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How to Propagate Bonsai and Make Cuttings

Many of you have asked me to do about cuttings. It is a topic that I know fascinates many of you and it certainly fascinates me.

When I was first thinking about making this video, I walked around the nursery to make note of all the types of cuttings we do. In front of me here I have some samples of the types of cuttings we that we produce at the moment.
bonsai greenhouse
Why are People Fascinated by Cuttings?

Cuttings are simply a method of propagation and I like to believe that most bonsai enthusiasts are also horticulturalists and gardeners. And when you are a gardener one of the great joys of gardening is the ability to propagate things yourself. Those who propagate don’t necessarily do it to save money, although it does help. Most people who take cuttings do it for the fun of propagating.

I have always had a keen interest in plants. Ever since I was a small boy I have always felt a real delight when I see cuttings become new plants.

When I was living in India I would use cuttings of plants like hibiscus, sugarcane and bougainvillaea. I would stick them into the soil only for them to become brand new plants in a matter of weeks. I always thought it would be wonderful if we as humans could cut the tip of our finger off, plant it in some soil and create another person! However, with all jokes aside and without delving too deep into the realms of science fiction, I don’t believe that it is too farfetched to imagine that in 100 years or so we may be cloning humans by growing embryos from human cells.

Unlike people however, plants have the unique property of self propagating. When plants self propagate, the new plant that grows will be the exact copy of the parent plant.

Now Let’s talk about the samples I have here. In front of me I have some cuttings from juniper, fig tree, Chinese elm, cotoneaster, crab apple, miniature roses, zelkova, camellias, ease of spruce, satsuki azalea, itoigawa juniper, hinoki cypress and so it goes on!
bonsai cuttings
Before we get into the detailed process of making cuttings I must mention that there are many different types of cuttings. There are softwood cuttings, semi-hardwood cuttings and hardwood cuttings. Today I’m mainly going to cover softwood and semi-hardwood cuttings. Those are the types of cuttings you will use most in bonsai.

I also want to briefly mention root cuttings. Here I have a Chinese elm which is commonly and incorrectly sold as Zelkova. Chinese elm is in fact Ulmus Parvifolia. Chinese elms have thick and long, straggly roots which can easily be used to make cuttings.
chinese elm root cuttings
To plant root cuttings to create new plants you will need to plant the root into the soil and let the head stick out. Root cuttings are easily made from wisteria and crab apple which I have in front of me here. Another variety that roots very easily is the fig plant which I will also demonstrate to you later.
crab apple plant
These cotoneaster cuttings are only six months old. Cotoneaster roots ever so easily. The piece of wood I planted in the soil to get this tree was thicker than a pencil and yet it has rooted so quickly and easily. This is an example of a plant made from a hardwood cutting..
cotoneaster cuttings
A soft wood cutting on the other hand would be from something like a Crasula. You can simply stick a soft cutting like this in the soil without hormone rooting powder and I guarantee after about two weeks it will start to root.
crasula propagation
Now this is a fig I made from a hard wood cutting. If you wanted to make a soft wood cutting from this plant you would just use the soft material. This you can see here has grown in the last two weeks. To make a cutting you would just need to snip a bit off like this…
edible fig tree
snapping branch from fig tree
Then remove as many leaves as possible so they don’t draw too much moisture. You can also dip the cutting in hormone rooting powder and once you stick it in the soil you will get a new plant within a few weeks.
fig tree cutting
I now want to go over Chinese juniper cuttings as this is a favourite species for bonsai and grows very easily from cuttings. Here is a Juniperus Chinensis San Jose which some people call the Californian juniper. This Juniper is on its way to becoming a bonsai. It is only around 5 or six years old.
chinese juniper bonsai
This is the same plant species and the same age. I make sure to keep it short. I don’t let it grow too big. If I let it grow in the ground without pruning it after about a year it would be ten times as big as this.
chinese juniper trees
This is a two year old cutting of a San Jose Juniper and a plant that I rooted late last year. You can see it has plenty of roots. These plants root within about a month.
san jose juniper
sanjosejuniperroots
We have a lot of large plants on the nursery from which we do the cuttings but I want to demonstrate how you can make a cutting on a smaller plant such as this. I’m going to take a bit off from here.
plant cutting
When you get a pruning like this you can make something called a heel cutting which you would make by pulling the branch like this.
heel cutting

Then you need to clean up the tip, remove the lower leaves and it will be ready to stick into the soil.
cleaning heel cutting
Here is some Chinese juniper material that we typically use for cuttings. We prune all the time on our nursery, so we have tons of material to work with. Normally we compost or burn excess material but I keep a lot of it to propagate.

