The Cottage Gardener 4: 273-275 (Aug 1, 1850)
Propagation By Cuttings.
Donald Beaton

No one who has experienced the annoyance of losing a host of little half-starved plants in the winter, and who is at all aware of the fact that plants from cuttings made late in the autumn are so weak in their constitution that it tries the skill of a good gardener to preserve them half alive over a long winter,— I say no one who knows all this, or even the half of it, will assert that it is too soon now to put in all the cuttings which he may require or can procure. Hotbeds for cuttings in September, unless very slight indeed, are an abomination altogether for amateurs; and those writers who recommend this — the largest class of the community — to trust to hotbeds for a stock of plants, and say it is time enough to think of putting in your cuttings this long while yet, ought themselves to be put into these very hotbeds and nailed down till they were half stifled and gaping for breath; they would then better understand the difficulty of tending hotbed-struck plants during the winter, for they would probably find out to their cost that after being half smothered themselves in a stinking hotbed, they would have little relish, and less ability, to stand against a November fog. It is just so with little bits of soft plants that are half stifled in these beds, to get them to root late in the autumn. But I shall be told of the success that has attended late autumn propagation for years, by Messrs. So-and-so; and I allow it, and I can vouch for the fact, for in 1840 the first cutting for the flower-beds in this place, Shrubland Park, was made on the 10th of October; yet the beds were as full and gay in 1841 as they were before or since. But then look at the machinery that was put in motion to bring up lost time,— whole ranges of hot-pits with linings, hot water pipes, and what-not, and a dozen or more men to attend to them. But where is an amateur, with only the assistance he can get from the pages of a little two-penny book like this, that could manage to fill one small flowerbed next year, if he were to put off his cuttings till next October? No; amateurs ought to have all the cuttings, or rather all the plants they require for "stock" next spring, struck before the end of August, and that without any assistance whatever from hotbeds. Then, to inure the whole of them to stand out of doors through September, and as far into October as the frost would allow of, but to guard them all the time from heavy rains, to nip off the points of the shoots, and at every other joint, as fast as they grow, and after "housing" them for the winter to allow them as much air as the state of the cold will permit, and to keep the pots for the whole winter in that happy medium we call between wet and dry. Let any one who doubts the possibility of keeping these soft plants alive during a long winter try this plan, and begin it immediately, and I am sure he will never put of his autumn propagation again till September, or even to the middle of August.

The Anagallis was mentioned as a sample of what I think would be the safest course to pursue with any plants that are found difficult to manage in winter. By keeping over a few plants of such at the time of planting out in May, they are sure to be strong enough to stand rough treatment in winter, where young autumn-struck plants of the same kind would be sure to die before Christmas. The double American Groundsel I instanced already as belonging to those tender things, and after that one's own experience, can fill up a goodly list; besides, what one man finds easy to keep another cannot keep at all — so that all of us must make our lists from our own experience, rather than from printed ones; and I should make it a standing rule that whatever plant I found ticklish to stand the winter with me, should henceforth be put on the list of troublesomes, and be propagated at the end of spring for storing, instead of in the autumn.

There is a second class of bedding plants which differ in different soils and under different management; the Heliotrope will represent this class, which includes all those plants of which it is difficult to get good cuttings in the autumn, or which root unwillingly even if they can be procured. Almost every plant will strike from cuttings in the spring, but now the case is different; the shoots are either too thick and succulent, or they are flowering shoots that do not root easily, or there is hardly any short young wood fit for cuttings on them. Whenever one meets with a case of this description, the best remedy is to keep a few reserve plants in pots all the summer, from the spring propagation. There is a section of the fancy geraniums or pelargoniums which every one thought very difficult to root in the autumn a few years back; Queen Victoria and Prince of Orange are fair examples of this class, and so is Lady Flora Hastings, of which I have this season the best bed I have yet seen, from plants that are four years old, which were almost neglected, as I did not use this variety for beds these three years. About this time last year I cut down these plants and shook the soil from them in the usual way, and they were kept cool all last winter and spring, so that they made very slow growth, with thick, short-jointed branches, just the reverse of what it usually is. They were planted out last May, and have done remarkably well, so much so that it is restored into the bedding catalogue again, although there is hardly an end to the varieties of these speckled geraniums for beds, and many of them are of the same class as Queen Victoria in respect to propagation.

