The Beginner’s Guide to Propagating Houseplants

The Beginner’s Guide to Propagating Houseplants

By Jennifer Pattison Tuohy
Want to get back to nature, but can’t leave your apartment? Become a plant parent. Here, five “plantfluencers” share their top tips on getting started with houseplants and growing your collection the natural way.

It’s well known that houseplants are good for the mind, body, and soul. But did you realize that they’re also the perfect quarantine partners?

"Most people are staying at home right now, and they want to feel closer to nature," says Hilton Carter, author of Wild at Home and Wild Interiors, which showcase how to style your home with plants. "Creating a bond with a plant is the same as creating a bond with a pet. That’s why I call them potted pets."

"Plants are great house buddies!" agrees Christopher Griffin, better known as PlantKween on Instagram. "You can put love, care, and attention into these green little creatures and watch them flourish and grow." Griffin first started caring for plants four years ago, and now has more than 150 "green gurls."

Christopher Griffin started caring for plants four years ago and has since embarked on multiple botanical adventures. "Since I started documenting my plant parent journey, I have learned a ton about plant care, and connected and built friendships with amazing plant people."

The popularity of potted plants has skyrocketed in recent years as the Instagram generation has embraced the ABCs of plant parenthood. These are: "Aesthetics—the visual beauty of plants; Biology—the fascinating life of a plant and how it adapts to its environment; and Companionship—the shared connection people can develop with plants in the long term," explains Darryl Cheng, author of The New Plant Parent and creator of House Plant Journal.

Alice Vincent moved into an apartment with a balcony and found herself filling it with plants. "Tending to them calmed me down in a way that nothing else in my life could," she says. She documents her curiosity and learning on Instagram @noughticulture.

There’s just something about the languor of greenery that speaks to apartment-bound millennials, says Alice Vincent, who has written an entire book on the appeal of plants to her generation.

In Rootbound: Rewilding a Life, Vincent explores that connection as she seeks solace after heartbreak. "We’re an entire generation who were raised with the focus on the new, the screen-based, the instant," she says. "When we reached adulthood, many of us discovered greenery, gardening, and plants for the first time, and found that it satisfied much of our need to slow down and connect with something more natural."

Plus, of course, they look really good on Instagram. "The rise of midcentury modern and Scandi styling made a perfect backdrop for greenery," she admits.

Propagating plants is the most inexpensive way to grow your plant family—something Hilton Carter has turned into an art form in his Baltimore home.

With most of us on lockdown and online stores back-ordered through 2021, propagation is the name of the 2020 house plant game. Whether you have a plant or two to work with already, or can convince friends and neighbors to share, growing your own plants is truly a worthwhile endeavor right now.

"When it comes to your overall well-being, plants can be a form of therapy or meditation," says Carter. "When you’re tending to your plants you’re nurturing a life—and seeing that life thrive and grow can fill you with positivity and confidence."

How to Pick The Perfect Plant 

"I have been caring for 60 to 80 plants in my apartment for the last 8 years," says Puneet Sabharwal, founder of Horti. "They provide a sense of grounding to my being. They not only provide aesthetic texture to the space but also create a calming environment."

If you’re just starting your planting journey, these three plants come highly recommended by our plantfluencers as easy to love (aka hard to kill):

  • ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia
  • Snake plant (Sansevieria
  • Pothos aka Devil’s Ivy (Epipremnum aureum)

They all adapt well to varied apartment environments, they’re very forgiving of low light and neglect, and they’re easy to propagate.

There are many shapes and sizes of houseplants that can fit in with your apartment’s decor—and your personal sense of well-being.

Vincent also recommends the rubber plant (Ficus elastica) if you want a statement plant. "It’s quite easy to pick up large plants which can make bold sculptural statements in your home," she says. "Forget the fiddle leaf fig—this is far more tolerant and stylish in my opinion."

Griffin thinks the Monstera deliciosa is a good first plant, too. It’s not as easy to look after as the other three, but caring for a monstera is a great way to grow your plant parent skills.

What Does it Mean to Propagate Plants?

"Don’t water as much as you think you should, and always, always, check the soil to see if it feels damp before you do," says Alice Vincent. "You’re much better giving a dry plant a sodden soaking once a week than a tiny dribble every day—that way, rot lies."

