Taking stem cuttings is a fun and free way to add plants to your own garden or have a few to give to friends next year. Cuttings create clones, or copies of the plant.

Taking stem cuttings is a fun and free way to add plants to your own garden or have a few to give to friends next year. Cuttings create clones, or copies of the plant.

There are all kinds of perennials that can be propagated by cuttings. The best candidates have prominent nodes, where the leaves are attached to the stem. Good candidates include Aster (Aster spp.), Bee balm (Monarda didyma), Butterfly weed (Asclepias spp.), Lavender (Lavandula spp.) and Sage (Salvia spp.).

Take cuttings in the morning. The plant's cells are filled with water, and they have more strength and resilience. You'll need a sharp knife or pruning shears and a container of water. Select a stem and work toward the base of the plant, feeling for the point where the tip starts becoming firm or woody. Take the cutting just above that transition, leaving at least two nodes above the cut.

Immediately put the stem in water, if possible, and out of direct sun. Take only as many as you can work with in the morning –– the fresher the specimen, the better chance it will root. Alternatively, wrap it in moist paper towels and a plastic bag. Keep the stem cool until you can plant it.

For good root development, cuttings need air and water in a light, fluffy soil mix. Get soil-less media at garden centers, or make your own with equal parts sterilized peat moss, perlite and coarse sand. Wet the medium until it's moist but not wet, then fill small pots, plastic tubs or other containers.

Remove the leaves from the bottom two nodes and cut the end cleanly. A new, single-edged razor blade works well. Ideally, wipe the blade with alcohol between cuttings to keep from spreading disease. Admittedly, I don't do this every time, but it doesn't hurt to play it safe. If your cutting has large leaves, cut the ends off because, while some leaf surface is important, less leaf area at this stage is helpful. Use a dowel or pencil to make a hole in the medium deep enough to accommodate the nodes.

Before inserting the stem in the medium, dip the cut end into powdered or liquid rooting hormone, available at most garden centers. The hormone will stimulate faster and more robust root development. Place the cutting in the hole, press the mixture firmly around the stem and water lightly. Don't let the containers stand in water as the cuttings could rot.

Since they have no roots to absorb water, cuttings need a high-humidity environment. For individually potted cuttings, make a cloche by cutting the bottom off a 1-liter soda bottle or using large plastic bags. An upturned plastic storage bin or even an old aquarium can make a temporary greenhouse for large trays of cuttings. Keep them in bright light but not direct sun. Prop the cloche or greenhouse open for a few minutes each day to circulate the air and monitor the enclosed environment for sufficient moisture.

Green, healthy-looking cuttings are a good sign. Wilting, yellowing or cupping of the leaves means a problem. Yellowing on older leaves usually indicates the plant is giving its nutrients to new growth, but the entire plant yellowing or wilting may mean you're overwatering.

How long a cutting takes to root depends on humidity, temperature and the type of plant. Check root growth by gently tugging. If you feel resistance, pry up the medium that contains the cutting from the side with a stick or knife blade or fork. Gently tap the medium off the roots. If they're long white threads, the cutting is ready to transplant into a larger container.

Before planting the maturing transplants outdoors, allow them to develop an even larger root system in their new pots for several weeks. Then, when they're ready for the garden, harden them off by setting them in the sun for a half hour more each day for a week.

Try your hand at cuttings. They make great gifts, and part of your garden might just give you a little immortality in the generations of gardens yet to come.
    
Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information, visit www.joegardener.com.