Mastering Indoor Plant Propagation
Propagation is a budget-gardener’s greatest skill.
Common plants may be inexpensive, but propagated plants are free – nothing can beat that. Once you begin collecting plants that are scarce or rare, you will appreciate having the skill even more. Mastering indoor plant propagation will save you money and give you a new gardening skill.
Propagation is also an ideal practice for the curious next-generation gardener. The best way to learn about how plants work is to get up close and experiment, and propagation provides that opportunity. It’s like a plant bootcamp for indoor gardeners. As you examine their roots, watch how they grow, and adjust to their conditions, you will learn more about your indoor friends than you ever could in your regular care routine. There are some basics to remember before you get started, and some specifics in the types of propagation and their methods, but once you get the hang of each one, you can apply one of them to (almost) any plant you buy.
Make more for yourself, make more for your friends, and become the resident master propagator in your community. The Basics Before you start, you’ll need to choose which plant you want to propagate. This may sound simple, but there are some plants beginner gardeners will find difficult or even impossible to propagate. Most common houseplants can be easily propagated, but if you’re unsure of where to start, try one from this list first.
Easy houseplants to propagate:
- Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)
- Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
- Most succulents
- ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)
- Heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron scandens)
- African violets
Indoor plant propagation can be achieved with most houseplants, but that does not guarantee your propagation will be successful. Effective indoor plant propagation is a skill, and like any skill, it comes with practise. There are also other factors, like the health of the mother plant, that can influence the success of propagation. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work out the first time. There are two common mediums for houseplant propagation – soil (or potting soil) and water.
Water is more popular, probably because it doubles as a fun science experiment and trendy piece of décor. But don’t overlook soil either – it requires fewer steps than water propagation. Once the plant is established, it simply continues growing in the pot until it is ready to be transplanted. When using water propagation methods, you will need to add clean water every few days – a maintenance step that soil propagation does not require. However, with soil propagation, you don’t get the benefit of watching the roots grow. Both methods have their pros and cons – which you choose will come down to your own preference.
Once your indoor plant propagation technique has succeeded, you may be tempted to give yourself a pat on the back and call it a day. But the process of growing a cutting from day one to maturity is more involved than the initial propagation steps. New plants require more care (and more specialised care) than established plants. Mature plants can typically take care of themselves, but new plants need a bit of help to get going. If you begin the propagation process, make sure you are prepared to provide a bit more care over the next few weeks or months to ensure the plant keeps growing.
For most propagation methods, basic garden products (potting soil and a pot) are all you need, and for water propagation you’ll need even less. There are products and equipment available to aid propagation – like specialised containers or rooting hormone – but these are not essential to success. Before you start, ensure all the equipment (pots, scissors, jars) has been thoroughly cleaned to avoid any dirt or bacteria interfering with the vulnerable plant’s growth. Equipment at the ready, choose your technique from the methods below and get propagating.
The most popular propagation method is stem cutting. Most tropical houseplants, especially the trailing ones like pothos or philodendrons, are multi-stemmed and can easily be propagated this way. Start by making a cut close to the tip of a stem, cutting below a node (the point where the leaf grows). Remove the lower leaves and place the stem in water, or gently press it into a pot filled with potting soil. Leave the cutting in a high-light, high-moisture area to facilitate faster growth. Once the roots begin to form, transplant into a pot with houseplant soil mix. Cuttings that stay in water for too long will struggle to adjust to growth in a pot, so don’t leave them for too long. For cuttings in a pot, water thoroughly and keep the soil moist. After a few weeks (depending on the plant growth rate), pull gently on the stem. If there is some resistance, it is ready to be transplanted.
Propagation by leaf cutting is a similar process. Many indoor plants can be propagated by stem cutting, but leaf cutting is particularly popular for succulents, sansevierias, begonias and peperomias. Remove a leaf from the main plant and leave it on a piece of newspaper for a few hours or days to allow the cut to ‘scar over’ (this protects the leaf from rotting). Depending on the size of the leaf, you may want to cut it horizontally into several sections to get more cuttings (sansevierias are good for this). Place the leaf in a pot of potting soil with the direction of the root growth facing down into the soil (don’t forget to make a note of which side is ‘up’ if you cut the leaves into sections). You don’t need to push the leaf in too far as the soil is there for root support. The more leaf you place above the soil, the more light it can absorb, resulting in faster growth. Some plants (like succulents) don’t even need to be placed into the soil; they can simply be laid on top and the roots will find their way down. Keep the pot in a warm environment and watch for root growth. The same principle of stem cuttings applies here – once it is rooted in the soil, it can be transplanted.
Unruly houseplants that have outgrown their pots can be propagated by division. This is one of the simplest methods as the roots of the plant are already established and just need to be separated. Plants can be propagated by division when there are multiple separate plants visible. They may have connected roots but each stem has its own root ball so it can grow successfully in its own pot. Remove the plant from the pot, shake off some of the soil and gently pry the roots apart with your hands. If the roots are tough, you can cut them with a sharp knife, but be gentle and try your best not to damage surrounding roots in the process. Once the plants are separated, plant them into different pots, and you’ve doubled your stock.
Offsets or plantlets
Some plants make your job even easier, almost begging to be propagated, by producing offsets or plantlets. Offsets (also called pups) are visible at the base of some plants and appear as tiny versions of the established plant. Offsets get their nutrients from the main plant – they can’t be removed too early or they will not be able to grow on their own. After a couple of months of growth on the main plant, the pups can be removed with a sharp knife and planted into a new pot like any other plant. Other plants will produce plantlets along their stems (spider plants are the most common example). These plants do all the work for you by producing small plants with their own root centres. Simply remove these plantlets and transplant into a new pot with the root ball in the soil. Within a few weeks, the plant should be growing strong, along with the original plants.
Indoor plant propagation from seed is rare, but not impossible. Seeds are formed after flowering, and as few indoor plant varieties flower indoors, seeds are rare, but a few plants (like strelitzias) can be propagated from seed. This method requires care and patience, and it will take longer for plants to grow from seed compared to the other methods. Keep that in mind before you start. Sprinkle smaller seeds on a layer of moist potting soil, and fully bury large seeds. Press the soil down lightly with your hands and spray gently with water. Cover the tray or pot in a plastic bag to keep it moist and place in a warm area. Keep the soil moist by misting every day and transplant when a second set of leaves is visible.