Propagating Your Favourite Shrubs

I read an article the other day about propagating shrubs from  softwood cuttings, which inspired me to have a go.

Sambucus nigra 'Black Beauty'

Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty’

I have two Sambucus nigras— a ‘Black Lace’ and a ‘Black Beauty’. The ‘Black Beauty’ has been wonderful–dark foliage, a lovely shape, and beautiful umbrella-like pink flowers in the late spring.

Sambucus nigra 'Black Beauty'

Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty’


‘Black Lace’ should be the same except with lacier leaves, but for me it’s been horrible, shapeless, gangly branches that are more like a climbing rose than a regular shrub, and this year it’s been constantly covered with black aphids–my most detested pest. No amount of blasting with water inhibited them and there weren’t any lady beetle larvae gobbling them up. In the end, I decided it wasn’t worth keeping, so I chopped it down and when I get around to it, I’ll dig up the stump. (Have to admit here that I saw a friend’s ‘Black Lace’ on Saturday and it was  beautiful!)

Now I want another ‘Black Beauty’ to fill the spot. What a perfect time for the inspiration to propagate with softwood cuttings to strike. Thanks Gardener’s World for the tutorial.

So now readers, you get my tutorial: I’m going to try to increase my stock of Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty’ and show you the steps as I go along.

1. First problem is finding the softwood cutting. According to the article your cutting should be a non-flowering lateral shoot, this year’s growth, and neither very young nor old enough to be woody. Hmmm, non-flowering. Almost all the branches were flowering branches.

Sambucus nigra

Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty’ softwood cuttings

These are the cuttings I’ve chosen, but only one of them is “non-flowering”.


Sambucus nigra; this one had no flowers on it.

I didn’t spend an awful lot of time examining the branches to find ones that were non-flowering, mainly because every one (but one) looked like the shoot below:

black beauty cutting 1

Sambucus nigra. Initially it looked like a non-flowering shoot, but looking more closely I saw the stump where the flower stem fell off.

Never mind. I’m going to use them all, and if only one grows roots, all I really need is one. The “softwood” part is a bit subjective: Gardener’s World didn’t define “softwood”, so maybe it’s not critical to get that exactly right. Susan Grillo from Fine Gardening defines softwood as mature enough to snap off when bent over. Too immature and it just bends, and too mature doesn’t snap because it’s too woody. I didn’t really test mine; I think they’re pretty soft, but too bad. The concern with too immature is they don’t have the structure to stay alive long enough to get roots. If mine collapse and rot, I’ll just try again in another month or so.

2. Roots are going to grow from the area just underneath the outermost layer, because that’s where the growth hormone that stimulates root growth lives. So I’m going to do two things: strip the bottom leaves off, leaving a little “wound”, and scrape a little bit of bark at the bottom tip.

This pic is a bit fuzzy, but only realized it after I'd planted up all my cuttings.

This pic is a bit fuzzy, but only realized it after I’d planted up all my cuttings.

3. Next thing is rooting hormone: this is the same hormone that the plant produces naturally, so by applying some, we’re just giving the cuttings a bit of a boost. Sort of like an energy drink.

Rooting Hormone.

Rooting Hormone.

I’ve read somewhere that rooting hormone (usually in powder form, altho’ mine is a gel) is only fresh for 6 months and after that should be replaced. Mine is at least a couple years old, and doesn’t have an expiry date on it. So I’m using it.

Ucky green gel--looks a little like slimy algae!

Ucky green gel–looks a little like slimy algae!

Most package instructions say to dip the cutting in the rooting hormone, but I poured a little into a saucer so that, if there’s some bacterial or fungal contamination, it won’t get into the bottle.

4. Planting: This is the easy bit–well, it’s all been easy, once you know how. Seedling potting mixture, dampened, not drenched, dib some holes with a pencil, tuck in the cuttings.

Seedling potting mixture

Seedling potting mixture in a 4″ pot.

Holes for the cuttings.

Holes for the cuttings. Four cuttings, four holes.

All tucked in for bed.

All tucked in for bed.

A couple of things to notice in the picture above: I cut all the leaves in half to reduce the amount of moisture that the leaves breathe out (“transpiration”). But the leaves are still photosynthesizing (making energy from the sunlight), so which does the cutting need more: energy or moisture? Don’t know the answer to that, but almost every source says to cut the leaves in half. So I did.

