12 Mistakes to Avoid When Propagating Houseplants
From removing cuttings incorrectly to propagating everything in water, there are many common houseplant propagating mistakes even experienced gardeners can make. Check out this list to find out which to avoid.
Whether you’re looking to expand a collection or grow new plants to share, propagating your houseplants allows you to multiply your plants for free. Though some plants easily replicate, others are more finicky.
Some of the easier types to propagate include pothos plants, and some of the more popular succulents. But that doesn’t mean they won’t encounter challenges if propagated incorrectly.
If your cuttings just won’t take root or grow, make sure you’re avoiding these common houseplant propagation mistakes. We all make them at some point!
Not Doing Your Research
If you’re a somewhat impulsive and impatient gardener like me, you probably decide to propagate on a whim. In fact, I did this just last weekend. I had a few hours free on a Sunday, looked at my houseplants, and decided I needed to propagate all of them right now.
If you know what plants you’re dealing with, this isn’t usually an issue. But if you’re new to propagating a new plant you don’t have experience with, impulse can lead to a few issues.
Although many houseplants are quite similar in structure, a few outliers have different growth habits. The right propagation method will therefore depend on your type of plant and its growth stage.
For example, if you’re used to propagating from stem cuttings, you may also attempt to take cuttings from your peace lily. Unfortunately, peace lilies can’t be propagated from cuttings – they must be divided. Similarly, the process for propagating African violets from single leaves differs slightly from the process for propagating begonias from single leaves.
In other words, make sure you know what you’re dealing with before you start by doing your research. This way, you won’t have many failed cuttings or divisions. Preparation and research will help you avoid mishaps or damage to your plants.
Propagating At The Wrong Time
Plants that we commonly label ‘houseplants’ are usually tropical plants that are happy to grow in indoor environments. They typically don’t handle the cold well, benefiting from our homes’ protection. This protection allows them to grow relatively successfully year-round if their environmental conditions are well managed.
But, for most plants, growth still naturally slows in fall and winter. Even if indoor temperatures are still comfortable for humans, many houseplants will dramatically slow growth once temperatures dip below 60F. This is primarily to conserve their energy. New growth is unlikely during the colder months if you’ve placed indoor plants close to windows or in an unheated room.
This lack of growth also means propagation is not ideal during colder weather and shorter days. Cuttings need plenty of warmth and humidity to encourage new root growth. Divisions also need warm temperatures to establish quickly in their new pots. It’s not impossible to propagate in cooler seasons, but growth will be much slower, potentially increasing your risks of rotting.
If you have mild winters or are willing to keep containers warm, you should have no trouble propagating any time of year. A warm grow light and heating mat can help improve conditions to boost root growth. But if indoor temperatures in your home are below 60F, it’s best to wait until spring.
Rooting All Plants In Water
Propagating cuttings in water is arguably one of the most exciting ways to propagate houseplants. You not only get to watch the roots grow, keeping an eye on the health of the cutting, but you can also use your glass or propagating stations as classy indoor décor.
I love the look of cut flowers indoors, but keeping them up to date every week is tricky, considering their short lifespan. Instead, I like to use cuttings from my houseplants (particularly Monsteras) to fill vases. Later, I transplant them out and take new cuttings once the roots have developed.
Unfortunately, not all plants are suitable for water propagation. Depending on the growing conditions they are used to, a couple of houseplants have a much higher chance of rooting when planted in soil.
Vining houseplants like pothos and heartleaf philodendrons are great for propagating in water, especially with the many nodes along the vines that can be used for rooting. However, a ZZ plant cutting will take far longer to root in water than it would in ideal soil conditions. Woody houseplants like fiddle leaf figs are also best planted straight into the soil if you want them to develop strong root systems.
As attractive as propagating in water may seem, choosing the best rooting method for your specific plants will deliver much better results in the long run.
Taking Cuttings In The Wrong Place
One of the biggest houseplant propagation mistakes involves taking cuttings without nodes. When you’re propagating from cuttings, the location where you trim the stem or leaf directly impacts whether that cutting can develop roots. If that part of the stem or leaf doesn’t contain the right tissues for root growth, the cutting will die off, leaving you wondering what happened.
