Let’s Plant Some Herbs – Explaining Propagation Terminology

Seed-starting is one of the easiest and enjoyable parts of herbal gardening, but some seeds require special consideration and procedures to ensure germination.

Cotyledon: The first leaf or one of the first pair of leaves to unfold as a seed germinates. Cotyledons generally do not resemble the plant’s actual leaves.

Damping Off: A fungal disease that causes seedling stems from shriveling and collapsing at the soil level.

Dark-dependent germination: Seeds that need a light barrier in order to germinate. Most times, if there’s not quite enough darkness, the germination level may be reduced, but many seeds will still germinate.

Germination: The initial growth of a seed.

Inoculant: A bacterial microbe, usually found in powder or liquid form, that is applied directly to seeds in the Fabaceae {legume} family to improve germination.

Light-dependent germination: Seeds that require light to germinate. These seeds are pressed onto the surface of the soil and kept moist until germination occurs.

Multi-cycle germination: Seeds that require a warm cycle, a cold cycle, and another warm cycle before they germinate. This can sometimes require more than a year for germination.

Rooting hormone: A synthetic version of a natural plant hormone that can encourage root formation on stem cuttings. Commercial rooting hormones are available in garden centers and online in powder form, but they are not approved for organic use.

Scarification: The process of abrading the seed surface to make it more permeable. Some seeds have hard seed coats that need to be broken down so that they can germinate. In nature, this happens when they pass through the digestive tract of an animal or are exposed to rough, changeable weather conditions. You can mimic this process by gently rubbing the seeds with sandpaper, nicking them with a sharp knife {if they are large enough} or dropping them in boiling water and then letting them cool to room temperature.

Seed: A plant embryo and its supply of nutrients, often surrounded by a protective seed coat.

Seedling: A young plant grown from a seed.

Stratification: Exposing seeds to a period of cold to break dormancy. Cold stratification helps germinate seeds that would naturally go through freezing temperatures in the winter. You can either sow in the fall and leave the flat outdoors, where it will experience the natural rise and fall of the seasonal temperatures, or, if your winter is not frigid, you can artificially create those cool conditions: In a plastic bag, mix the seed with moist sand or vermiculite, label the bag, and place it in the refrigerator for at least 3 to 4 weeks. You can also place the bag in the freezer occasionally to simulate winter weather.

Propagating Herbs

Plants can be propagated by four fundamental means. They can be propagated by their seeds, grown from root divisions, stem cuttings as well as layering. In order to undertake any of these techniques successfully, it would be prudent if you start by studying the attributes as well as the growth patterns of the particular plant you wish to proliferate. Gaining more and more knowledge about the habits of a plant will help you to propagate the plant more easily.

Growing from seed

Plants produce copious seeds that are vigorous and live for a long period. Naturally, the seeds are driven out of the plants by the force generated when the seedpods split open. Subsequently, they are transported far and wide by sticking to the hairs on the animal hide or under the bellies of birds or by the wind and they land in a new place far away from their original home. In fact, it is possible to sow a number of seeds immediately when they are collected from the fruits enclosing them. On the other hand, some seeds remain dormant for a while prior to becoming feasible as well as ready for germination.

Again there are other seeds that require stratification to facilitate maturing and become feasible for sowing and germination. In fact, when seeds are stratified, they are kept in cold temperatures which they would generally go through in nature during their dormant period in the winter months. Seeds that need to be stratified should be cleaned of dust, soil, and impurities and drenched in water for anything between 24 hours and 49 hours. Subsequently, they need to be packed in any damp medium like sphagnum or sawdust and stored in the refrigerator for a period roughly between one and four months, subject to the species. There are a number of seeds that have further complicated dormancy prerequisites and simply keeping them in cold temperature for any period of time is not sufficient. They require being alternately kept in warm, cold and again warm temperatures.

There is a third type of seeds that are dormant for a considerable period owing to their tough seed coat, which stops moisture from going through till they are notched or lacerated. A section of horticulturists employs a little file to make scratches on the seed coat or to put these seeds in simmering water with a view to make them soft. Soaking seeds in warm water actually make them livelier and makes them ready for germination.

It has been seen that the majority types of seeds germinate most excellently when sown in a neutral soil medium that is porous in nature. However, some plants, for instance, rhododendrons have a preference for acidic soil for germinating, but these types of plants are certainly among the exceptions. Several substances including sand, perlite (a product from volcanoes), sphagnum moss (obtained from swamps), vermiculite (also called expanded mica), pounded granite as well as uncontaminated soil are utilized in the form of germination mediums. You should ensure that the medium is not very weighty and, at the same time, sufficiently substantial to enable the seedlings to grow up straight, while their roots hold on to the soil steadfastly. Using a mixture of equal proportions of crushed granite and sphagnum moss is an excellent medium to start with. In fact, many people prefer to use sphagnum moss as a starting mix, as this substance is extremely resilient to invasion by fungi, which generally weaken and deteriorate the seeds as well as the cuttings. Ideally, you ought to sow the seeds in rows maintaining a space of no less than one inch between them. A common guideline to decide on how deep the seeds need to be sown in the soil says that usually the seeds should be sown up to a depth that is equivalent to their vertical measurement.