The other thing to notice is how slumpy the cuttings look. It’s recommended that the cuttings be taken early in the day so they have maximum moisture. I cut mine at 4 pm, at just about the hottest part of the day, just about the hottest weekend we’ve had in this hot dry year. Not optimal. But I’ve heard it said that the best time to do something is when you have the time and inclination. That’s when I had the time and inclination.

But now there’s one last step, and it also has to do with moisture:

Nope, not trying to suffocate my babies.

Nope, not trying to suffocate my cuttings.

Cover the whole pot with a plastic bag, secure with a rubber band, and inflate it with a straw (or put a couple chopsticks in the pot) to keep the bag off the leaves. That maintains  humidity, again helping to prevent the cuttings from drying out before they have a chance to put out roots and begin to fend for themselves.

Now we wait. And watch. I’ll check the potting soil for moisture every few days, look for any fungal growth that would signal the death knell, and then in a few weeks I’ll give a gentle tug on the cuttings to see if they’re growing roots. If there’s resistance, there’s probably roots, so I’ll leave them a little longer until there are roots growing out the bottom holes, and then divide and pot up individually. I’ll keep you posted.

Great Gardening Books

Oh dear, I fell like RLGS is turning into an Ad Agency. Today I got an e-newsletter from North Coast Gardening about some Kindle books that Amazon has on sale. So of course I checked them out, and within a minute I was the proud owner of another Tracy DiSabato-Aust book, “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden”. 

WEll-Tended Perennial Garden

I already have “The Well-Designed Mixed Garden” and love it, so I highly recommend her books.

If any of you have great suggestions for gardening books, I’d love to see them. Leave a comment…


“Details” Pinterest Board


Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Green Arrow’



I’ve been adding to  a new Pinterest Board I’ve called “Details”–pictures I’ve taken on my walks of interesting gardens or garden features. E.g. above is a picture of a tall narrow house on a very narrow lot with a Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Green Arrow’. I like the fit, the look, and the balance with the Japanese Maple toward the left.

So check out the new Board–I’m adding to it almost every day.


Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foester’, lavender of some variety, berberis of some variety. Cute combo, especially with another year’s growth.



Retro-Fit Garden Rooms

Retro-Fit Garden Rooms

“The way you view a garden is basically the route your eyes take as you look at it. If you try to take in the whole garden with one glance, chances are it’s going to be quite boring. Ideally, you want to be able to go from one point of interest to another and experience an interesting visual journey.” Successful Garden Design–Rachel Matthews

I’m a plant lover.

My garden is an un-designed melange of plants often planted singly, and located according to the plant’s needs, not the design’s needs. Now in some ways that’s a good thing–locate a plant according to its needs, and you get a happy plant, often a self-propagating plant, and a plant that requires a minimum of extra care. But a lot of healthy, cool, colourful or bold looking plants doesn’t necessarily make for a great looking garden.

Block of Colour

One of the principles of garden design is using enough of the same plant to create a block of colour or texture. For example, a wave of feather grass, or a patch of Blue Salvia. This allows the eye to settle in one spot before moving on the the next, giving a sense of smooth movement to the garden bed(s). But the plant-lover/acquirer doesn’t have room for many of the same thing–after all, there are so many wonderful plants that would be happy in my garden, why have just the Blue Salvia or just the feather grass, when in the same space I could have the salvia and feather grass, and echinacea, and peonies, and delphinium, and, and, and…

Separate Sections

So for the person who has to (addictively) buy beg or otherwise acquire more and more plants, one design tactic you could employ is separating sections with something large enough to hide what is behind, creating a bit of a “secret garden” effect. Might be a shrub or tree, or several to create a hedge.


This espaliered apple tree could be a garden “wall divider”. In my non-designed yard it’s a “lawn divider”.

Could be an arbour, or wall, with or without plants trailing up or down. Maybe art work. These all have the added bonus of drawing the eye upwards instead of always being on the same plane.

Even if you find yourself with a jam-packed garden bed and no room left for anything, you can look around for a suitable spot where you could divide the garden bed.


These teepees are for peas to climb. But they could easily be for clematis. Or they could be more substantial structures/obelisks that would sustain more vigorous climbers.

You’ll have to dig up something in order to plant/position your divider, but then odds are you can replant whatever came up.

This Sambucus (Black Elderberry) 'Black Beauty' forms a dense shrub with light pink flowers later in spring. Can be small tree-height.

This Sambucus (Black Elderberry) ‘Black Beauty’ forms a dense shrub with light pink flowers later in spring. Can be small tree-height. It can also be hard-pruned to keep it small.