Most tutorials will tell you to remove the stem just below a node. These are the bumps on the stem from which leaves (and hopefully roots) emerge. You may even spot aerial roots on some plants at these points, indicating the stem is ideal for cutting. If you take your cutting from a stem section without nodes, it won’t develop roots.
Propagating from single leaves may also involve specific instructions to remove a small part of the stem with the leaf to develop plantlets. Without these tissues, the leaf won’t have what it needs to root and grow.
Nodes are usually easy to spot. But if you can’t figure them out, look for areas where:
- Leaves grow from the stem
- Aerial roots appear
- A stem splits in two
- You feel a bump inside the stem structure
Cut right below this area to keep the node at the bottom of the cutting.
Propagating An Unhealthy Plant
Always start with a healthy plant for the highest chances of success in houseplant propagation. Damaged plants are usually stressed and may struggle to grow new roots, focusing on survival rather than new growth.
The same applies to diseases. Diseased plants are stressed and will only spread their issues to your brand-new plants, ruining your propagation efforts.
That’s why it’s best to avoid propagating from unhealthy plants. Put your energy into reviving the plant instead, taking cuttings once it has recovered. Removing green parts of the plant at this time will not only lower your chances of root growth, but it can also increase stress in the original plant at the same time.
This doesn’t apply if you’re propagating because your plant is beyond saving. In cases of root rot or severe damage, removing the remaining healthy cuttings and giving them a chance to root can help save your collection. But only take this route if you’re willing to discard the original plant and deal with lower chances of root growth in your cuttings. In other words, use it as a last resort.
In all other cases, wait until the plant is healthy and happy and choose the healthiest cuttings for quick root growth and a strong new plant.
Using The Wrong Tools
A common saying is, “A worker is only as good as their tools.” I believe this can also apply to gardeners. When it comes to propagating, using the wrong tools (or, more specifically, using badly maintained tools) can potentially ruin your efforts before you’ve truly started. Unsanitary or unsharpened pruners are often involved in the biggest houseplant propagation mistakes and mishaps, like ripped leaves or diseased cuttings.
I’m not a huge fan of garden chores, especially regarding tools. Few people are. Still, the essential tasks of cleaning and sharpening your shears are essential for a reason.
Blunt tools have the potential to damage stems and leaves, obstructing root growth in your new cutting and damaging the original plant too. If your shears are dirty, especially if recently used on diseased plants, you are opening both plants up to growth problems.
If you’re dividing or can pinch parts of the plant off with your hands, you don’t need to worry about tools. But if there is a point where you need to pick up any tool, make sure you sharpen and clean it before you get started. This tool sharpener will speed up the task, along with soap and water or disinfectant to remove harmful bacteria.
Placing Cuttings In Low Light
Once you’ve navigated your way through propagating, avoiding all your previous mistakes, it’s important not to let the ball drop after rooting. Providing the perfect environment for root growth is an important step that starts with giving your cuttings enough light.
Because they can act as decorative features, it’s easy to forget that vases or pots full of cuttings need very specific lighting conditions to grow. They can’t simply be placed anywhere that they look good.
Cuttings need an area with as much bright indirect light as possible throughout the day to boost growth without scorching the leaves. They have limited energy, using only a few leaves to facilitate new growth, so they need all the indirect light they can get.
If you place your cuttings in a dark corner of your home, they will struggle to develop roots. Low light also increases the chances of rotting before root growth emerges. Keep cuttings in front of an east-facing window or protected south or west-facing window to give them the energy to grow roots. Alternatively, use a grow light to supplement if you don’t have the right conditions in your home.
Placing Cuttings In Direct Sun
On the other hand, giving your cuttings too much light can be equally as dangerous. Although they need the sun to produce roots, cuttings are incredibly vulnerable to scorching if the sunlight is too intense.
This houseplant propagation mistake is a mega bummer because cuttings suddenly look like they were torched in the oven. They quickly wilt and dry up, especially if the light evaporates the moisture in the soil quickly at the same time.
To prevent an early death, keep your cuttings out of the path of direct sun but still in a bright area. You can shield them from harsh direct sun by covering bright windows with a sheer curtain.
