, which is a little too late, according to lists and books.
“Don’t think it’s impossible. Don’t think it’s hard. I want to say it’s a crap-shoot,” said Yee. “What I’ve learned over the years is: who knows? Just give it a try.”
At this time of year at Carol’s Collectibles, Yee has a section of her greenhouse open and orchids for sale. For those who want to stop by, call ahead at 857-225-2848. For information on her nursery, visit www.carolscollectibles.com.
Steps to propagating hardwood cuttings
1. Prepare a place to grow the cuttings that will preserve moisture: You can cover the bottom of an aquarium with sand and place in plant pots or trays filled with peat, and then place a glass lid over the top. Or you can use a plastic bag or cut the tops off soda bottles and put those over the tops of plant pots filled with peat. Peat is naturally anti-bacterial and is resistant to mold and disease.
2. Look up the plants that can be propagated through hardwood cuttings and what months are best for these plants, or experiment. For an extensive list of plants and the times to take cuttings, Yee suggests Alan Toogood’s book “Plant Propagation Made Easy.”
3. Once you’ve found the plants you want cuttings from, wait until morning on a cold day to take the cuttings when the plant is stiffest. Use a shear and cleanly cut away a piece of new growth, often about 6 inches long, but it depends on the size of the plant.
4. Remove all but three or four leaves from the cutting (not much is needed to produce enough food for the plant and this prevents overcrowding).
5. Wound both sides of the stem that will be placed into the peat to root.
6. Dip the wounded end in rooting powder, which contains hormones to stimulate root growth, and lightly tap the excess off. Yee suggests Hormex Rooting Powder No. 3 for woody and semiwoody plants.
7. Stick the wounded end of the cutting in peat moss and cover the cutting by placing it in your prepared aquarium or covered plant pot.
8. Place it somewhere in the sun, such as the windowsill, and always keep the cuttings’ growing environment moist.
Belfast Garden Club
The Belfast Garden Club has promoted civic beautification and gardening education since 1929. While the club hasn’t grown in membership recently, they are becoming a more visible group through boosted publicity of their educational programs, open garden days and projects.
“This year, we hired a publicity person,” said club president Daine Allmeyer-Beck. “That may be one reason we are really getting out there.”
They currently have about 60 members, 15 of which do a good portion of the projects, according to Allmeyer-Beck.
The club works on more than a dozen gardens throughout the city of Belfast. They raise funds for this civic beautification with open garden days, from May to September, during which members and local gardeners share tips in more than 20 working gardens. Each year, the gardens are compiled in a brochure with descriptions and dates they will be open to the public.
During the winter, when club members aren’t busy in their gardens, they meet for lectures and workshops. Belfast botanist Anne Mullen, who Allmeyer-Beck calls the “local tree hugger,” gives a short lecture each winter meeting in addition to the guest speaker’s larger lecture.
For information, visit www.belfastgardenclub.org.