Much before you sow the seeds, you need to keep watering the growing medium. Keep the flat in a temperate place, about 70°F. You should keep spraying the seeds many times every day till they begin to germinate. When they start germinating, examine the seedlings closely to detect if there are any fungal diseases. In case you find that the plants have been damaged, prick them out cautiously and annihilate them. Generally, biodynamic gardeners (people who grow plants organically) mist chamomile tea on the germinating plants with a view to avoiding damping off. This herbal tea is prepared by infusing the herb chamomile in water for a couple of days or even more. It is advisable that you apply the spray in the form of a mist with a view to preventing any further damage to the seedlings.

Besides developing damping-off fungus, the major threats to the germinating seeds include allowing the growing medium to become parched and not maintaining a sufficiently warm temperature. Provided you are watchful and succeed in preventing the occurrence of these conditions, you will be able to produce several healthy seedlings, thereby helping nature.

It is worth mentioning here that biodynamic gardeners often bathe the seeds with special preparations based on herbs. People who advocate this method say that when you spray the seeds with diluted solutions prepared with a variety of preparations containing biodynamic compost, it accelerates the pace of germination, makes the seedlings vigorous and also prevent the occurrence of fungal diseases. In addition, biodynamic gardeners support using rainwater for watering the seeds as well as seedlings, as rainwater contains dashes of nitrogen, which is collected when the water from the cloud falls all the way through the atmosphere. According to biodynamic experts, the seedlings are able to absorb the nitrogen easily. However, using rainwater may not be a good thing to do in polluted areas or nearby places where the wind is flowing from the polluted areas.

It may also be noted that the moon affects the sowing pattern by biodynamic gardeners. Substantiating their process, they reveal that the level of underground moisture rises to the surface of the soil during the lunar fortnight when the moon is visible at night (also called ‘waxing of the moon’). The gravitational pull exerted by the moon brings up the maximum amount of subterranean moisture in the soil during the full moon phase. Hence, seeds that are very slow in germinating are generally sown during a full moon and a week following it. On the other hand, seeds that sprout very rapidly, in addition to the seeds that germinate very slowly, are sown two days prior to the new moon and during the following seven days.

When the seeds have sprouted and produced numerous leaves, the seedlings are all set to be transplanted into small, separate containers. In case you want to transplant the seedlings into beds outdoors, make sure that you plant the seedlings no less than 1.25 inches apart. Also be careful while handling the small plants, ensuring that you do not cause any harm to their tender stems as well as roots. You may prepare an excellent potting soil by blending compost, loamy topsoil and sharp sand in equal proportions. Allow the seedling to nurture in the pots for many more weeks with a view to enabling the tender plants to expand their root system as well as produce more new leaves. Once the plants have established their roots and produced numerous leaves, they are all set to be transplanted into their permanent positions outdoors.


Often, perennial plants are propagated by dividing their crown – a procedure involving dividing a large cluster of plants into smaller clumps and replanting them. Generally, the crown division is undertaken during the fall when the plants are in a dormant state. However, some types of plants are also dividing in the early part of spring, prior to the beginning of the new season’s growth. In order to undertake crown division, you need to unearth the clumps carefully and cleanse the soil sticking to the roots using a brush with a view to seeing what you will be doing. Subsequently, separate the plants by pulling them apart or cut the clumps all the way through the top growth using a sharp knife or spade with a view to dividing them into many smaller clusters. Some of the plants that can be propagated well by dividing their clumps with a knife include mugwort, oregano, hyssop, and tarragon. On the other hand, it is better to separate the clumps of garlic, onion, mints and German chamomileusing a spading fork after you have evacuated them from the soil.

It is advisable that you should be very cautious while dividing the plants, because even the slightest damage to their roots may render them unviable for propagation. Be careful while separating the roots and ensure that every plant has its stem/ shoot and roots intact. Once you replant them, you need to water them carefully. In case you are undertaking the crown division during the fall, you also need to provide mulch to the clumps that have been replanted with a view to shield the roots during the harsh winter months.

While handling plants that are very tender or having elongated taproots, you should opt for their propagation by root division. When you undertake propagation by means of root division, you actually chop the plants’ roots into several pieces, each of them having a bud. As new shoots will develop from the buds, you should ensure that each root division has at least one bud attached to it. In addition, root division may also entail separating/ dividing the offshoots developed from subterranean corms, bulbs or tubers, provided these offshoots have the potential to grow into new plants.


Cuttings are of many dissimilar types, including leaf and bud cuttings; stem, root and leaf cuttings; softwood cuttings as well as hardwood cuttings. To ensure that the cuttings thrive and grow into new plants, you need to take them from vigorous plants and at the appropriate time; be cautious while setting the cuttings into a good quality rooting medium; and ensure that you keep the cuttings moist as well as warm till they give out roots.