Ignoring Temperature and Humidity
As mentioned above, temperature plays a big role in the ability of your cuttings to root or your divisions to settle into their new homes quickly. Forgetting about temperature can lead to stunted growth and a lack of roots – not something you want after the effort of propagating.
To avoid this houseplant propagation mistake, I have a specific area of my home I know that gets enough light and stays relatively warm throughout the day.
Rather than taking chances, I leave the containers there to ensure their needs are met. Adding a heating mat to warm the soil in the container can also lower any temperature concerns, especially when propagating out of season.
Humidity is another consideration, although this is more important for some plants than for others. Tropical plants grow quickest in high humidity and may struggle to root if the air in your home is too dry. Anything above 40% is usually fine, but it’s always best to boost humidity for the strongest results.
The easiest way to maintain humidity around your cuttings is to cover the container with a plastic bag or germination dome. This traps moisture and creates a mini greenhouse around your cuttings to boost growth. Air them out every few days to increase airflow and reduce mold growth.
Not Keeping Up With Maintenance
If you’ve placed your cuttings in the right environment, you’re well on your way to growing your houseplant collection. But there are a few additional tasks to help sustain growth long enough to prepare for transplanting.
That’s not to say cuttings won’t grow when left alone. I am guilty of forgetting about a range of plants, from alocasia corms in water to jade plant leaves in seed trays. Both continued to grow for several weeks without me fussing over them. However, they did struggle to establish later on and didn’t grow as well as they would have if I paid attention in the first place.
When propagating in soil, it’s important to keep the soil lightly moist. Don’t drown the cutting – light moisture is enough to encourage root growth while allowing air to flow through the soil simultaneously. Once the roots have grown, you can add mild fertilizers or transplant from soilless mixes into potting soil to provide the right nutrients.
When propagating in water, the moisture part is covered. But you need to ensure the water line stays consistent and doesn’t dip below the bottom of the cutting as it evaporates. If the young roots are exposed to the air, they can quickly dry out and may be difficult to revive. It’s best to change the water about once a week to stop bacteria from building up and affecting your cuttings.
The level of maintenance will differ depending on the plant and how long root growth takes, but it’s not a step to skip if you want to be successful.
Giving Up Too Soon
If you have experience growing plants from seed, you may expect quick results from your propagating efforts. If your seeds germinate within two weeks, surely cuttings will develop roots quickly too?
While true for some plants, it certainly doesn’t apply to all of them. I like to use my ZZ plant cuttings as an example. These plants don’t just develop roots at the end of a cutting but must grow entire tubers before they can be transplanted. This process doesn’t occur overnight – my cuttings took several weeks to show any signs of progress and many more before I could transplant them into the soil.
This also applies to plants propagating from single leaves, like African violets or jade plants. It takes ages for a single tiny leaf to grow a brand new plantlet at the end, so it’s important not to rush them. Fiddling and fussing will only decrease your chances of growth appearing in the first place.
If you don’t see anything happening, my advice is to remain patient. Unless there are signs of rotting or damage that may prevent root growth altogether, wait it out and don’t give up on your cuttings too soon.
Forgetting To Transplant
Once you spot root growth on your cuttings, whether propagating in water or soil, it’s easy to think the hard work is over. However, if you get too complacent at this point, it can be easy to forget that your cuttings can’t live in these conditions forever. They need nutrients and the right soil mix to survive. In other words, they need to be transplanted.
Some cuttings can grow in water long term if you’re willing to manually add nutrients to the soil and continue to replace the water indefinitely. But if you plan to move them into soil at any point, it’s better to do this sooner rather than later.
Roots grown in water have little resistance and aren’t as strong as roots grown in soil. When cuttings are moved to new environments after growing in water or a soilless mix for a long time, they may struggle to adjust to their new homes.
In general, it’s best to transplant when the roots are around an inch or two long. Get them into their final homes as soon as possible so they can start to adjust.
Ultimately, the best houseplant gardeners never assume that one species will propagate the same as the others. Make the most of your cutting and division efforts by avoiding these common houseplant propagation mistakes.
All of our plant-growing guides include details about growing and propagating specific species. Remember, practice and patience are the names of the game. You’ll be a growing guru in no time!