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Propagate Plants as Gifts

Pam Baggett's tips for saving now on presents you'll give later.

In a couple of months, some people will be frantically shopping for last-minute holiday gifts. Not you and me, of course—we’re too well-organized for that. But pity your poor friends who’ll be handing over ridiculous cash for a potted amaryllis or three paperwhite narcissi, when with a little advance planning they could have grown their own for a fraction of the cost. Do those guys a favor: tell them to go on-line and order bulbs now!

Meanwhile, perhaps you’d like something other than amaryllis for the gardeners on your gift list. How about a rooted leaf cutting from your favorite tender succulent? A single icy blue echeveria or caramel-pink graptopetalum can be used to root several babies, without harming the parent plant. Many other succulents, including kalanchoes, sedums, and the popular jade plant (Crassula argentea) also root well from leaf cuttings. It takes several weeks for small plantlets to begin to form, so don’t procrastinate. Don’t have a fave succulent? Time to hit the nearest garden center!

To get started, gently wiggle a mature leaf—like working a loose tooth—until it releases from the stem. Dip the exposed end in a rooting hormone like Rootone powder, then leave the leaf lying around for a week to dry. Lying around?!? How is that a propagation technique? My dog does that! Actually, it’s not lying prone that enables cuttings to root. Rather, cuttings made from succulents are less likely to rot if allowed to callus over the wounded area before rooting.

Plant your calloused cuttings in a fast-draining potting medium. You can make your own for pennies by blending two parts sand to one part peat moss. To sterilize and hydrate the mix, pour boiling water through it. Allow it to cool and drain before inserting the cuttings. Stick the calloused ends of the leaves into the soil, leaving the top two-thirds protruding from the mix. Place your cuttings in a warm, well-lit location. Keep the soil slightly moist, never soggy. If you tend to pour water like Niagara Falls on a rainy day, try squeezing out a damp sponge over the potting mix at watering time instead.

All sorts of small objects work well as containers, as long as they hold one-half to one-cup of potting mix. If your pots lack drain holes, be super-careful when watering. Here are a few inexpensive ideas for containers: large shells; the clear caps from laundry detergent bottles; and the colorful lids from empty spray paint cans. Check thrift shops for discarded tea cups—in this case, cracked is okay. You can even use empty prescription pill bottles. Just make sure the containers don’t narrow at the top, which makes it difficult to get the plants out without damaging them when recipients need to pot them on.

Besides being great gifts, leaf cuttings teach a propagation technique that few gardeners know. Add a tag with a description of your rooting method—remember to explain about the dog—along with watering instructions (and a sponge!). Your friends will appreciate your gift long after the last holiday paperwhite fades to brown.

Cheap Trick: If your friends don’t fancy succulents, how about the opposite extreme—elephant ears? Before frost hits, dig pups from your parent plants and pot them on to give as gifts. Scrub the leaves at the sink to remove any stray aphids or spider mites, which can build up fast once brought indoors. Keep the babies on your sunniest windowsill until time to deliver them.

Point those friends who need holiday bulbs to: