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GARDEN MAIDEN: Cold-weather months the perfect time to practice propagating

I know it’s been cold for many weeks. But somehow, no matter how significant the dip in daytime temperature, it is only upon waking up to a veil of snow that I accept an end to gardening outdoors. And even now, I poke along the sunny beds wondering if I can still bury a fall bulb or 10 before the deep freeze sets in.

While I may get a dig or two in over Thanksgiving break, I’m more interested in giving thanks for mother plants whose easy cuttings become next spring's early blooms.

Propagating new plants indoors is an excellent way to dilute the sullen course of nature dying off for winter.

Mint: This low-maintenance herb is good for mentholating just about any dish all winter long.

Steeped as tea, brightening up warm crème brulee or stuffed in a tall clear glass of mojitos, all varieties of mint offer a distinct touch of fresh-grown flavor. Hybrids including chocolate, apple, ginger and pineapple make infusion recipes simple for warm jellies, hot teas or zesty garnishes.

Scolded as an invasive species in the garden, its rhizomatic regeneration produces underground stretches that pop upright and produce sprigs that quickly grow for relay cuttings on a single plant for continuous harvest. Both indoors and outside, mint prefers a shallow pot with plenty of surface space. Regular cutting encourages root mass and offers plenty of stems to allow one-third of the pot to be cut at a time on a rotating basis. Plant one 3-inch windowsill pot per weekly cutting of two to three stems. Unlike thyme and rosemary, mint appreciates regular watering and a bit of fertilizer immediately after a cutting. A cutting can be delayed 10 to 14 days as the roots restore for indoor growth.

Chrysanthemums. So many times, I hear tale after tale of how mums are hit or miss when purchased for fall decorations on the porch and then put into the ground and expected to take root.

If you’re not sure whether you have a hardy variety or not, try making several plants over the winter to transplant next spring instead. Most mum varieties will root from stem cuttings by taking your potted mum and literally pulling apart each stem and potting it up individually.

Unlike simple water rooting, mums prefer a two-step cuttings process. I’ve found tip cuttings dusted with rooting hormone in moistened perlite to be the best success for setting roots. Some varieties root in a week, but don’t give up too soon! Sometimes it takes up to a month for hardy chrysanthemums to put on roots.

Once roots are an inch and a half long, pot up to a 3-inch container of potting soil, or plant directly to the garden if soil is warm enough to continue growth outdoors. As the plant grows, pinching off the top half-inch of growth every three weeks for three rounds helps to shape your mum into a solid bushy stance by fall.

Additionally, pinch off the first set of buds around Father’s Day if you want your mum to bloom for fall color in September. It should be noted that the best "mother" plant is a healthy spring or summer mum rather than waiting until late fall decorations are spent and withering, a sign that the plant is already in dormancy.

Coleus. While I don’t often spend time on plants that are inedible, the vivid contrast and no-fuss care of coleus has me adding a plant to most containers, especially where the containers are nonblooming herbs such as thyme or rosemary. The upright — and sometimes, with certain varieties such as meandering Linda, sprawling behavior — gives containers a push of color when the constant cutting of spindling herbs might otherwise compromise the pot’s curb appeal. For a time-saver come spring, start coleus in tap water by allowing tip cuttings to set root in a vase of tap water on a warm windowsill out of direct sunlight.

Sage, rosemary and thyme. And oregano, too. All simple herbs to root from basal cuttings. Be sure the container of water has plenty of aeration. Take any underwater leaves off the stem you are rooting and prune blooms or select new growth that has not yet bloomed.

I especially like to multiply tri-colored sage from cuttings where I can get a head start of nearly 2 feet of height by June when transplanting out to the yard in early May. Bulking up thyme by rooting late fall cuttings over the winter allows me to take plenty of cuttings for aromatherapy early in the growing season.

One of the earliest herbs to tint the springscape green, dense planting of English thyme only makes a beautiful ground cover where it is not trampled on. For more hardy variety as a living carpet, select creeping thyme and transplant from plugs or larger pots knowing it will take a season or two of moderate traffic before filling in and establishing a rootbed capable of tolerating foot traffic in a cottage garden setting.

General tips for propagating plants from cuttings:

• Start with a healthy plant. Propagating from cuttings is not meant to raise the dead. Cuttings need a set of established, disease-free plant DNA to produce more roots and, ultimately, another plant.

• When slicing up cuttings, cut below the leaf node, that knobby spot where new leaves grow. Typically, you have pinched these leaves off and left about as many nodes on the tip or stem as you have below water line to root.

• Where will new roots appear? Paying attention to whether a cutting is taken from new tip growth or the stem defines success for water and soil rooting. I’ve had most varieties of begonia do well from both tip and stem cuttings, whereas poinsettias prefer stem cuttings. Coleus generally refuses to root if you stick the whole stem in water, but root rather quickly from tip cuttings, sometimes just a day or two. The same is true for Christmas cactus and African violets.

• For the more advanced propagator, whole leaf cuttings or leaf vein cuttings also produce new plants. In my experience, this method is best attempted with careful watch where cuttings get regular water and consistently warm temperatures. Mother-in-law tongue, plectranthus (Swedish ivy) and kalanchoe are a few I enjoy bulking up and expanding during winter months in the greenhouse.

• If you don’t see new roots, your plant may be losing too much moisture. If leaves shrivel up, direct sunlight or arid environment may sabotage your propagation effort. Misting leaves and keeping the container out of direct sunlight may be enough to let the leaves take up water until it can make new roots to take over the job. In certain cases, a loose, clear cover to contain moisture for leaf water intake while still allowing proper light intake prompts root development, too.

• Beyond tips, leaves and stems, some plants such as rex begonia literally grow from slicing the leaves every inch or two and weighing them down slightly with a growing medium as several new plants develop from leaf veins.

Whatever the method, dull winter months are a perfect time to explore expansion of your garden favorites through simple cuttings.

Share your propagation success photos with me at gardenmaiden.com.

HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing tammies@mywebtimes.com; via Twitter,@gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook, facebook.com/gardenmaiden9.

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