How to sow seeds and raise cuttings

The great thing about gardening is that it can be as easy or hard as you want it to be. Take a trip to your garden centre or nursery, pick up some wonderful plants in flower and you can have instant colour in your beds and containers. But others like to get a little more involved in raising and nurturing plants and enjoy the thrill of watching tiny seeds evolve into beautiful border plants or being able to bulk up their existing plants by taking cuttings. This page has just the information you’ll need to start growing your own plants – either by sowing seeds or raising cuttings – which also have the added benefit of saving you money!

Seed sowing

  • On the packet: The plant’s requirements will be shown on the seed packet and should be followed closely.
  • Trays and pots: Seed can be sown into a seed tray, or in the case of small amounts of seed, into small pots.
  • Large seed care: Sow large seeds such as sweet peas and runner beans individually into single pots.
  • Labelling: Label all sowings.
  • Sowing the seeds: Place a good quality pre-moistened seed sowing compost into the tray or pot. Place the seed on the compost surface and push gently into the compost or cover with a little more seed sowing compost and firm it lightly. Make sure the seed is evenly distributed across the compost surface.
  • Protect from the sun: Shade seed and new seedlings from strong sunlight.
  • Watering: Water little and often, using a watering can with a long spout to slow down water flow and a fine rose to prevent damage and ensure even distribution of water.
  • Growing on: Once the seedlings are large enough to handle, replant them, to give more space, into trays or pots and continue to protect.
  • How to handle: Handle by the leaves only and not the stems.
  • Garden time: Do not plant in their final growing position in the garden until all fear of spring frost has passed.

Sowing seeds in the garden

  • Soil preparation: Good soil preparation is important and the soil should be dug to a depth of at least 25cm. This can be done in autumn or winter or just before sowing in spring. Water well.
  • Weed watch: It is never possible to eliminate weeds during preparation and new weeds will grow alongside the seedlings. Sow a 15cm long row of seed to help identify the plant seedlings so that any weeds can be carefully removed.
  • Little and large: Small seed can be evenly scattered over the surface and then lightly raked in. Larger seed can be sown in shallow trenches 0.5–1cm deep with seed evenly spaced and covered by gently raking the soil over them. Label for identification later.
  • Some space: With both methods, some spacing out of the seedlings may be required to give each plant room to develop fully.

Sowing seeds under protection

  • Propagate: The use of a propagator – either heated or unheated – to help control the growing environment will be of value in raising any plants from seed, but some seeds cannot be grown without additional heat, so the range of possible plants can be extended.
  • In need of protection: Tender plants, in particular half-hardy annuals used for summer display, require some protection in the form of a windowsill, greenhouse, garden frame, conservatory or propagator.
  • Secret to success: The more protection a seed is given, the greater the success rate and the greater the range of plants it is possible to grow

Growing from cuttings

Cuttings fall into three main groups, but whichever method you use it is essential that cuttings are taken from healthy plants:

  • Hardwood
  • Softwood
  • Semi-ripe

Hardwood cuttings

  • Woody shrubs: Taking hardwood cuttings is one of the easiest ways to produce new plants of salix (willow), deutzia and many other woody shrubs, and only needs secateurs.
  • Survival of the strongest: From autumn to early spring, select shoots produced the previous spring and summer. Only select strong growth and remove near its base or point of origin.
  • Cut below the bud: These shoots – about the thickness of a pencil and 23-25cm long – should be cut square below a bud to form a base, at an angle of 35 degrees.

Rooting

  • Rooting hormone: Treat the bottom 3cm of each cutting with rooting hormone.
  • In the trench: Insert the prepared cuttings into a 12-15cm trench made in well dug garden soil with a 5cm layer of sharp sand for drainage.
  • Provide shelter: Alternatively plant three or four cuttings in a pot of multi-purpose or cutting compost and place in a cold frame or sheltered part of the garden. The following autumn the rooted cuttings can be carefully planted out in their final growing positions.

Softwood cuttings

  • When to take: These are taken in early to late spring to grow many semi-tender plants such as pelargoniums and fuchsias, herbaceous plants and some alpines. Young growth on shrubs such as rosmarinus (rosemary), artemisia (wormwood) and lavandula (lavender) may also respond well.
  • Feel for firmness: In spring, remove shoots from the parent plant once they are firm enough to handle and not too soft to lose their rigidity.
  • Prepare the cutting: Using a sharp knife or secateurs, prepare the cutting by making a cut at an angle of 35 degrees at the base of the chosen shoot.
  • Where to cut: Cuttings should be 5-10cm long according to plant variety. If the leaves are alternate on the shoot, make the upper cut four leaf joints above the first cut. If the leaves are opposite, make the cut above the second pair of leaves. In both cases make cuts from the buds in the leaf joint.
  • Remove leaves: Gently remove the lower leaves. If the remaining leaves are more than 3cm long, halve them with a knife, to cut down moisture loss during the pre-rooting period.

Rooting

  • Rooting hormone: Dip the bottom 3cm of the prepared cutting into water. Shake off the surplus then roll the bottom 2.5cm in rooting hormone. Insert cuttings into seed trays or pots containing sharp sand.
  • Propagate and heat: Place the tray or pot into a propagator – preferably one with a heating control.
  • In the shade: Close all vents and shade the cover with a newspaper. After 7-10 days, open the vents and remove the shading.
  • New shoots: Once the cuttings make new shoots at the leaf joints, this is a good indication that rooting has taken place. Remove the tray or pot from the propagator.
  • Tall enough: When new growth on the rooted cuttings reaches more than 3cm long, pot them into individual pots of general potting compost.
  • Into position: In four to six weeks they should be large enough to plant in their final growing positions, provided all risk of frost has passed.
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