However, hardwood cuttings are exceptional. Generally, these cuttings are made from the latest growth of deciduous trees and only when the trees have shed all their leaves. Actually, hardwood cuttings are an excellent way to produce sufficient plants to serve as windbreaks and hedges. Each hardwood cutting ought to be roughly between 6 inches and 8 inches having at least three to four nodules or nodes. The node at the uppermost of the cutting should be just roughly one inch from the top. Tie up the hardwood cuttings and put the bundle in somewhat damp sand and keep them in a refrigerator at roughly 50°F for about a month. Subsequently, keep the cutting in further cold temperature, just higher than the freezing temperature, till the spring thaw. When the last spring frost is over, plant these cuttings in a furrow with just their topmost node (bud) remaining above the soil. Water these cuttings every day and keep a careful eye on them till they begin to develop new shoots. Here is a word of caution: ensure that you do not store the cuttings in the refrigerator for an extended period or else they may possibly sprout even before you plant them outdoors.

Softwood cutting are also referred to as greenwood cuttings, which are made by cutting majority of the plants, counting those whose wood is tough. Usually, the new growths of healthy deciduous plants are used for greenwood cuttings. In fact, the stem that would be used as the cutting should split with crack when it is bent. However, if you are able to crush the stem between your fingers, it is considered to tender to be used for cuttings. On the other hand, if the stem just bends somewhat between your fingers, it is considered to be too mature for softwood cuttings. In fact, this is best way to test as well as know whether the plant is sufficiently mature to tolerate cutting, but yet quite young to produce an excellent cutting. Ideally, softwood cuttings should be done either in the latter part of spring or the early part of summer. However, the timings for making softwood cutting differ depending on the type of plant.

Usually, the length of the cutting differs from two inches to six inches. Ideally, you need to cut the stem at about 45° angle and roughly half an inch away from the bud (node) to separate the cutting from the original stem. Softwood cuttings are usually made from the branch terminals and, hence, often they are also referred to as terminal cuttings. Immediately after making the cutting, cover its base with a moist cloth or paper towel and put it in a plastic bag. Examine the shape of the cutting and carefully get rid of nearly all the leaves. It may be noted that having lots of leaves will diminish the prospects of the cutting taking roots.

Remove the cloth or the damp paper towel just before planting the cutting into a bed prepared with moist sand and tiny gravels. Make sure that the cutting stands straight and is properly supported by the medium in which it will take roots. If cuttings have been made in the latter part of the spring or early part of summer they should develop enough and healthy roots by autumn. However, if the cuttings have been made from plants resilient to winter, you may plant them outdoors with a view to allow them to become firm and also let them experience their first winter outdoors after you have relocated them into a medium prepared by mixing equal proportions of topsoil and sharp sand and fertilized by adding little quantities of compost. However, if you are growing the rooted cuttings in containers or pots, you need to keep them under careful observation all through the cold spells, because the soil in the pots freezes much more rapidly compared to the soil in the gardens.


The traditional method of producing a new plant from a plant that already exists is known as layering. This process is employed very frequently for propagating shrubs whose roots are very difficult to cut or separate. Different from cuttings, wherein a part of the plant (especially the stem with nodes) is cut from the mother plant, layering involves encouraging a branch to give out roots by bending it down into the soil and keeping it in that position for a period of time by means of putting a weight (usually a rock) on it. In fact, the process involved in propagation through layering is a very secure one, as it can be undertaken without causing any damage either to the parent or new plant. However, the downside of layering is that it takes much more time to propagate a plant by this method compared to root division and cuttings.

Ideally, layering should be taken up during spring prior to the bud of the plant you have selected open up. First, you need to select a good and sturdy branch, which is long as well as sufficiently flexible so that it can be curved to the ground without much difficulty. Next, you bend the branch to the ground and make a marking at the place where you want it to develop new roots. Remove a small portion of the bark from the place which will be buried into the ground for rooting. Ensure that while cutting the bark you do not cause any damage to the plant tissue just under the layer of the bark. Put in some sand, sphagnum and peat moss to the soil at the portion of the branch where you have removed the bark and set the layered part of the branch into the ground for rooting using a forked stick or a small rock. You may also use a hairpin to hold a slender branch in its place into the ground. Make sure that the top part of the branch that you have layered sticks out from the ground – the tip should never be buried under the soil. At times, gardeners keep the tip of the layered branch out of the soil by fastening it with a stick or by bracing the branch.

By the next spring, it will be time to unearth the layered branch. In order to grow the new plant, unearth it cautiously with a view to protect the new roots and then cut the original branch at a place a little lower than where the new roots have developed. Subsequently, plant this rooted branch in the same manner as you would plant a cutting. This method of propagating plants is known as simple layering. Tip layering is another way you can propagate plants and it is actually a more rapid method of proliferating plants. This method involves only burying the tip of a plant, not the stem, during spring. When you undertake tip layering you can unearth and start growing the new plant in the next fall.