When are Cuttings Ready to Prune?

You’ve taken cuttings in the late summer or early fall. Fuchsias, petunias, geraniums, whatever it is that you chose to do this year. Some cuttings have started to grow and you’ve tossed out the ones that chose to wither and die. It’s the middle of winter now and the survivors are taking over the house. What do you do now?

Cuttings Survival

Every summer I do my best to start a ton of cuttings. With an average fifty percent success rate, I make sure I start a lot of them. Some I’ll start in water, some I’ll put in a light potting soil, but every once in a while 80-100 percent of my cuttings sprout and thrive and I’m inundated with plants that I can’t bear to throw away.

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I started fuchsias, petunias, zonal geraniums, and Martha Washington geraniums in the Fall of 2020. It was too late for petunias and Martha Washington geraniums. Not one of them took because the mother plants weren’t actively growing at the time. Those particular plants had started to die back expecting the frost to come any day. So a whopping zero success rate on those. Note to self, if you want to take cuttings, be sure to take them in August, not September or October. At least this is the case for the northern growing zones (USDA zones 3 or 4).

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Then there were the fuchsias. A 90-95 percent success rate had me swimming in seedlings. Yes, it was the same for the zonal geraniums. Now what to do with them? You can’t give them away at this time of year, it’s the middle of winter. No one has room for an army of plants. Instead I started moving them around the house and repotting them.

I got out the hanging baskets and filled them up with the fuchsia seedlings. The previous year I wasn’t happy about some empty spots so I knew I wanted to add at least one more plant to each hanging pot. No problem! Instead of just two per pot, I was able to put three plants in each one. Success!

One of the fuchsia baskets in the front south facing window after a hard pruning. The sun reflecting off the snow does bring in more light through the window than normal.

As for the geraniums, if they were blooming, I’d bring them upstairs so we could enjoy the display. If they weren’t blooming, I’d keep them downstairs under lights. The south facing window in the living room was their happy spot. While still not enough light for them to be as healthy as when they are outside, they sprang forth in their slightly leggy glory and took over the table. The flowers on their long stems hung low and crowded out the other plants. It became a veritable jungle.

The geranium jungle before pruning. The flowers looked beautiful but it was time to take drastic measures.

Chop Chop

Yes, it was time to prune them back hard. It’s the end of February now so they will have a few months of growing inside which is plenty of time to recover. Besides the time of year, what other signs did I look for before making the decision to start chopping?

First, they were demanding a lot more water. Instead of needing water every 4-7 days, they were needing it every day. This was the case for the fuchsias and the geraniums. This did not compliment my negligent ways. With so much profuse growth, all of these plants were just sucking up the water. The geraniums in particular would start wilting, especially on their upper-most leaves, even by the next morning.

Second, they were leggy. The fuchsias had large leaves because they didn’t have enough light. In the summer, once I get them the proper light levels, and proper length of day, their leaves are about half the size of what they are when I first grow them indoors. Ah, the sad plight of having no heated greenhouse.

The geraniums were tall with wide areas between the leaves, they needed to be much bushier. I chose today to start pruning everything back because one geranium had gotten so top heavy that I knocked it over after barely touching it. It was time to give in, bring out the machete and cut paths through the jungle.

Third, I knew that I wanted more than one specimen of the red geranium. I needed to take another cutting anyway so now was as good a time as any. May as well do everything at once.

The last reason? OK, not a valid reason, but it was time to feed the composting worms. I had a few vegetable trimmings and coffee grounds ready to take to the hungry critters so why not add a little more to the pile?

The geranium trimmings were piled high when things were done. I was sorry to see the blooms go but having more that are ready to bloom under lights make it easier to get these back under control.
The fuchsia trimmings were overflowing the compost crock. Not a lot of blooms to cut off so it was a little less painful to chop off the long branches. (Like this ceramic compost crock? You can find it here.)

Neatness Counts

It may seem like the main reasons to start pruning was for neatness. That isn’t exactly the case.

Fuchsias need to be cut back regularly during the growing season anyway. Any time you cut back an actively growing branch, it will send out side shoots. Fuchsias are proficient at growing long side shoots. The best hanging basket is full of flowers and new growth. It should look very bushy. Cutting back to 4-5 inches above the soil will keep this process going strong. My goal is to have a basket so full of branches hanging down, that it will be difficult to see the pot itself. Last year I had a bare spot where I could see the pot. Pruning fuchsias often and turning the pot for even sun exposure should take care of this problem. Fingers crossed.