The material is from the end of a branch which I have pruned off a Chinese juniper. My advice for propagating is that you should never be too greedy.
chinese juniper material
juniper material
When propagating we sometimes use hormone rooting powder. There are many types of hormone rooting powder on the market but all types include the ingredient IBA (indole-butyric-acid). If you use hardwood cuttings such as this you will need a very strong rooting powder. I always believe in tearing the heel of the hardwood cutting and dipping it in hormone rooting powder.
hormone rooting powder
cutting dipped in hormone rooting power
I wouldn’t encourage you to use wood that is very hard. The best material to use is what we call young semi-hardwood material. On this branch there is softer wood higher up. Remember the thicker the material the less likely it will be to root. The best material for making cuttings will have the thickness of a matchstick or even a toothpick. Wood that has just started to get hard is best.
end of cutting
Another popular species for propagating is the Japanese maple. This is the famous Shisi Gashira or Lionhead Maple which is a very desirable plant. I don’t like to throw any scrap of this away. I used this plant the other day for an air layering and this material is what I have left.
shishi gashira
If you look closely at this plant we see a very good example of semi-hardwood. The wood has just hardened and all this growth is from the last few months.
shishi gashira
The plant is still soft and still green. If we compare the semi-hardwood to last year’s growth we can see a difference in colour. Last year’s wood is a brown slightly purple colour. You can propagate the hardwood but the chances of it rooting are less likely that if we were to use the semi-hardwood.

Again, I prefer to use a heel cutting. I tear away at the heel, remove the bottom branches and leave one or two pairs of leaves. The reason for this is that too much foliage will make a lot of demands on the root system and dry the cutting out. The less foliage, the better.
preparing cutting
Some professional growers even cut of half of the remaining leaves.
cutting leaves in half
This method is best shown with a fig cutting such as this. This is so that the transpiration process will only take place from half the leaf. If you leave the whole leaf it will transpire (loose too much moisture) and will make the rooting process more difficult.
cutting leaf in half
cutting leaf in half
Using the methods shown I would say I have had a 95% strike rate, meaning for every 100 cuttings I make around 95 will root.

Those of you who have more experience with propagation may be wondering why I haven’t shown the nodal cutting method. A nodal cutting is simply a cutting where you prune a branch off and cut it just below the leaf joint. With a nodal cutting you would still cut the leaves down to reduce their size.

I think the heel cutting is one of the most effective methods. Where I can, I always try to make a heel cutting.

When propagating you need to know which varieties of plant root easily. Certain varieties of plant such as the cotoneaster can root from very hardwood cuttings. You wouldn’t have to use very strong rooting powder either. Certain varieties are easier to strike than others.

You can use many mediums for propagation. What I have here is a standard base compost – a 50/50 mixture of orchid bark and sphagnum pete moss. Some species will propagate in sand but I find this mixture is best for most varieties of plant.
base compost
As we are a commercial nursery we use these large propagating trays. When propagating you need good drainage. You mustn’t stand the soil in water. You will see all these trays are very deep and have a lot of holes at the bottom.
propagating tray
propagating tray 2
Fill it to the top with soil.
filling tray
Some people use vermiculite which is also very good for propagating. I’ve also known people to use bark. Really anything with an open-airy texture will be sufficient for propagating cuttings.

I recommend planting cuttings in a tray as deep as possible. If you use something shallow like a seed tray there will not be enough depth for the cutting. You want a soil depth of at least two inches.

There are certain cuttings such as this Ficus where each time I prune it I can create many cuttings. Ficus grows very easily from cuttings. It is also another example of a plant that will root from hardwood.
potted ficus
You can tell when a plant has rooted when new growth has produced. You can also tell by tipping the plant out of a pot.
rooted ficus
To propagate the plants I will take the cuttings that have already been dipped in hormone rooting powder and place them into the tray.
planting soil
You will see I place the cuttings in at a slant and as deep as possible into the tray. This is because the more contact the cutting has with the growing medium, the more chance it has of rooting. I usually group the cuttings into same species when putting them into the tray. Not only does this help to keep the plants organised but different species root at different times.
planting cuttings in soil
Some of you may have seen the video I did on making bonsai from nursery material. In that video I showed a very rare form of Alberta spruce. I made cuttings from that plant and placed them into this tray. You can see now that every single plant has rooted which just goes to show how easy it is to root Pieca cuttings.
alberta cuttings
spruce cuttings
The final thing I will show you is how to make root cuttings from the edible fig plant.
edible fig bonsai
This lovely Ficus Carica plant has a habit of producing suckers from its roots. If you leave the suckers to grow they will take away the nutrients from the parent tree and inhibit its growth. Every now and then it’s important to get rid of the suckers. You can see the bottom of the plant has an abundance of self made cuttings.
edible fig roots
All I need to do is tease away at the roots. It’s such a vigorous plant that I don’t have to worry about the tree dying.
teasing fig roots
There are about 30 rooted suckers here that will all form beautiful little plants.
rooted suckers on fig plant
The Ficus Carica roots very easily from hardwood cuttings however these are root cuttings.

I can see this cutting will make a delightful little bonsai.
rooted sucker on fig plant
Even a sliver as small as this will form a new tree.
edible fig cutting
There you are! I hope you found this helpful.
peter in greenhouse