Propagation is the act of creating a new plant from an existing one—asexual reproduction, right before your eyes. It’s a somewhat simple way to expand your collection and grow your love of plants. And because you’re not starting from seeds, it’s relatively quick.

"One of the most amazing things about plants is that every cell has the ability to duplicate all parts and functions of the plant," says Puneet Sabharwal, co-founder of Horti—a plant subscription service that teaches you how to choose the right plant and take care of it. "By taking a cutting of a leaf or stem and creating the right conditions, you can create an entirely new plant."

It’s not always successful, however. "Propagation is, by nature, experimental and requires patience," says Cheng. But for Vincent, the excitement and magic of seeing something root never gets old.

Hilton Carter’s first plant was a fiddle leaf fig named Frank. The relationship spurred a passion and a career as an interior/plant stylist, which he chronicles on Instagram at @hiltoncarter. 

It’s also a way to extend the life of a favorite plant, as you’re essentially cloning it. "The first [cutting] I ever received was a bit of a money tree (Crassula) stuck in water, which was an offcut of my grandfather’s money tree—it’s still going, and I’ve rooted babies besides," Vincent says.

"Plants that you grow from cuttings are always plants you feel more attached to," says Carter, who teaches an online class on propagating. "It’s also a great way to share your passion for plants with friends and family."

Plant Propagation Methods

Darryl Cheng takes a scientific approach to houseplant parenting, focusing on science to understand the fundamentals of plant care. His approach is chronicled on his Instagram @houseplantjournal and in his book The New Plant Parent.

There are three ways to propagate a plant: dividing (separating an already growing plant into two), rooting a leaf (typically done with succulents), or rooting a cutting (a small stem with leaves).

"You can use a leaf cutting to propagate in soil, or a leaf stem to create a whole new plant in water," says Sabharwal. "Aroid plants from the Araceae family [such as pothos, philodendron, and ZZ plants] can also propagate easily both in water and soil."

Rooting in water is the most common approach for houseplants, and the best place to start if you’re a beginner, as it’s the easiest type of propagation and works for most vine-type plants.

"My favorite method is water propagation, because I enjoy watching the roots grow," says Griffin. "I tend to do water propagation for pothos plants, which are some of the easiest plants to propagate."

Propagation requires only a glass vessel, water, and a cutting from a plant to grow a whole new plant.

But it’s not the best method for all varieties of plants, as the roots that form underwater can be fragile and brittle, says Sabharwal. "You can always transfer the clippings to soil as soon as they form new roots, or just leave them in the water and watch the roots coil and get longer."

Soil is a better medium if you are propagating using offsets (aloe, Chinese money plant), plantlets (spider plant), or leaf cuttings (snake plant). Water is good for stems (pothos, monstera), he says.

How To Propagate a Plant in Water

Hilton Carter designed his own propagation vessel, called the Cradle.

To get started, you’ll need a sharp pair of shears or scissors and a clear glass vessel. "Because I was so in love with propagating, I designed my own propagation vessel I call the Cradle," says Carter. "Because they hold the plant babies."

To propagate a cutting in water, select a healthy shoot of new growth on your plant that’s about four to six inches long, cut just below a leaf joint, and remove any leaves from the bottom half of the stem.

Pop the cutting into a glass of water, and place it in a spot with indirect sunlight. Replace the water every two weeks, and wait for white roots to start to sprout from the stem. Let the system develop, and then pot the cutting.

Sabharwal recommends using a small pot when replanting the clippings. Since roots that develop in water are a bit fragile, you can start by transferring rooted cuttings to a soilless mixture of peat moss and perlite. "Then keep introducing more and more regular potting soil every day," he says. "Keep the soil moist, and keep the plant in bright, indirect sunlight."

"My biggest advice for those who are hoping to dive into this planty project is that it’s so crucial to do your research on the green gurl you want to propagate," says Griffin. "Patience is also key when waiting for the green gurl to root (pot that cutting when you feel her roots are strong and mature enough to take to soil). And lastly, have fun with it, learn from your mistakes, and celebrate your successes."

Related Reading: 

The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Your Own Vegetables 

Need a Breather? Get Lost in This Mesmerizing Garden in France

Contributors:

Hilton Carter / @hiltoncarter

Christopher Griffin / @plantkween

Darryl Cheng / @houseplantjournal

Alice Vincent / @noughticulture

Puneet Sabharwal, Horti / @heyhorti 

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