Quick Start Guide to Growing Hybrid Poplars

 and Hybrid Willow Trees From Cuttings

By Bill Ryder, RydersPlants.com

First thing’s first: if you are a customer of mine and have any questions about this after reading everything below, please contact me at the email provided in your package before planting.

Hybrid Poplars and Hybrid Willows are both very hardy and grow extremely quickly.  Treatment, care and initial planting of each are similar.  The following is a “Quick Start” guide to planting fresh cuttings.  This will be improved over time with pictures and videos but I want to get something out there in my own words for my customers, to answer questions that I see coming back to me.

***Note for Summer***: Much of the USA has had very high and sustained temperatures this summer. This can be especially hard on young plants of any kind and I've had customers losing young cuttings and young plants of very hardy species that I've never had this problem with before. I am recommending to my customers therefore, that any and all new plants you may buy be kept in pots inside a residence, or outside in a shady spot that gets no direct sunlight, and wait to plant outside in fall until high daily temperatures in your area are consistently under 80 degrees. Also be very sure to water these plants at least once a day, maybe twice if you find the soil dry as a bone at watering time. Ideally the soil should not become dry and should remain moist 1/2 inch under the surface of the soil and deeper. I think the soils are really drying out because the temps are causing very quick evaporation.

A cutting is basically a piece of a branch anywhere from an inch to a whole branch in length.  Typically the cuttings I sell are about 6” long.

To start them growing there are a few main methods used.  I will outline more than one but please be aware that the only method I endorse, support, and stand behind is the first method!  I also strongly encourage you to read the “Questions and Answers” that are shown below after the growing methods.

For ALL Growing Methods:

I recommend cutting off just the very bottom end (the end that will go into the soil) so that the cutting can take up water easily.

When inserting the cutting into the soil be sure the buds are pointed upward. The following picture shows willow tree buds on cuttings in exactly the orientation needed stick them down into the dirt. Sometimes the buds are not as pronounced, but they are there! Buds should be pointed up.

Growing Methods:

Method 1: Put a well draining potting mix into a planter or other container with drain holes in the bottom.  Well draining potting mix may be a store bought soil mix, usually containing one or more ingredients like soil, peat, coconut coir, vermiculite, perlite and compost.  Insert a cutting into the potting mix so that about ½ the cutting is buried and half sticks up out of the potting mix.  You can put more than one cutting in the same pot as close as 2 inches from other cuttings, in other words, you may start more than one cutting in the same container.  Locate the pot somewhere that will get sunlight, but NO direct sunlight.  This can be inside on a window sill or somewhere outside.  Water the planter once a day with enough water that the potting mix remains damp all the way through.  Continue the routine until you see new lead/branch growth of at least 1 foot in length.  This will occur more quickly than you think.  Days or weeks, not months.  Once you have this new growth, dig out the rooted cuttings trying to leave some dirt on so as to disturb the roots as little as possible, and replant the rooted cutting as you would any other plant you may buy from the store.

Method 2: put the cuttings in a plastic solo cup and fill to ¾ of the height of the cutting with water.  Put the cup on a window sill that does not get direct sunlight.  Check the cup each day and refill to the original water level.  In several days to two weeks your cuttings will grow roots.  When you have roots maybe the size of a golf ball you can plant the rooted cutting as you would any other plant in a pot or outside, taking great care to place dirt around the roots gently so as not to break any of the roots off.  This is easiest with a loose potting mix. Note: while this method has worked for me, many people say the roots produced this way are more fragile than in method 1 above.  It is probably a higher risk of loss in doing it this way.

Method 3: make a hole in the soil where you want a tree to grow, and bury the cutting about ½ to ¾ of the it’s length into the soil.  Yes you can just put the these type of cuttings directly into the soil, BUT this is probably the highest risk method and some cuttings may not make it.  On the other hand with good aftercare and given the relative affordability of these cuttings, this is the quickest and easiest method.  You just have to be ok that some cuttings won’t make it.

Regarding ALL methods: once you plant your rooted cutting in its final location it is very important to keep it watered so that the soil never totally dries out for the first few months.  They will grow in full sun to partial shade in many kinds of dirt and are drought tolerant ONCE ESTABLISHED, but as little rootlings the greatest threat is going to be packed, dry soil.  They need the soil loosened a bit around them at planting time and to be kept from completely drying out FOR SEVERAL MONTHS.  If you have soil that dries out quickly I would recommend amending with peat moss or composted mulch to aid in water retention.

Questions and Answers:

  1. Hey Bill, should I soak the cuttings when I get them?  My advice is “no”.  They are packed to stay moist anyhow if they come from me.  If you are going to treat them using one of the Growing Methods above right away, there is no need to do a presoak before that.  Actually if you soak the whole cuttings they can actually get waterlogged and not do well.  Now if you receive the cuttings and are not ready to handle them right away, at least set them up using Method 2 above just temporarily and then you can proceed as soon as you can after that.
  2. Sir, should I use rooting hormone?  No!  Both of these species make enough of their own hormone that adding prepared hormones can only cause damage and may actually kill your cuttings!  There is no need for rooting hormone so there is just not a reason nor advantage to taking a risk of using additional hormone. They will root without using any hormone products.

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