The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (2023)

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Propagating in soil is, in my opinion, a bit riskier than propagating in water, BUT there are definite pros to doing it this way.

To significantly increase your chances of success with propagating vining plants, I urge you to leave the cutting attached the plant before you cut it (if the shape of the plant makes this possible).

A lot of people propagate plants to make their plants less leggy – especially plants like pothos and Rhapidophora tetrasperma – and burying a node in the soil and not cutting it until it’s rooted is a great (and easy) way to root cuttings without risking the cutting.

Can you propagate directly into soil?

Yes you can, but I don’t think it’s the easiest way to propagate unless you’re a very diligent plant carer. If you’re prone to a bit of underwatering and neglect, I don’t think soil propagation is for you.

In order for a plant to root, we need to get oxygen to the cutting, and we also need to keep the cutting moist (but not wet, otherwise it may rot). Rooting in dense soil is great for keeping the cutting damp, but not so good at allowing oxygen to it. Airy soil is great for oxygen, but you risk the cutting drying out.

Ideally, we need an airy soil that’s kept consistently damp, but not overwatered. That’s…simply too much pressure for me.

If this sounds like too much hassle to you, consider propagating plants in leca.

Some plants are hardier than others and propagate pretty easily in soil. I’ve had success with Monstera deliciosa, peperomia hope, and succulents.

The process is very simple – take a cutting, and stick it in the soil.

How you take a cutting varies depending on the plant. With Monstera, you’ll need a node, which is the lumpy thing on the stem that the petioles (the bit that attaches the leaf to the stem) and the aerial root grow out of.

My Monstera has a bit of a gnarly stem (she old), so here’s a photo of my Rhapidophora decursiva which has an EXTREMELY pleasing growth pattern:

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (1)

Isn’t it so nice and uniform?

This one? Not so much:

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (2)

It does have multiple nodes, so tbh you could cut it anywhere, stick it in soil, and it’d root, but it’s not as clear to see.

Btw, don’t worry about spent nodes. Nodes can keep producing leaves over and over again, though some plants will only produce one leaf per node at one time. So it’ll only have one leaf, but if that leaf dies, it can grow another.

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (3)

How long do cuttings take to root in soil?

It varies a LOT, depending on the type of plant you’re propagating, the conditions around the propagation, and how consistent you’re going to be with keeping the soil damp.

One of the main issues I have with soil propagation is that you can’t easily check your progress. You just have to be patient.

If you do need to check the roots (for example if the leaves are dying and you want to know if you have any roots), uncover the soil gently (think digging up a dinosaur bone) rather than yanking the cutting out.

Roots are covered in fine hairs, which are used to absorb water, and damaging them will hold up the process.

I have an article here about speeding up propagating in water and the same principles apply:

  • Oxygen

Make sure the cutting is getting enough oxygen to the wound, and the developing roots. To really speed up the roots forming, you need an airy soil mix that’s kept evenly moist – not wet, and don’t let it dry out.

  • Light

Bright, indirect light, and no direct sunlight. Grow lights really speed up root formation in my experience BUT if they’re on full whack expect the existing leaves to die

  • Rooting hormone

Dip the cut end of the cutting into rooting hormone – this will encourage roots to form faster. Be careful when you’re planting it, because the powder formulas can get knocked off easily.

  • Humidity

A humid environment can really speed up rooting and can help to preserve the existing leaves. This is only important for plants that like higher humidity anyway – a cactus for example will NOT appreciate it.

  • Water

The cutting will need to be kept moist because otherwise it’ll dry out and roots won’t be able to form. A moist substrate will help speed up root formation. I like to spray the top of the soil every day, rather than water it, to keep it at a consistent…moistness (?)

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (4)

Do plants propagate better in water or soil?

In my experience, plants 100% propagate better in water than in soil, but it will depend a LOT of the type of plant caregiver you are.

They certainly root faster in water, and I feel like there’s a lot to be said for being able to see the roots.

