How to save on houseplants: An easy step-by-step guide to obtaining more for free

Propagation is a magical thing. You are effectively creating free plants – and who doesn’t want free plants?

I’m diligent about propagating all my favorite plants. This way, if they get sick or die, I have a backup.

It’s also a great way to make your existing plants bushier: Once you have your rooted cutting, simply plant it into the pot alongside the mother plant and voila, you will have a fuller plant!

Moira West adds to her large collection of houseplants by propagation.

Moira WEst/Stuff

Moira West adds to her large collection of houseplants by propagation. “I’m diligent about propagating all my favorite plants. This way, if they get sick or die, I have a backup,” she says.

The best propagation medium

There are many options when it comes to propagation and, as always, I recommend experimenting. Different methods work better for different plants.

With pothos, I found equal rooting success with sphagnum moss and with planting straight into well-draining soil. I prefer the latter though, since it skips a step; there is no need to replant the cuttings into soil if they are already growing in it.

I like using pumice for plants that have finer roots (such as begonias and hoyas) since it is easier to separate the cutting from the rooting medium when the time comes to plant it into soil.

If you don’t know what the roots of a particular plant look like, a quick Google beforehand will help.

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How to propagate what

There are many different ways to propagate, and it depends on the plant that you have. The different methods are propagated via:

  • Nodes (usually philodendron and monstera)
  • Leaves (begonia and sansevieria)
  • Stem (hoya and peperomia)
  • Bulbs & tubers (alocasia and oxalis)
  • Division (calathea and ferns)
Different propagation methods work better for different plants.  “I recommend experimenting.  When I started out with propagation, I tried multiple methods and compared the results,

LAWRENCE SMITH/Stuff

Different propagation methods work better for different plants. “I recommend experimenting. When I started out with propagation, I tried multiple methods and compared the results,” says Moira West.

Propagating via nodes

A node is an area on the plant with great cellular activity, where leaves and roots form. You’ll need nodes on your cutting, otherwise there is no chance of any roots forming. You can see the nodes (a slight swelling on the stem) at the base of each leaf.

As a general rule, there will be a node at the base of each leaf. You’ll want at least one node per cutting to boost your chances of success.

See if you can spot the nodes on this cutting of a Ludisia discolor. Now look at the second photo (below), taken after about three months – those roots! If you look closely, you’ll see a lateral shoot forming off the main stem, too.

Ludisia discolor cutting (see if you can spot the nodes).

Moira West/Stuff

Ludisia discolor cutting (see if you can spot the nodes).

Once I’ve established where the node is on my mother plant, I make my cut just below it. Most of the time, I remove the leaves from the nodes after the cutting has been made, leaving one to three leaves at the tip. Usually, I’ll have one or two nodes present on a single cutting.

My cuttings are usually about 2-15cm long, depending on the plant.

The same Ludisia discolor cutting about three months later.  It is rooted in sphagnum moss, and the sphagnum moss has been removed from the roots.

Moira West/Stuff

The same Ludisia discolor cutting about three months later. It is rooted in sphagnum moss, and the sphagnum moss has been removed from the roots.

Propagating via stem cutting

Taking a stem cutting is less complicated than taking a node cutting. I simply cut a section off my mother plant, making sure that I have included a piece of stem, and I remove all but 2-3 leaves from the cutting (leaving the leaves at the tip).

Usually, I’ll end up with a piece of plant that is about 10-15cm long.

Whether you have a leaf or stem cutting, here are your options:

Water prop

The most straightforward of all and easy as – just pop your cutting into some water (a small jar works just fine), making sure that the node or stem is submerged. Keep the cutting in a warm, well lit place, but out of direct sun. Change the water every couple of days (to keep the water from going stale, and also to refresh the oxygen supply present in the water) and in a few weeks you should have roots.

Once the roots are a few centimeters long, plant your cuttings over into soil. Your new plant should start growing new leaves in no time.

The water propagation method is simple.

Moira West/Stuff

The water propagation method is simple.

Straight into soil prop

The most risky method but great if you have abundant cuttings and don’t mind losing a few to rot. Pot up your cutting using well-draining soil, making sure that the node or stem is covered. Water well, and leave it in a warm, well-lit spot. Put it somewhere you can keep an eye on it and make sure that the soil stays moist. Succulent mix should work well, or you can amend normal potting soil by adding a generous helping of perlite.

I always use a small pot size; this minimizes the risk of overwatering the cutting.

I love propagating my hoyas this way; they take well to it. The benefit of this method is that it eliminates the need to transplant your cuttings into soil.

The

Moira West/Stuff

The “baggie” propagation method.

