propagating avocado, green onion, and basil in water

Gardening or having a thriving collection of houseplants can be a very rewarding hobby. A wide assortment of plants with various colors, textures, and shapes can be beautiful and calming. Some can even provide food for your family. But purchasing all of those plants can get expensive. In addition, the plants you purchase come with an environmental impact. Many come in disposable plastic pots that are difficult to recycle and are treated with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. They may travel hundreds or thousands of miles from nurseries to local garden centers.

One of the best ways to save money and reduce the environmental impact of your green thumb is by propagating plants instead of buying them from nurseries and garden centers. You can reuse pots instead of buying new ones, and use organic methods instead of relying on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

What Is Plant Propagation?

Propagating plants entails reproducing a plant from various approaches, including planting seeds, cutting, grafting, dividing, and layering. Some plants are easier to propagate than others, and some methods work better with certain plants.

dividing a hosta plant
Spring is a good time of year to divide and move perennial plants like hostas.

5 Ways To Propagate Plants

There are numerous ways to cultivate new plants from a parent plant. If you have a plant that you want to reproduce for the first time, it’s helpful to research the best approach. Let’s explore some of the most common methods for propagating plants.

Planting Seeds

Growing plants from seeds is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to start plants, and there are several different ways to get seeds. You can either buy seeds, save your own, or get saved seeds from others. Saving seeds has many benefits, including seed security, because many seed companies have discontinued certain varieties of plants.

For outdoor gardens, select seed varieties for plants that adapt well to your local area. For some types of seeds, it works well to sow them directly into your garden beds. This also eliminates the need to use pots and potting soil, plus it saves time.

Some of the plants that tend to do well with direct sowing include leafy greens, carrots, beets, beans, cucumbers, radishes, peas, and many annual flowers. However, starting seeds indoors can give plants a head start before the weather has warmed up. So, it is a good idea to start growing seedlings indoors for some cold-intolerant plants like tomatoes and basil, especially in colder climates. To reduce waste and environmental impact, reuse pots and use peat-free potting soil. Remember to water seeds regularly with a gentle mist.

Plant Cuttings

Reproducing plants from cuttings is one of the most common propagation methods because it presents the lowest level of risk to the parent plant and is often very easy. It involves cutting a piece off of a plant to create an independent one.

Many houseplants are very easy to start from stem cuttings, including pothos, philodendron, wandering Jew, and spider plants, but it is also possible to propagate many herbs, shrubs, and trees. For example, mint, sage, basil, chamomile, lemon balm, azaleas, crepe myrtle, gardenias, hydrangeas, roses, jasmine, and honeysuckle are easy plants to propagate from cuttings.

To create a cutting of a plant, use a sharp blade to avoid injury to the parent plant. Make cuts just below a node, which is the area where the leaf joins the stem because roots grow more easily from this part of a plant. Typically, the cutting is between 4 and 8 inches long and from a healthy area of the plant.

Remove flowers and flower buds from the cutting to help the plant conserve energy for root formation. Then, use soil or water as a rooting medium, and water the plant regularly. Some plants need a moist environment when using soil as a rooting medium, so it’s helpful to put the plant in a plastic bag to ensure a high humidity level.

To propagate plants that are difficult or to speed up the rooting process, many gardeners use a synthetic rooting hormone on the base of the cutting and soil as a rooting medium. However, many rooting hormone powders are synthetic and contain a fungicide. Unfortunately, synthetic rooting hormone powder can be harmful if inhaled, and fungicides have been linked to bee decline. Fortunately, there are natural rooting aids available.

Root Cutting

It is also possible to propagate some herbaceous perennials that produce new shoots from their roots by root cuttings. For outdoor plants, this is usually done in the late fall or early winter, when the plant is dormant and the plant is a couple of years old. Follow these directions on how to cut the roots, and avoid taking more than one-third of the roots from the parent plant.

Plant Division

This is one of the very easiest forms of plant propagation and involves cutting off a portion of plants’ roots. Many plants grow in clumps, and it’s possible just to dig up and cut off a segment to create an independent plant. Spring is a good time of year to divide and move perennial plants, including bee balm, black-eye Susan, hostas, day lily, and coneflower.

Tip Layering

This approach works well with some shrubs, climbers, raspberries, and blackberries and takes advantage of how some plants have natural layering tendencies to form new plants. It entails getting roots to form while the plant is still attached to the mother plant. Simply bend a branch and bury part of it so it is coming into contact with the soil by digging a small hole. Once the start has formed roots, you can snip the connection to the parent plant.

Sharing Plants Through Propagation

These plant propagation methods are effective and sustainable ways to save money on your garden and houseplants. They also make it easy to exchange plants with others to increase your – and their – collections. Ask friends and gardening neighbors if they’d like to exchange seeds or plants, or ask your local garden clubs if they host plant or seed swaps.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.