HOWEVER

Before you’re put off completely, what I will say is that BY FAR the worst part of propagating cuttings in water is transferring them back into soil – obvs not an issue when they’ve lived in soil their whole life.

Remember that successful propagation is 90% about the environment. Water propagation is easier for me because I live in a cold, fairly dry area, and I’m quite lazy.

If you live somewhere warm and humid and check your plants daily, you may be able to propagate in soil really easily.

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (5)

How often should you water cuttings in soil?

Controversially, I’m gonna suggest you don’t water them very often. I would start with very evenly moist airy soil – water in sans cutting, and mix it round so it’s not saturated at the bottom. Add your cutting, and then mist the surface thoroughly daily (trying not to get the cutting). Twice a day if it’s hot or dry.

By ‘mist’ I mean properly wet the surface of the soil. Every week or so, stick your finger in the soil further down, and water it ‘properly’ if it’s dry.

If you don’t think that that’s enough, and your soil is drying out quickly, then you *could* water more often, but I would put it in a propagation box (an old glass jar or clear plastic box) so that you can keep the humidity in without risking the cutting rotting.

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (6)

What soil is best for rooting?

If we’re talking about strictly soil, I’d go for either orchid bark, or a mix of house plant potting mix, orchid bark, and perlite.

The airier the better, unless you’re going to forget to check that it’s not drying out. You also need to make sure there are no air pockets, because the soil needs to make contact with the cutting in order to get water to it and stop it drying out.

You could also try just perlite, leca or pon. With these, you can either put a small water reservoir in the bottom (the water level needs to be below the waterline), or just run water through the substrate every few days.

Bear in mind that cuttings rooted in leca, perlite or pon will grow water roots rather than soil roots and may be a little trickier to transfer to soil BUT you can keep them indefinitely in whatever they were rooted in, provided you give them the hydroponic nutrients. Read this leca article for more information on that.

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (7)

Should you mist plant cuttings?

As I mentioned before, I do advise to mist the soil, but I wouldn’t recommend misting the cutting.

Keeping the cutting in a high humidity area can definitely increase the speed of rooting and can certainly help to preserve the existing leaves on the cutting, but a propagation box or humidifier is the best way to increase humidity.

Spraying the leaves can not only introduce diseases, but it can also lead to funguses thriving if water is left standing on the leaves.

Misting the leaves is NOT a good way of maintaining high humidity.

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (8)

Pros of propagating in soil

  • You don’t need to acclimate the plant once it’s rooted

This is a biggie, since it tends to be the time that the cutting is most likely to die.

When a plant is propagated in water, it’ll grow water roots, which are designed to absorb oxygen from water. Much like how fish have gill to extract oxygen from water.

So when you move the plant back into soil, it won’t have soil roots, and its water roots won’t be very efficient at absorbing oxygen. Whilst it’s growing soil roots, you’ll need to keep the substrate damper than you typically would, in order to help the cutting absorb enough oxygen.

  • You don’t have to keep changing the substrate

If you have a fairly airy soil mix, the plant will be able to absorb oxygen from the air (much like we do). When plant are propagated in water, the oxygen depletes over time, so you need to add more in.

The easiest way to do this is by replacing the water (though you could also add an air stone and pump, or oxygenating plants), which isn’t a massive deal, but it’s just one more thing you have to remember.

  • You can keep the cutting attached to the mother plant

Technically you could do this method (which I’ll explain at the end) in water, but it’s a bit more difficult because it’s hard to secure an uncut plant in water.

It’s effective, but not logistically as easy as rooting it in soil

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (9)

Cons of propagating in soil

  • You can’t see your progress

Water propagation is just that bit more satisfying because you can see the roots! I tried propagating some Ctenathe cuttings in soil, but (as anyone who’s ever tried to do it will know) Ctenanthe curl up and look so sad when they’re rooting. I put them in water because I wanted to check progress often.

