Save Those Broken Stems!

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Oh no, you broke a stem… but maybe you can turn it into a new plant!

Unless you’re a much more delicate with your planting habits than I am, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up accidentally breaking off a branch or two when you’re planting your flowerbed, vegetable garden or flowerbox. There isn’t much to do other than remove the broken branch… but is tossing it in the compost pile really the only solution?

I’d like to encourage you to experiment. If given half a chance, many broken branches will take root and produce a new plant, sometimes so quickly it will be just as attractive and productive as the original one in just a few weeks. You can root begonias, fuchsias, petunias… and the list goes on and on. Even branches from shrubs will take root if treated properly.

To give you just one example, more than once I’ve accidentally broken off the top of a tomato plant I was planting out (those stems are quite fragile!) and not only did the original plant soon produce new branches, but the top rooted as well. And both produced an ample crop of tomatoes before the season was over!

Of course, while you’re planting, you rarely have time to deal with broken branches immediately, so just plunge the cut end into a bucket or glass of water in the meantime. They can stay there for several days if necessary. Cuttings rooted in water rarely give good results in the long run, though (read the text Rooting Cuttings in Water: Not Such a Good Idea to learn why). You’ll get much better results rooting them in a growing medium.

Rooting a Broken Stem

When you do have a few minutes, fill a pot with potting mix, vermiculite or some other growing medium (but not garden soil) and moisten well.

If there are flowers or flower buds on the broken stem, remove them. For the moment, you’ll want your cutting to “concentrate on growing roots” rather than flowering.

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Remove the lower leaves: you’ll want to free up at least 2 nodes.

Prepare the cutting by removing any leaves at the lower end of the stem: anything that will be covered in soil when you pot up the cutting. Also recut the lower end of the cutting with pruning shears if it’s a bit frayed. You’ll want a clean cut: it’s more likely to heal without rotting. (Some gardeners will insist you must recut the stem at a 45˚ angle, but cutting it at 90˚ will work just as well.)

If the stem is woody or semi-woody (shrub, pelargonium, etc.), apply a rooting hormone (available in any garden center) with a Q-tip. For softwood cuttings, no hormone is usually necessary.

Make a hole in the mix with a pencil and insert the cutting. Normally, at least two nodes (swellings on the stem) should be covered with growing mix. Gently tamp the soil around the stem so it is held solidly in place.

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Most cuttings root best under high humidity.

Cover your container with a clear plastic bag or a plastic dome to ensure high humidity: something most plants need in order to root well. Place this mini-greenhouse where it will receive good light not direct sun. You can root cuttings indoors or out, although if you’re taking a cutting very early in the season, when nights are still cold, an indoor location is better.

When Roots Form

In a few days or a few weeks (the actual time varies enormously, depending on the species and on growing conditions), you’ll start to see new leaves begin to form on your cutting. This is a sign it has rooted. From this point on, you can gradually acclimate it to normal garden conditions and plant it out in an appropriate spot.

Or…

The leaves may dry up or fall off. If they aren’t replaced by new leaves, that means the cutting didn’t take. Don’t be too disappoinated: it was only an experiment after all.

Taking cuttings is always a gamble… but you’ll be surprised how often it works!

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