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Raising new plants from cuttings is one of the most reliable ways of propagating. In general, the technique involves taking a small piece of material from a living plant. After inserting into a rooting medium, the cutting is able to produce new roots and is then carefully nurtured until large enough to be potted on.
The main advantage of taking cuttings is that cuttings up to 1" thick (dependant on species) can be rooted, speeding up the process of creating a plant suitable for use as bonsai. The other advantage with cuttings is that material that is routinely pruned from bonsai and thrown away, can be used to create new plants.
There are a wide range of cuttings in general horticultural use that can be used to propagate garden plants, from leaf-cuttings to root-cuttings; for bonsai however it is stem cuttings that are normally used. There are 3 types of stem cuttings commonly used, softwood cuttings, semi-ripe and hardwood cuttings.
The Species Guides at www.Bonsai4me.com list the best method and the correct timing for taking cuttings from each species. This gives you an idea of how to achieve good success rates when taking cuttings, however, if material becomes available at the 'wrong time', it can still be worth trying to use it rather than throwing it away. There may be an increased failure rate but you may also gain a number of new plants.
Softwood are the soft, pliable shoots from the current seasons' growth. More often than not, they will be green-wooded. These are nearly always taken in Spring to early Summer when the new leaves on the shoot have hardened off and changed from their Spring colour.
Try to take these cuttings early in the morning if possible. Each cutting should be 8-10cm (3-4") if at all possible, trim the cutting from the host plant just below a leaf node. This is where there are likely to be adventitious buds that will hopefully root in the future. Cuttings that can be taken just below the junction of a side shoot are nearly always more successful as they have a high concentration of natural growth hormones. Trim all leaves off the lower third of the cutting and reduce leaves on the upper two-thirds to just 3-5 pairs at most.
Semi-ripe cuttings are generally taken in mid- or late Summer; they consist of soft-tipped shoots of current seasons' growth (as with softwood cuttings) but have firm and woody growth at the base.
Ripe-wood cuttings consist of the same material as semi-ripe cuttings but have ripened up further and are generally taken from early Autumn to early Winter.
The cutting is taken just below a node for nodal cuttings or with a heel of mature wood for heel cuttings.
Remove all side shoots and trim nodal cuttings to 8-10cm (3-4") long if possible, trim heel cuttings to 5-7cm (2-3") long if possible. Remove leaves on lower third of cuttings and for semi-ripe cuttings also remove soft tips. Reduce large leaves by half.
Hardwood cuttings are taken in Autumn (after leaf-fall) to early Winter. They consist of the leafless shoots of fully ripe growth up to 1" in diameter. Trim to 15-23cm (6-9") if possible, with the top cut just above a bud or pair of buds and the bottom cut just below a bud or pair of buds.