Look at them now:

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (10)
  • It takes longer

This is only anecdotal, but I’ve seen a lot of other people experience this. There’s things you can do to water to increase the oxygen which can speed up rooting, but with soil, you’re kind of stuck with what you’ve got.

  • Soil propagations need more coddling

Coddling maybe isn’t the right word, because you actually need to do much more, but you need to keep more of an eye on it. You need to make sure the soil is kept evenly moist without being wet, because if it dries out the new roots might shrivel up.

This isn’t a con to people that love to nuture their plants, but I prefer being able to basically leave my cuttings to their own devices. If you’re like me, try using an old aquarium (a small one is fine) with an inch of so of water and some java moss in the bottom. It’s amazing! The moss is oxygenating so you don’t need to worry about the oxygen levels, and it grows by itself if you put it in the window! Once we have a load, we harvest it (i.e. put it in boxes) and sell it to fishkeepers. Win win!

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (11)

Alternatives to soil propagation

I’ve briefly covered them already, but you can also propagate in perlite, leca, or pon.

I prefer using one of these three as propagation substrates because you can check the progress of the roots more easily BUT I appreciate that a lot of people like the ease of just being able to shove a stick in the soil and leave it.

I just want to note that some plants propagate more easily in soil than others, independent of species. For example, my begonia maculata propagated in soil like a DREAM. The lady who gave it to me insisted that I just stick the cuttings in soil and it would root contrary to what a LOT of people say about begonias.

She was right – it rooted super quickly (I could tell because it started growing quickly), but this isn’t necessarily a begonia trait. In fact, a lot of people struggle to root them.

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (12)

How I propagate plants in soil and succeed every time

This is a little trick that i don’t see talked about it enough, and it’s a gamechanger for people like me that like to buy plants from the reduced section.

I have many plants that I bought cheap because they weren’t growing in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

Here’s my Syngonium Mottled:

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (13)

I think she’s actually past leggy – there needs to be a whole other word for what she is.

She needs to have a LOT of cuttings taken but I find that a bit…overwhelming. She was a gift and quite expensive so I kept putting it off.

Until I noticed that the end was actually trailing into the soil. I buried the node second from the end (I didn’t want the growing tip to touch the soil and damage the new leaves) and behold:

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (14)

Roots!

I’m going to cut it off the main plant once the roots are established.

You can tell when they are by (very scientifically) gently tugging on them. Once they resist, I cut the cutting.

I plan on repeating this process until the plant is no longer leggy. She’s gonna be VERY full.

I’m doing the same thing with my Rhaphidophora tetrasperma , which I bought in broadly the same shape:

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (15)

Not quite as long, but I’ve taken a few cuttings of this before.

Here we have both growth points:

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (16)

On the left you can see the ‘proper’ growth point, which for some reason popped up one day on the second node (rather than the end one, which is the one it SHOULD be growing from).

If you want to get multiple growth points, read this article. It’s all about the humidity.

One the right, the green circle shows the new growth point, the purple circle shows where I actually buried the last node (look how far it grew!), and the coral circle shows another node on that same cutting that I thought I may as well try to root, for a bit of stability.

And here’s the next prop I’m trying:

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (17)

For this next one, I’m going to cut just above where it’s rooted, so it only has one node. Just so I can fit more in the pot.

The benefit of doing it this way is that the plant can provide energy to root the cutting – the soil drying out isn’t ideal, but it’s not going to dry out the cutting. Because, er, it isn’t a cutting yet.

The Ultimate Guide to Propagating Plants in Soil (& how to succeed every time) - Planet Houseplant (18)

TL;DR

  • Stick a node/cutting in soil to propagate it
  • Use an airy soil, and keep it evenly moist
  • Keep the cutting in a bright spot, keep it warm, and keep humidity above 60%
  • Be patient and good luck!
  • If you’re nervous about losing the cutting, see if you can root a node without cutting it off the mother plant.
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