Tree planting season: Hardwood cuttings and seeds

Rows of hardwood herb cuttings

The leaves have started to fall, the trees are going dormant, we’ve got a few months where the weeds will grow more slowly than we can dig them up or cut them down, so it must be time for transplanting and propagating trees and woody shrubs. And also for chopping overgrown herbaceous plant clumps into chunks then handing the bits over to any friends and family foolish enough to make positive noises about plants with a merry cry of “thought you might like some of this- it’s very vigorous, just stick it anywhere and it will grow like crazy!”

I think hardwood cuttings are fantastic- they’re so easy to do- you just stick them in the ground any time over the winter then, the next summer, most of them will grow into new little plants. With the added bonus that they don’t take over the garden like some herbaceous plants do. There’s a good guide on taking hardwood cuttings from the RHS here– though I don’t use the hormone rooting powder and find the cuttings usually root just fine anyway.

One thing that seems to be missed from many discussions is that cuttings (or suckers, or layering, or runners, or grafting) are all methods that produce genetically identical plants: The new plants grown by these methods are clones of the parent. This is great if you want a plant identical to the parent- which you probably do if you’re growing fruit and want the same variety (every Gala apple tree is genetically identical to every other Gala apple tree), wish to have just the same rose as the one your granny has or need to know the shape a tree is likely to grow to fit into a specific space. Cloning is decidedly unhelpful if you’re aiming for genetic diversity for climate and disease resilience, though. For diversity, growing from seed is necessary.

Most plants reproduce with some form of seed (or spore, for ferns), which are the result of sexual reproduction, meaning the offspring are different from the parents. Many plants also – often completely without human intervention – reproduce asexually. They naturally use the same methods we use artificially (OK, they don’t spontaneously manage to graft themselves onto chosen rootstocks, but strawberries will send out runners whether you want them to or not, many trees and bushes send up suckers from roots and some can even root when bits are broken off- so that’s cuttings).

Growing apples from pips is a remarkably good way of ending up with a whole load of crab apple trees, though if you’re lucky you might end up with a delicious eater. Which will grow enormous and probably not fruit for a decade or so: Forcing more rapid fruiting and limiting growth is most of the point of fruit tree grafting onto known rootstocks. But growing trees from seed when you don’t mind the variety you end up with (the species will be correct, allowing for some weird cross-pollination results) is a great plan.

Growing other species from seed when you’re not really certain what cross-pollination has happened and you want to eat the thing that grows can be a definite error or work fantastically well. My self-seeded lavender plants are lovely, but The Year of the Courgeumpkin (or Pumpgette, naturally) has gone down in the household history annals. Turns out growing pumpkins near courgettes, saving the seed from the pumpkins then growing them the next year wasn’t a totally good idea- the results were watery and stringy to the point of utter inedibility, though the crazy shaped green and orange fruits did entertain visitors. They made some pretty funny jack-o’-lanterns, too. F1 hybrids are rather clever and will have to be a topic for another post- but we’ll be buying courgette and pumpkin seed in future.

So back to the hardwood cuttings. They’re sticking up in little rows all over one vegetable plot in our garden right now, and pots full are buried to the rim (so they don’t get frosted if it gets really cold) in the greenhouse borders too. Because sometimes having the exact same plant over and over again is a good idea. But the seed grown plants are probably the very best, so there are also pots full of seeds (with labels- experience shows I won’t remember which are which when they come up) and a lingering regret that, having turned them all into jam, I have no blackcurrant seeds to grow. Unless sugar saturated cooked seeds are still viable. Probably not. Next year, maybe.

Here’s wishing everyone a good winter season of dividing, cutting and growing.

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