Geraniums usually look best with one main stalk. Pruning them will change this habit and make them more bushy. I’m OK with that. If you prefer one main “trunk”, you should probably stick with buying them from the nursery. These plants had grown so top heavy that they were leaning to one side or the other. They were crooked. Pruning them to several inches above the soil will help me keep tabs on that uneven growth. In the end, they will be bushy and they will keep flowering, which will be my measure of success. The more flowers I get from them, the more stars I put in the gardening journal to note another success. Fist pump!

Feeding

To keep these plants on track for summer blooming they will need fertilizer.

I have known gardeners who fertilize with every watering. I’m not a proponent of that. It is much too easy to build up salts which can damage the plants. I’ve killed a few African violets this way so I’m pretty careful about it now.

Fertilize with a well balanced fertilizer (20-20-20) every 3-4 weeks during the winter. This will keep the plants growing lush foliage and may even keep them blooming in the house for quite a while. Both the geranium and fuchsia cuttings have been blooming well, though the fuchsias don’t really get covered with blooms until the days get longer starting in late April or May. By that time they are going outside during most days and coming in at night.

Actually, the most important “nutrient” these cuttings could have is natural sunlight. Even though both fuchsias and geraniums prefer partial shade, getting them outside to soak in the rays for a few hours a day always gives them the boost they need. Yes, it’s the end of February here in zone 4, but whenever we have a warm day, I’ll get as many plants outside as possible.

Generally temperatures over 50 degrees Fahrenheit is what I’m looking for. This will depend on the tenderness of the plants, but fuchsias and geraniums will be fine at 50 degrees. Always be cognizant of hardening off these plants by keeping them in full shade for the first day or two and then adding more sunlight over a week or more. It’s just the little things we can do to help them acclimate.

In our northern growing zones, it is always a balancing act. If I put a plant outside for more sun, will the lower temperatures then stunt it and slow its growth? This is where you need to know your specific plant. Petunias are so tolerant of cold, I’ll get them outside pretty fast and they will still be fine. I might put them outside during the day when the temps are in the 40s, for example. When it comes to much more sensitive plants like peppers? I may wait until the temps are over 60.

Know your plants. Know what they can tolerate. And always remember to treat them gently, harden them off, when you first start putting them out in the cold, cruel world.

Worm Food

For those of you who have worm bins like I do, I ended up with an armful of green food to add to the worm bin. Really, it was too much to feed at one time. So what did I do?

The worm bin before piling it high with trimmings. I had used a paper bag to cover the top of the bin, and this photo shows how the worms were just starting to eat the center of the bag. This is supposed to happen. Paper bags are hard to keep moist so are best shredded and moistened when adding to the worm bin.First, I cut them into smaller pieces so that I could fit more into the feeding tray. I didn’t go too crazy with this but I did cut them into reasonable sizes. Despite this, the tray was still mounded with the thin soft branches. The mound was high enough that I left the geranium cuttings to add later. (Want to learn more about composting with worms? Click here to learn more.

The worm bin piled high with trimmings. One lonely geranium leaf could fit but the rest of the geranium leaves and stalks will wait for a few days.

It won’t take long for the tray to settle so I’ll check it in several days. Then I’ll repeat the process. I’ll have to cut up the geranium stalks fairly small at that point, but it will work. I don’t want this material to be rotting before I add it to the bin. Not necessarily for the worms’ sake, but because of the mess.

If you’re looking for a worm bin like mine and an excellent source for composting worms, click here for Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.

The lucky thing is that we’ve been feeding the worms more vegetable scraps lately so they’ve naturally been adjusting to a larger amount of food. Because of this, I know it will only be 3-5 days before I can add what’s left. If the worms haven’t caught up, I’ll just take the geranium stalks to the outdoor compost and be done with it.

As always, an equal amount of brown material was spread on top before covering with wet newspaper and the cover. Right now, I have several small pots of potting soil that I’m using as brown material instead of the usual coco coir and shredded newspaper both moistened. The potting soil works great if I don’t have someplace in the garden to dump it. A little added water to make sure it’s moist enough and then spread it right on top of the green (fresh) worm food. One more way to recycle potting soil.

The pile of worm food covered with old potting soil for brown material. Each feeding needs to have an equal amount of green and brown.
With the food and brown material heaped up in the bin, It’s covered with moist newspaper to help maintain an optimal level of moisture.

 

 

Don’t worry about the food mounding in the bin. It will quickly settle and reduce as the worms feed. In addition, the lid to the worm bin is domed to allow for this to happen.

Summary

If you haven’t tried to grow a few plants from your summer garden, it may be time to give it a try. Your biggest limitation may be space so be prepared to prune and trim heavily sometime during the winter. You’ll still end up with lush growth by late Spring when you want it most. And your worms will thank you too.

Let me know how your cuttings are doing or ask a question in the comment section below. Good growing!

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