Duration: 30-45 minutes to set up (plus 1-2 minutes daily for 30-60 days)
Recommended Ages: Suitable for ages 7-11 with minimal adult assistance and age 12 and older without supervision.
Description: Garden at home by growing rosemary from stem cuttings, and learn how cuttings were important in the 18th century. Over the next few months, your cuttings will develop roots and become new plantlets.
While we often think of starting new plants from seeds, we should not overlook propagating—or making new plants—from cuttings of existing specimens. The process of taking stem cuttings is especially useful when you need to be certain of what you are growing. Some plants are unpredictable when they start as seeds. For example, an apple grown from seed may be sour, mealy, tart, sweet, or bitter, no matter what was the taste of the original apple. In these situations, using seeds is a bit like rolling a handful of dice! Gardeners almost always reproduce apples, peaches, pears, and other fruits from cuttings. Like identical twins, a plant grown by cutting is genetically the same as the mother plant.
Fruit trees were among the first crops planted by English settlers in the new world. Colonial planters understood the best way to reproduce fruit trees, and they often used cuttings. Almost two centuries after the first Europeans arrived in Jamestown, Virginians were still using this technique.
George Mason wrote in 1787 to his son John requesting “a few young Trees of the best kinds of Pears and Plums, by any Ship to Potomack River. . .also a few young Grape Vines, of good kinds; the roots should be carefully covered with Moss, or some such thing, or set in Boxes of Earth.” Colonists preferred cuttings, or small trees grown from cuttings, for two reasons. Cuttings helped colonists be sure that the variety they received was desirable. Only the most wealthy colonists could afford to purchase trees–rather than small cuttings–shipped across the ocean.
Cuttings were also used over shorter distances. George Washington recorded in his diary in April of 1785, “[Colonel] Mason. . . sent me some young shoots of the Persian Jessamine & Guilder Rose.” This type of exchange was common in this time period. George Mason and others sought rare plants because they enjoyed gardening, used their gardens to display their status, and hoped to improve the resources available to American farmers.
Discover the basics of growing plants from cuttings and build your 18th century skills! Making new plants from cuttings is exciting.
What do you need
Plant Materials: Look around for what is available. For example, can you find some live rosemary, lavender, sage, or fig. Fresh rosemary cuttings sold at grocery stores may also be used.
Soil: If possible, open a new bag of potting mix. A bag you have already opened but recently purchased is ok, too. Soil mixes labeled for potting are generally better than topsoil or soil dug in your backyard. Potting mixes better avoid compacting over time and are easier for new roots to work into. If your cuttings rot, it is possible the mix is carrying soil borne diseases. Clean the vessel with soap and water. The 1 to 2 cups of soil used for cutting propagation can be microwaved for 90 seconds in a microwave safe container, allowed to cool, and then returned to the vessel.
Small Pot or Container: Your cuttings will be 4 to 6 inches. Their containers may be small. A small pot 3 or 4 inches deep, a 6 oz mason jar, or a coffee cup is about the size you are looking for. If you use something without a hole or two in the bottom, add some rocks or broken crockery to create a small drainage pace–still, be extra mindful about over-watering. You may put 2 to 3 cuttings in one pot.
Scissors or knife
Spray Bottle: This item is optional.
Auxin or Rooting Aid: This is an optional ingredient. This method gets good results without plant hormones, but the powders are effective in speeding up rooting.
Paper and Pencil: For notes, sketches, and questions
1. Prepare your container by loosely filling it with soil and moistening the dirt with water. If your soil is really dry, you may find it helpful to pour some of it in a bowl, add water, and mix it with your hands. It is easy to make the mistake of just wetting the surface while the bottom stays totally dry–this will kill your cutting!
2. Find a healthy rosemary plant, or another plant from that materials list above. If you want to experiment with another plant, that is fine, too. If you do not have access to a plant ask around. Rosemary commonly overwinters in Virginia. Perhaps a neighbor can pass a piece of a healthy plant over the fence. If you are not under a stay-at-home order, check with friends or family. They may have rosemary or other plants to try, and they might be happy to exchange a few cuttings for some new plants in a month or two.
3. Use scissors to cut 4 to 6 inch long cuttings. Your cuttings should include some of the brown woody part of the stem and some new growth at the opposite end (top of the cutting). The woody part will look light brown and appear bark-like.
4. Next you will remove all the leaves from the bottom half of the cutting. Plants breathe through their leaves. As they breathe, water moves from the roots and out of the plant in a process called transpiration. If too much water leaves, then the cutting will dry out and die. By removing leaves we are slowing the plant’s water loss.
5. Using your scissors or a knife gently scrape the top layer of bark from the bottom inch of your cutting. This ‘wound’ helps the plant grow roots more quickly by helping it jump start its healing process. This wound and healing process works in a way that is similar to the way exercise helps us get stronger. The exercise ‘wounds’ our muscles making us feel sore or tired, but as we recover we become stronger than before. Cuttings build new roots, stems, and leaves as they recover.