Baggie prop

This is the method I have most success with, since it locks in precious humidity. It’s also a set-and-forget method which I prefer. Just follow the steps for soil prop, but change your medium to perlite or sphagnum moss.

Once you have your cuttings planted and watered, pop the whole thing into a plastic ziplock bag. I like to inflate the bag with my breath and seal it so that the sides don’t touch the cuttings (which could promote rot).

Keep the ziplock bag in a warm, bright place (no direct sun). There’s no need to ever water, just wait a few weeks and you’ll have roots. Once your cutting has formed roots (a light tug will confirm this), remove it from the medium and plant it in soil.

Houseplant collector Moira West holding Rex begonias that she grew from cuttings.

Moira West/Stuff

Houseplant collector Moira West holding Rex begonias that she grew from cuttings.

Propagation via leaf cutting

This is my favorite method for propagating begonias.

Just a single leaf can result in many new plants as long as the leaf is healthy, firm and well watered.

Cut it in sections using a sharp knife, making sure to include a leaf vein in each section. Dip these sections in cinnamon, then in rooting hormone. Cinnamon has antifungal properties and helps prevent the cutting from rotting.

Begonia propagated from leaf cutting.

Moira West/Stuff

Begonia propagated from leaf cutting.

Place each cutting in an individual, small pot of perlite, making sure that the vein section buried in the medium is no deeper than a centimeter or two.

Water well, and then place the cutting in a ziplock bag. Inflate the bag with your breath, seal, and leave it in a warm, well lit place (but out of direct sun).

In a few weeks, or months, you’ll see an entire new plant starting to grow. Once the Voilaplant is big enough to handle – at least 7cm, but the bigger the better – gently shake loose the perlite and plant it into well-draining soil.

The bulbs on an alocasia are nestled in the roots.  This one is Alocasia clypeolata.

Moira West/Stuff

The bulbs on an alocasia are nestled in the roots. This one is Alocasia clypeolata.

Propagating via bulbs

This method might seem daunting to the beginner. I was also hesitant to try this at first, but once I did, I went from one alocasia to 50 alocasias in the span of a year!

The hardest part is finding the bulbs. If you have a mature plant, you’ll have to take it out of its pot and sift through the soil and roots to find the hidden bulbs. Sometimes there are no bulbs to be found, and that’s OK. Just look again in a few months.

Once I’ve found the bulbs, I like to gently peel off the outer layer. I find that this speeds up the rooting process and also reduces the chances of the bulb rotting.

I’ll then prepare a little sphagnum moss nest for the bulb. I like to soak the sphagnum moss in some water with rooting hormone, and I’ll add just a small dash of worm castings for the bulb to feed on once it starts growing. Then I place the bulb just below the surface of the moss, with the pointy bit upwards and just visible. Then, into the baggie it goes.

As always, keep the bag warm, and place it in a bright place away from direct sunlight.

Your own propagation boxes and space

This is an easy and inexpensive way to set up a propagation corner, which will allow you to propagate many different plants at once. You’ll also be able to propagate your houseplants much more easily and conveniently here, without creating clutter elsewhere in your house.

This setup also has the advantage of creating the humidity to make an ideal environment for propagation. I combine mine with a heat mat which allows me to propagate even in the coldest of months.

You’ll need:

  • A big see through plastic storage container with a lid that seals – mine is 52 liters.
  • Sphagnum moss.
  • The seedling heat mat.
  • A grow light (optional)
My propagation boxes and prop box setup.

Moira West/Stuff

My propagation boxes and prop box setup.

Put the container (with the heat mat underneath) in a bright spot that is well lit, but does not receive any direct sun (direct sun is a sure way to cook any plants inside the container).

I don’t have a spot that meets all these requirements, so I have opted to use grow lights instead. Either light source is fine, it just depends on your situation and preference. I have come to like the flexibility and control that grow lights provide.

You’ll need enough sphagnum moss to cover the bottom of your container. Soak the sphagnum moss in water, then squeeze out the excess water and place it in your container. I’ve seen people use perlite instead of sphagnum moss; the key here is to have an inert medium that will allow the roots to grow, but also retain moisture. You can reuse sphagnum; I’ve had the same sphagnum moss for years and have used it many times over.

Now, you can place all your propagations in this box, or even place your cuttings directly into the sphagnum moss. I like to spritz some seaweed fertilizer into the box.

Since the box is sealed, you’ll hardly have to water (just check occasionally to see if the sphagnum is still moist).

Once my propagations start growing new leaves, I like to feed them with some diluted fertilizer every few weeks to help with their growth.