There is a clever gardener now in the north of Ireland, who lived with mo here some years since, and I well recollect of an argument we once had about striking cuttings. He, and another man who is still with me, maintained that every plant — no matter from what country, or of what nature — if it made shoots fit for cuttings, such cuttings could be made to grow; neither of them being then aware of the peculiarity of this section of geraniums, which were new to us at that time. To try their skill to the utmost I offered to give six cuttings to each of them, and in six weeks if one cutting out of the six was rooted I would give the lucky propagator five shillings for it; and when I told them the cuttings would be geranium cuttings 1 had some difficulty to persuade them to the trial. "Oh! they did not want to be bothered with things which Aunt Harriet and her maid Susan, down at ————, could do as well as any gardener." However, with a little soft reasoning, they did undertake the trial, and lost it completely; for I believe they tried many cuttings of these geraniums in various ways, but not a single one of them did they root the whole season. Now, this will sound odd to those not aware of the fact, that a section of geraniums will not strike from cuttings in summer, except in one particular way; but so it is, and this particular way happens to be the easiest way of all to strike geraniums — which is just as curious the other way. Not many months back two of our very best gardeners asked me very seriously if I knew how the Unique geranium—one of the finest of our bedding varieties—could be increased abundantly in summer, and some told me they could not strike it at all, except in the spring, and that they were obliged to keep plants in pots on purpose for spring propagation, as I have been recommended to do with the Anagallis, &c.; and not only that, but when these plants were in the prime of their bloom in September, or earlier, they were under the necessity of cutting them down like the old sorts, in order that a stock of young shoots might be made before winter, that would come in for cuttings early in the spring, and this is, by the way, a very judicious way of managing every one of this section. But yet it is not at all necessary to sacrifice one's flowers in September, and later, for the Unique, in particular, if stopped back two or three times in July and early in August, will go on flowering down to near Christmas.

The gardener who first wrote to me how to root Queen Victoria geraniums from summer cuttings, is now in charge of one of the largest gardens in the United States of America; and 1 hope he will see his laconic receipt in print. It runs as follows:— "Put in the cuttings under a north wall, and do not water them or look at them for three months, and they will be sure to root by that time." And true enough they will; and that is the only way to overcome their natural disposition for blooming; and as long as they are in a flowering condition their whole strength seems to be turned that way, and they will not root. But cut off the supply from the roots, by making them into cuttings, and place these cuttings as far from stimulating agencies as can be, and immediately they cease blooming, and turn their exertion the other way and form roots. If, on the other hand, after we have detached portions of these plants and made them into cuttings, — if we continue the stimulus of high cultivation, — inclose them under hand-glasses or in close hotbeds, where the confined damp atmosphere is grateful to vegetation, we merely check their usual growth, not stop it altogether; and as long as they grow at that season they will flower and not root; for it seems foreign to their nature to carry on the two processes at one and the same time. Hence the true cause of the complete failures which attended the first attempts at striking cuttings from these plants while they were in blooming growth, so to speak. My friend's advice about such cuttings must not, however, be construed too literally. Although it is essential to success that an entire absence of growth be insisted on while the cuttings are forming their roots, it will be equally requisite that everything which tends to damp or otherwise injure soft cuttings should be guarded against. If we attend to these, and see that an entire cessation of growth in the leaves is maintained as long as the roots are forming, all these geraniums root as freely through the summer months as Tom Thumb, or any other scarlet geranium. Yet, when one has plants of any of these shy rooting sorts in pots, it is a good plan to have them cut-in by the end of August, and to grow them on freely to Christmas; to stop them in October, or November, or when they have made four joints of young wood, and after that stopping to let them grow on till a hotbed or some hothouse is at work in early spring, and then to make cuttings of all the young tops; if one could then—say in February—force them gently for a month or six weeks, another and a double crop of spring young cuttings could be procured before the end of March, that would soon root in bottom heat, and be ready to plant out in beds by the middle or end of May.

A celebrated flower gardener from Surrey called here this morning, who makes these and, indeed, all the bedding geraniums his chief bedding stock; and although he is well versed in all the leading sorts used round London, he was much surprised at the number of varieties we use here. He never saw the White Unique as a bedder before; and I had some white seedlings of the Perpetual-flowering Geraniums, with very small crumpled leaves, with which he was particularly pleased; and he agrees with me how desirable it would be to follow up these small leaved crosses. I wish 1 could urge on breeders to turn their attention to this class of bedders of the striped varieties. He thought Spleenii was my best; but to do it full justice it should be planted in poor light soil, as it is a free grower, which the other striped ones are not — I mean such as Sidonia and Diadematum bicolor.

I received many good hints from this visitor, of which I shall make use in these pages, as relating to a plant on which I lately wrote—Tropaeolum speciosum. He told me the best way is to let it remain in the ground all the winter, and then it is as strong as Tropaeolum pentaphyllum, and will cover a great breadth of trellis, flowering in the sun just as freely as on the north side of a wall. One is always pleased meeting with a frank, candid person, who will tell just what he thinks if his opinion is asked; because more than one-half of the gardening world think it the best policy, first, to ascertain, if possible, your own opinion on a point or subject to be discussed, and then to give their vote on your side of the question, without reference to the merit of the case, but simply with a view to please, if not to flatter you. I would not give a straw for such opinions.

My visitor was a true blue on this point; he told me plainly, before we entered the flower-garden, that he was totally at issue with me — personally a stranger to him, and an older man by a score of long years — on the subject of annuals. Of course he was — and so are all the great guns; but that does not alter the matter one jot; before we got over half the garden he expressed himself favourably on the way I use these annuals — and so does every one who sees them; and what everybody says must be true. And it is hardly less true that I am the only gardener in the country who puts ephemeral annuals to their legitimate purpose; with them I fill the beds brimful in May, in the spaces between the permanent plants, and in one week after planting the beds are more full than some I could name are in two months.

Beaton Bibliography