The dark days of winter can give even the most enthusiastic gardener the blues. After you’ve put your outdoor garden to rest and watched your houseplants go dormant, you may wonder what plant-related tasks you can take on this winter. Well, the good news is that you can propagate plants in winter!
Plant propagation allows you to form new plants by sprouting seeds, dividing mature plants, or rooting cuttings. And while some of these propagation methods work best in the warmer months, you can successfully propagate some plants in the winter.
By jumping on plant propagation this winter, you’ll have a supply of healthy plants to put out in your garden when spring arrives. Join me as I cover some plant propagation methods to try this winter.
The Short Answer
Yes, you can propagate plants in winter! The darker and often slower months are the perfect time to graft and root woody species like trees and shrubs. Winter is also a great time to start seedlings for spring plantings.
The Long Answer
Plant propagation, the process of creating new plants, is an excellent winter activity for the otherwise restless gardener. It lets you keep busy in the dark and often dreary months and gives you new plants to add to your spring garden.
What Plants Can You Propagate in Winter?
The winter season is an opportune time for propagating trees and shrubs.
Winter is the best time to propagate woody trees, shrubs, and canes. You’ll end up with healthy plants the following spring by taking cuttings in the late fall and propagating them in the winter.
Some trees ripe for winter propagation include deciduous trees like apples and peaches, dogwoods, Japanese maples, and evergreen trees like magnolias and pines. The cold months are also the best time to propagate woody shrubs like roses, rhododendrons, and blueberries.
Winter is also a great time to start planting seeds for the upcoming year. I typically start spring transplants like cauliflower and cabbage in the late winter, so they’re ready to plant outdoors in the early spring. The new year signals it’s time to sow flowers like marigolds, rudbeckia, and milkweed.
How to Propagate Woody Plants from Cuttings
Grafting and rooting expand your woody plant collection during winter.
If you’ve pruned your shrubs and trees in the fall, you probably have a handful of cuttings. Rather than tossing these pieces in the compost pile or sending them through a woodchipper, keep them on hand to make new plants! Healthy hardwood and softwood cuttings are the best way to propagate many woody plants.
You have two main options when it comes time to propagate your plants from cuttings in the winter: grafting and rooting cuttings.
From disease resistance to fruit characteristics, grafting transcends seed limitations.
Grafting allows you to combine the genetics of two different plants. The bottom of the graft, or the rootstock, helps determine disease resistance, plant size, and root system. The top of the graft, the scion, determines fruit color, shape, disease resistance, and taste. Therefore, grafting allows you to combine the characteristics of two varieties. It also allows you to replicate varieties that don’t breed true from seed.
You can graft deciduous fruit trees, including apples, pears, cherries, peaches, plums, and ornamental plants like Japanese maple and witch hazel.
Late winter is the best time to complete a graft, so it’s a perfect activity to start the spring growing season. People utilize many grafting techniques, including whip and tongue grafting, cleft grafting, and bark grafting. The size of the scion and rootstock determines which method to use.
If you have a rootstock and scion of similar sizes, whip and tongue grafting is the best choice. Follow these steps to propagate plants using this method.
- Obtain a rootstock and scion of similar sizes. The rootstock can be a few millimeters larger than the scion, but the scion can’t be larger than the rootstock.
- Use a very sharp and sanitized knife to cut a 50-70° angle in the rootstock. The cut should be between one and two inches long. Make sure the cut is smooth.
- Make another cut down the middle of the fresh cut. This cut should go straight down and be about an inch long.
- Place the scion with the top facing up, then use the same knife to make mirroring cuts in the bottom of the scion. The goal is to end up with two pieces that fit together well.
- Gently push the scion into the rootstock. Both plants’ cambium layer, the layer right under the bark, must match to form a successful graft. If the stock and scion are different sizes, match the cambium layer on one side of the graft.
- Wrap the graft with grafting tape or plastic tape so it’s secure.
- Apply wax around the graft to seal in moisture.
- Place the rootstock into a container filled with well-draining potting mix and set them somewhere between 40-50°F. You can plant the grafts outdoors once the last frost passes.
Grating can take some practice to master, so don’t be afraid to practice your cuts on spare branches. After you’ve made a few neat grafts, you can move on to your target plants.
Like propagating basil or pothos in water, woody species can be propagated through hardwood cuttings.
You know how you can take cuttings from vegetative plants like basil and pothos, place them in water, and watch them form roots? Well, you can complete a similar propagation process with some woody species.
Depending on the plant, you can root softwood, semi-hardwood, or hardwood cuttings. However, since we’re discussing winter propagation, I’ll focus on rooting hardwood cuttings. The late fall or winter is the best time to take hardwood cuttings, and you can begin rooting them soon after.
The following plants propagate well by rooting hardwood cuttings.
Locate one of the plants listed above, then follow these steps to propagate these plants in winter.
- Locate a healthy hardwood stem that doesn’t easily bend.
- Use a sharp and sanitized pair of pruning shears to take a cutting at least six inches long. If the cutting is over six inches long, divide it into multiple six-inch cuttings.
- If you aren’t rooting the cuttings immediately, store them in a cool and damp place. Wrapping the cuttings in plastic wrap and placing them in a refrigerator drawer is an excellent option.
- Fill a 12-inch container with a 50/50 mix of perlite and peat moss, then water well.
- Although this step is optional, dipping the cutting in rooting hormone can improve the development of roots. Dip the bottom inch of each cutting in the hormone powder.
- Place each cutting in the pot while ensuring the top end points up. If you’re unsure which side is the top, look at the leaf buds. The pointy tip of the bud points upward.
- Push the cuttings into the mix so only two inches are exposed. Space them two to three inches apart if you’re rooting multiple cuttings.
- Keep the cuttings in a cool area and water when the soil is dry. You want the soil to remain moist but not wet.
- Leave the cuttings undisturbed throughout the winter to avoid harming the fragile new roots. Once the danger of frost has passed, you can move the cuttings outdoors.
How to Propagate Plants from Seeds
Determining the ideal planting date involves calculating the time from planting to seedling.
Although spring can seem years away during dark January days, I start planting seeds during the first month of the year and continue sowing seeds throughout February and March. Planting seeds saves me money and grows varieties I can’t find at local nurseries.
Are you wondering when to start tomato or lettuce seeds? I determine my seed planting date by looking at my intended outdoor planting date and the time it takes for plants to grow from seed to seedling.
For example, I want to plant parsley seedlings outside around April 15. Parsley plants grow into mature seedlings about six weeks after the seeds germinate, and the seeds take two to four weeks to sprout. That means I’d want to plant my seeds eight to ten weeks before April 15 or during the beginning or middle of February.
If you want to start seeds indoors during the winter, it helps to invest in a grow light, seedling heating mat, and seed starting trays. These products provide a healthy environment and allow you to produce vibrant seedlings.
What Plants Should You Not Propagate in Winter?
For optimal houseplant propagation, avoid winter; opt for spring or summer instead.
While you can propagate many plants in winter, it’s not the best season for all types of plant propagation.
Spring and fall are the best time to divide perennial plants like hosta, daylily, coneflower, and lavender. If you divide the plants in the winter, they’ll have difficulty adjusting before cold weather arrives.
When propagating houseplants via cuttings, avoid taking cuttings in winter. These cuttings can properly root in the winter, but the lack of light means slowed growth and an increased chance of rot. Stick to the spring and summer when possible.
While the cold months may be a bit dreary, propagating plants during the winter can help you feel the peace of gardening. And by spending a few hours propagating plants this winter, you’ll end up with handfuls of new plants for the upcoming spring.