In this article, I’m going to use as an example to help folks understand the difference between propagating softwood and hardwood cuttings, a Burning Bush.
If you keep a sharp eye early in the spring on the bud development on a Burning Bush, you will observe that the small buds will grow into six to eight-inch long shoots of new growth rather quickly. You’ll notice that this new growth is very bendable and pliant. As this new growth grows older, the shoots will become less pliable and more rigid. By autumn, this new growth will have hardened to a point where can almost be characterized as being brittle.
So really, the only true difference between a softwood and a hardwood cutting is based on the time of year the cuttings are taken. Both are of the current seasons growth. You should always take cuttings from the current years plant growth. If you delve too deeply into your plant to take your cuttings, you are likely to get into growth that is over a year old. Using older wood for cuttings rarely gives appreciable results.
Propagating softwood cuttings is usually performed in late May or early June, depending on your climate zone. Trying to take softwood cuttings prior to that point is generally a waste of time because the branches suitable for cutting are too soft and will perform poorly. Just as the wood begins to harden off is the best time to take most softwood cuttings.
Many deciduous plants can provide softwood cuttings that are easy to root and do so very quickly in ideal climatic conditions. Controlling these environmental conditions is critical. Softwood cuttings are very susceptible to unfavorable conditions, and can completely dry out very easily, especially on hot and sunny summer days. The upside, however, is that the warm temperatures of June will encourage rapid root development as long as we can keep the cuttings from drying out and frying in the sun.
The most ideal way for a home grower to root softwood cuttings is to just stick the cuttings in a raised bed of very coarse sand while gently misting them for a few seconds six to 12 times per hour. And you only need to do this for two to six weeks. Of course, this is a very difficult task to accomplish consistently unless you have access to a professional cloning system or an intermittent misting system.
You can find professional cloning systems at virtually any hydroponic garden shop. Knowing what they do will give you a better idea of the conditions you must try to replicate for the greatest level of success rooting softwood cuttings at home, without expensive equipment.
The preparation involved with taking a softwood cutting is pretty straightforward. Using a sharp knife, snips, or scissors, just take a cutting about 4 inches in length from the mother plant. It is important that you take only tip cuttings, one from the newest four inches of growth at the tip of each branch. Pull any leaves off the lower portion of the cutting about 2/3rds of its length, leaving just a stem and two to four leaves at and near the top, depending on their size.
When propagating softwood cuttings, slightly wounding the cut area can help expedite the rooting process. You can accomplish this by lightly scraping the side of the stem, from the cut end up the stem about 1/2 inch.
Using a cloning gel or a rooting powder just prior to sticking them in your rooting media will greatly increase the rooting success rate. These rooting compounds are available at most garden centers and all hydroponic shops and will help stimulate root development. There is little difference whether you use a gel, liquid, or powder. There are different strengths available, and hardwood cuttings will require a stronger formulation than softwood cuttings.
Liquid rooting compounds are often sold in concentrate form and must be diluted with water prior to use. Concentrated liquids have an advantage because you can mix for use with soft or hardwood cuttings using the same product. Always read the instructions completely on the package. If you can’t find them locally, you can buy a wide variety of rooting compounds online at any fine hydroponic shop and the most reputable garden centers.
For larger outdoor cutting beds, the best rooting medium to use is a very coarse grade of sand. You absolutely do not want to use regular garden soil. The grade of the sand you use must be course. Since softwood cutting stems rot very easily, as the sand bed is watered, the water should be able to drain right through with very little moisture retention.
There are other media that are widely used for propagating cuttings as well, should coarse sand not be available. These include vermiculite, perlite, Oasis foam, rockwool, coco rice, and others.
Preparing the area to stick and root your softwood cuttings is simpler than you might think. All you really need is a plastic nursery flat, a wooden box resembling a flat, or a small raised bed. Flats are best for softwood cuttings for portability, that way you can start the cuttings in the shade, moving them into more direct sunlight after a week to 10 days.
The nursery flats should be 3-4 inches deep. Simply fill them to the rim with your course sand. Take your cuttings as described, dip them into your rooting agent, and then stick them in the sand. Some growers will make a hole or a line in the sand first to enable an easier, more precise stick. Since softwood cuttings aren’t very sturdy, they can break if you try and push them into the sand too forcefully. By utilizing a putty knife or trowel, you can slice a crevice through the sand, or use a larger screwdriver to punch a hole in the sand. Space your cuttings fairly close to each other, only about 1 inch apart. To prevent unwanted air pockets around the stems, gently firm up the sand around the cuttings as you stick them. Then water completely and thoroughly to eliminate any remaining air pockets.
Left unattended, softwood cuttings can dry out and wilt very quickly. It’s best to take just a few cuttings at a time, stick them in the sand and get them watered as soon as possible. After you first stick the cuttings, you’ll have better luck if you can keep them in a shady area for a week to 10 days. This gives them a chance to get adjusted somewhat before you put them in direct sunlight. Most plants need at least 3 to 4 hours of direct sun each day in order to develop new roots.
Gently water them as often as you can, especially during the first few days. Consistent watering is critical to your success. If you can’t automate watering using an intermittent misting or cloning system, hand water the cuttings lightly, using a watering can rose or a fine water breaker every couple of hours for the first day or so.
If the first batch of cuttings you stick do poorly, fear not… start a new round as soon as you realize your initial batch is in trouble. A few days’ difference can make a better wood texture for cuttings as the new growth matures. A batch of cuttings that wilt almost immediately after planting might experience a 100% success rate just two days later. As the new growth matures, even by days, the wood begins to harden off, and cuttings become more durable. The only difference is that the harder wood might take a bit longer to develop roots.
Depending on the variety you’re working with, softwood cuttings can be delicate and therefore somewhat difficult to successfully root. Consistent attention to keep them from wilting will generally result in very quick root development. In many cases, propagating new plants using hardwood cuttings can be much easier. The primary difference is that it can take considerably longer to generate new roots with hardwood cuttings. However, some plants can be more difficult to root using hardwood cutting methods.
If you are an avid plant grower, you should consider investing in a professional cloning system or setting up an intermittent mist system in your backyard. You really don’t need a large space, but you will have to invest in the equipment. If you’re serious about selling your cuttings though, the investment can quickly pay for itself.
Consider asking a gardening friend or neighbor to share the cost of an intermittent mist system. Using an intermittent mist system makes rooting most softwood cuttings virtually effortlessly. As a matter of fact, taking a softwood cutting, stripping the stem, dipping them in a rooting compound, and sticking them in the sand is so easy a child can do it. And many do. An intermittent misting system will take care of the rest.