Benefit from the impetus of the ‘May flush’

The ‘May flush’ is that wonderful swelling of energy when everywhere begins to burst enthusiastically with fresh new growth. Over these past few weeks I’ve been travelling regularly across North Wales and North West England, a complete and utter delight as the hedgerows, verges and front gardens have rolled past in mile after mile of foamy abundance. The hawthorn (may), cow parsley and mountain ash (rowan) have all been glorious in cream. The forget-me-nots have passed by in a blur of indistinct blue. The lilacs have been variously cream, dusty mauve and deeper red. Cream is always my favourite but I’m coming round to the other colours. They are all wonderful in the right place.

May (hawthorn) blossom lining the hedgerows at Hodge Lane, Hartford Junction, Cheshire. Take softwood cuttings at this time of year.

May (hawthorn) blossom lining the hedgerows at Hodge Lane, Hartford Junction, Cheshire, between the bridges. © Copyright Jo Lxix and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s had elements of the road movie. Travelling, travelling. Watching that amazing spring surge but somehow not being part of it.

But you and I can be part of it. The May flush has produced lots and lots of soft and sappy growth, ideal for softwood cuttings. It’s easy to take cuttings and grow your own plants. Doing this, somehow or another, you feel more part of what’s going on. No longer a watcher but a player.

Softwood cuttings

Softwood cuttings are taken from young, soft shoots early in the growing season before they ripen and harden. There is such energy in these cuttings that they will usually root very readily.

Taking a few small cuttings usually does no harm at all to a vigorous plant and the gentle pruning (which gives some shaping at the same time) may benefit it. When I was out and about last week I begged a few slips of the exotic French lavender from some acquaintances. This was my ‘recipe’.

French lavender. Propagate by softwood cuttings.

French lavender, Lavandula stoechas, looking good in Sardinia, Italy. Copyright Hans Hillewaert, licensed for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Recipe for softwood cuttings such as lavender

You will need:

1 very sharp knife or nail scissors (or a sharp fingernail will do) so you don’t crush the stem

6 slips (small shoots) of very young growth

13cm / 5” pot (terracotta for preference as it allows cuttings and potting compost to breathe)

Some open, well-draining compost (something like half potting compost and half horticultural sand)

1 or 2 see-through plastic bags big enough to cover the pots, to prevent the cuttings from drying out.

What to do:

  1. Nip off six slips of very young soft growth about 10-13 cm / 4-5” long. Put them straight into the plastic bag and fold over the top.
  1. One at a time, take the slips from the bag and cut just below a leaf node (where the leaf is joined to the stem) where rooting hormones are most active, so they are about 5-10 cms /2-4” long. Cut at an angle as that will increase the area for rooting. Remove lower leaves, leaving an inch or so of stem bare; this prevents rot and encourages root formation at the node. Cut any large top leaves back by half, to prevent drying out.
  1. Using a pen or pencil, make six planting holes to accommodate two leaf nodes or about half the depth of your cutting, very close to the edge of pot. Drop in the cuttings and firm soil in place around them.
  1. Put the plastic bag over the top of the pot, possibly secured by an elastic band. Make sure the bag doesn’t touch the cuttings; you may need to support it with twigs, or a bit of metal coat hanger.
  1. Put in a warm place out of direct sunlight. A north or north-west facing window sill where the light and temperature is steady is ideal.
  1. Remove the plastic bag for 10 minutes or so every day to allow air to circulate and reduce risk of mould.
  1. Watch for new growth and, after a few weeks, test for roots by pulling gently on each slip. If the cutting has rooted (‘taken’), then pot it into its own 10cm / 4” pot. When the roots have filled that, either pot on again or harden off and transplant into the garden.

Watch Monty Don take rosemary softwood cuttings for Gardeners' World.

My French lavender cuttings are looking fairly happy and I hope they’ll have rooted in three or four weeks. I’ve also taken some cuttings of other lavender to replace plants lost to winter frosts, and some rosemary for a small and fragrant hedge just where the front gate swings open. Later in the year I’ll take some pelargonium cuttings from a plant with a particularly lovely deep red flower.