Try to think of your garden in terms of areas/sections/rooms, and then create them with these wall dividers. Your jumble of colours and textures will take on a different character as the garden is “retro-designed” to create transition and flow.

As always, would love to hear your comments and questions.




A How-To on Pergolas and Arbours (or Arbors)

A How-To on Pergolas and Arbours (or Arbors)

I’ve been trying to get the definitive answer to “What’s the difference between a arbour and a pergola?”

There is no definitive answer. The moment you think you’ve found one, some other word-police will dispute it.

So here’s MY definition: an arbour is a small archway supporting some kind of vining or rambling plant. It may or may not be over a path (mine isn’t), or an entrance to a garden room (mine sort of is), and it may or may not have enough space to fit a seat for one or two (mine doesn’t).

you can't actually walk through this arbour, it's got a Westerland rose growing underneath. But it gives a sense of definition to the garden bed, and there's a path now on the other side.

You can’t actually walk through this arbour, it’s got a Westerland climbing rose growing underneath. But it gives a sense of definition to the garden bed, and there’s a path now on the other side.

A pergola is larger garden structure, more for the sake of people underneath it, providing some degree of shade either along a walkway, or over a patio/seating/entertaining area.

Why have one?

There are a lot of reasons to have a tall man-made element in the garden. First of all, just its very presence draws the eye upward, increasing the dimensions of the space. It also gives a sense of “ceiling” to your garden “room”–even if you’re not sitting underneath it. Trees do that as well, usually on a much larger scale, so the arbor/pergola will lend a layered look. It can give definition to the edges of the garden, or a direction to move to or through. These are design features. There are of course also practical features: some degree of shade, a structure to facilitate vining plants, a place to locate a bench.

Front yard, back yard

Depends on what you want your structure to do. Here’s a house that I think would look really cool with a pergola across the front, above the retaining wall (won’t discuss the gravel “hellstrip” beneath):

Pergola across the front above the retaining wall??

Pergola across the front above the retaining wall??

There are a lot of houses in my neighbourhood with this kind of format, some with higher retaining walls, some with lower. I live in the “South Slope”, so kind of goes with the territory. And I’d love to suggest some ideas to this owner–except there isn’t an owner yet.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a seating area, but if instead of the little sad boxwoods (and what’s with the solitary Thuja occidentalis in the corner?) there were tallish ornamental grasses along the edge, a small patio with facing benches and a fire pit would work, taking advantage of the view downhill toward the river. Semi-private while still featuring the view, mostly open “ceiling”, so the upper balcony wouldn’t be looking down on a roof.

Anyway, an idea for a front pergola; here’s another: Photo CreditHCRBL210_house-front-yard-after_s4x3_lg

Vines Overhead or Not

If you are going to be sitting underneath this structure, I would highly recommend you confine any plant material to non-messy, restrained growers. Grape vines? VERY messy. Hops? Kiwi?  Anything that doesn’t get harvested will fall and make a mess, which also includes whatever the raccoons have a go at. Or wind: last year I lost half my ready-to-pick grape harvest to what I thought were racoons, then realized the night before there was a howling gale. Then the racoons got at them.

Then there are the really vigorous vines that need to be frequently pruned, or they attempt to strangle you as you’re sitting there. Campsis (trumpet vine), honeysuckle, some rambling roses. If it grows REALLY fast in one season, it’s not the best choice for your overhead structure (under which you are sitting). Ditto for wisteria; lovely, but unless your structure is made of steel, Wisteria japonica (the commonest one) will eat it for lunch.

Campsis radicans

Campsis radicans

Heavy-duty or Lightweight

This has to do with aesthetics and whatever may or may not be growing on the structure.

A small house, or one with fine features or a modern vibe, will be better complimented with a structure that is lightweight, not bulky, not rustic. Your home’s personality (which hopefully will also be your own personality) should be reflected in most of your garden design. If your home has big features, bulky pillars, dramatic angles, giant trees, your pergola/arbour should do likewise.

There are lots more decisions to be made about your overhead structure–freestanding or attached? vinyl, wood, steel? big or little? open or enclosed? You get the idea. Have a look at pictures–Google images has a lot of options, and my Houzz Ideabook might spark your creativity. There are lots of kits available, construction information for the DIY-er on Youtube,  or you might prefer to actually hire a professional for that custom look.

If you like the idea, get started now thinking, planning, locating, designing. And let me/us all  know what you think and what you’re planning and designing. And of course, click the “Follow” button.