In this time of isolation and general slow-down, many of us are spending an unprecedented amount of time at home, among the inanimate objects and living beings that add texture, sound, and color to our daily existence. Perhaps we've started cleaning more out of boredom, or rearranging our books, or trying new recipes. We may be cuddling with pets or kids like never before. And we may be looking at our houseplants and feeling the urge for more. Luckily, you can materialize and multiply plants like Jesus with his loaves and fishes. An avocado plant will grow out of a pit, an onion can easily become a source of green shoots, and scallion root tips can yield a new bulb garden. Every plant can become more plants, often from nothing more than one of its leaves or tendrils. And luckily, it's spring, the optimal time for propagation, as the temperature warms and daylight grows longer.
There are three basic ways of propagating most houseplants: stem-and-leaf cuttings, pup cuttings, and root division. Pup cuttings (like from monstera or aloe) can be placed in water or soil to develop their own roots. Plants that can be propagated by dividing root clusters (like ferns or snake plants) can go directly into soil, too. Stem-and-leaf cuttings (think pothos and philodendron tendrils) can be placed in any receptacle of water and multiply quickly. Plus they look cute in glasses, bottles, or vases around your home.
There are a million guides to propagation online, and tons of inspiration for propagation aesthetics on Instagram, but sometimes it's good to just follow your gut, particularly with succulents. Pluck off a juicy leaf, let it rest away from a playful cat's paw or curious toddler's mouth for a couple of days until the broken part scabs over, then place on top of some soil in a pot, spritz or soak every so often, and watch its new roots appear. Soon enough there'll be more succulents for sunny windowsills.
"In propagation the name of the game is increasing humidity so that the nodes can generate new sets of roots," says Damiane Nickles, who runs the @notaplantshop Instagram plant shop. Though his business is temporarily on hold due to the coronavirus lockdown he's propagating as actively as ever, starting with his favorite Sansevieria snake plants. "They're so fucking tough," he says, launching into a story about how he'd repotted one a while back and found a new baby in the root cluster. He stuck it in his pocket to plant later and forgot all about it. "I gave the jeans a wash and the next day found the cutting and it still took after the wash," he says. "I also really like the fact that you can cut one leaf into several different pieces. That way you can get many many more plants out of one leaf. They're very economical and pragmatic plants."
Though Nickles sometimes propagates in water, his preferred method is to plant cuttings in a pot of soil and seal them in a gallon-sized ziplock bag. The bag functions like a greenhouse. "You don't even need to water it that much," he says. "Similar to a sourdough starter, I do like to burp the bag. I open it up and get some fresh air in there every three or four days." Once the roots have developed and the plant has grown somewhat, the plant is ready to molt out of its plastic cocoon. Whatever the growing medium, Nickles recommends keeping propagating cuttings out of direct sunlight.
Pothos are particularly easy for novice propagators. "They will propagate even if you don't have the best indirect light in your house," Nickles says. "I usually like to take a big long strip, a nice piece with maybe six leaves, cut the bottom leaf, and I'll stick that in soil and into a plastic bag or just straight into water. Pothos are great because once the growing season begins they start growing so quickly."
For people who think they don't have a green thumb, propagation can be a great way to grow more comfortable with plant care. You can propagate a bunch of cuttings at once in different spots around your home to see what sticks. "For the virgin propagator I'd say don't freak out if the first one doesn't work," Nickles says. "Sometimes it doesn't work and you have to try again. It's more rewarding the next time. Don't be afraid of failure." v