6. Slide your prepared cutting into your container. Make sure the “wound” is underneath soil. Dirt that is to 3 inches will usually work well for this type of cutting. Place your container where you will see it everyday that is warm and receives some sun.
7. Take notes. Include the date. Make columns, so you can record when you watered your cuttings.
8. Check your container daily. Make sure the soil remains moist at all levels. You can check with a toothpick and visually. Insert a toothpick. It should feel wet when you pull it out. Wet soil will also appear darker. Overtime, it will become easy to tell if the cuttings need water. If it is too dry your cutting will not root. If you notice lots of algae it is too wet. Imagine the soil is a slightly wet sponge, from which you can squeeze only a few drops of water. A spray bottle may be helpful at this step.
9. Once a week gently tug on your cuttings. If they come up easily take a look. You may see root nodes or tiny roots. Either way, return them to the soil. If they do not come out easily, they may have started growing tiny roots. Write in your notes the date you saw roots. If you could no longer pull your cutting up, record that. Include how many cuttings formed roots.
10. Your cuttings should have substantial roots after several months. At this point you may plant them outside or in a larger pot. Be careful about introducing them to the sun too quickly. A few days outside in partial sun will help them adapt to more light and warmer temperatures. Plants can sunburn just like we can!
Imagine you were George Mason’s son John, and you just discovered a new kind of plant. As you examined the plant, you thought maybe you could make 2 or 3 good cuttings without harming the plant. Next, you decided to send pieces of it to several leading citizens, so they could help you make more of the rare plant.
- How might you pack it to make sure it had enough water and air?
- Who would you send your cuttings to?
- Pick an important figure from the colonial period. Write a letter to that person describing where you found the plant, how the plant looked, and how you think people might use it.
The Founders as Gardeners
Many of our founders, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and James Madison, were Virginia landowners who sold crops from their huge estates. By selling cash crops from these plantations and by not paying most of their workers, these leaders and their families achieved immense wealth. They believed agriculture would be important in building our country’s future. They thought that they could help.
Each of these founders felt that as a leader of Virginia (and later, the United States), it was their responsibility to share agricultural resources with other people. These resources often included new seeds or cuttings. New crops had the potential not only to provide food for American families, but also to yield surplus products for sale in American and European markets. Men such as George Mason thought that successful farmers would be the type of citizens the United States needed to build a thriving democracy.
Elite Virginian landowners had the time and resources to think about experiments, propagation, and sharing seeds and cuttings largely because of work provided by enslaved, indentured, and paid servants. Less wealthy people had less leisure time for such activities. Many Virginians needed to spend most of their time on the backbreaking work of everyday life.
Advanced propagation from cuttings—grafting!
Many people in the 18th century were familiar with propagation by cuttings, but fewer people had the more advanced skills needed for grafting. When grafting, an horticulturist takes a cutting and merges it with another growing plant in order to combine the good traits of both plants. Fruit trees are often grafted. The top, or scion, is usually a tasty variety, and the bottom is a hardy root, often called the rootstock.
Grafting was common during the colonial period. For example, George Washington recorded in 1765 a substantial list of grafts, “Grafted 48 Pears. . .12 Spanish Pears. Next to these are 8 Early June Pears then 10 latter Burgamy—then 8 Black Pear of Worcester—and lastly 10 Early Burgamy. Note all these Pears came from Colo. Masons.” George Mason’s immense orchard planted by his tenant farmer Thomas Halbert likely utilized cutting propagation and grafting. The indenture contract (today we would call it a lease) from 1752 required, “an Orchard of two hundred Winter Apple Trees, at thirty feet Distance every Way from each other, and eight hundred Peach Trees, at fifteen Feet Distance every Way from each other. . .well trimmed, pruned, fenced in, and secured from Horses, Cattle, and other Creatures.” Colonists had many uses for fruit. They could eat it fresh, dry it to eat in winter and early spring, and use it to make alcoholic beverages. As a result, they needed a lot of fruit trees. The high-level skills needed to make cuttings, graft, set-up and care for orchards and gardens were in high demand in eighteenth century Virginia.
Many elite Virginian hired or indentured servants to manage their elaborate kitchen gardens and orchards. This skilled work gave gardeners and orchardists higher status than some other laborers and allowed some of them to receive better living quarters, rations, pay, or even land at the end of contract. George Mason’s choice to use Thomas Halbert to set up an orchard was not unusual. We know George Washington hired or indentured five different gardeners at Mount Vernon.
For paid servants and indentured servants, gardening provided a chance for upward mobility that was unavailable to the enslaved people working along side those indentured or paid servants. Gardening skills were portable, and free people who possessed them were likely to find it relatively easy to get work. Working in a garden could offer some opportunity for enslaved people. People in bondage who gained gardening skills may have been able to use those abilities to supplement their own diets by creating kitchen gardens in the yards next to their dwellings.