When you’re starting out with a garden, buying enough plants to cover the ground can seem really expensive. Instead, do what the pros do: Cut and plant stems and leaves, divide roots, and use ground layering to grow more of the plants you already have.
Aside from the money and trips to the greenhouse you’ll save, propagating plants that are already successful in your garden — or on your windowsill — just makes sense. You know these plants grow in your particular mixture of sun, shade, and soil, so why not give them a few other spots to do the same?
All three of these techniques are simple and effective — when used on the right plant. Before you start clipping stems and digging up roots, Google propagation methods for the plant you’re working with to see which technique will work best.
Stem or leaf cuttings
One of the simplest ways to propagate plants is by encouraging a piece of stem or leaf to sprout roots. Many common houseplants, including philodendrons, Christmas cactuses, and African violets, are easily propagated from stem cuttings. Just strip away any leaves from the bottom of the stem, pop it in water, and wait for roots to appear. Succulents are even easier — all you need is one fallen leaf. Let it dry out, put it on top of some potting soil, and mist with water occasionally. A whole new plant will grow right out of the old leaf.
The same techniques work on outdoor plants and even trees, but they need a little more attention. In their detailed guide to growing plants from cuttings, This Old House recommends using a rooting medium like perlite to help the process along. They also emphasise the importance of timing, especially for flowering shrubs like geraniums and forsythia. Make sure you take cuttings at the right time in the growing season. If you’re not sure when that is, your local university extension program can help.
If you have a plant that’s growing out of control, root division might be your best bet. With this method, you simply split up an existing root network into smaller bundles, then re-plant each bundle as an individual plant. It’s especially great for plants that take a long time to grow from seed because you’re not starting over from scratch.
You can find a detailed explanation to root division in the same This Old House propagation guide, but the basic idea is pretty simple. You want to dig up as much of a plant’s root system as possible while keeping it intact. Then, you carefully split the root bundle into smaller pieces. This technique works on everything from indoor snake plants to established peony bushes, but the finer points will vary depending on the plant — make sure you check a plant-specific guide before getting started.
This technique might be the simplest of the three, but it’s a little harder to explain in words. Let Christine Stecker, Master Gardener Program Coordinator for North Carolina State’s Alamance County extension service, show you how it’s done:
Basically, you take a low-lying branch, rough up a spot on the base with a knife, bend it down to the ground, bury it with moist soil, and wait. Over time, the spot you roughed up will put down roots of its own, expanding the size of your shrub with barely any effort on your part.
This article was originally published in 2010 and updated on May 5, 2021 to include updated links and more complete information, and to align with current Lifehacker style.