Gardening Tip: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It!


20170408E.jpgHere’s a principle about laidback gardening that I don’t emphasize nearly enough: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

When a plant performs well for you or a gardening technique works in your case, even though experts say it shouldn’t, don’t change anything. And that applies even if I’m the so-called expert!

Plants and gardening are full of surprises and often things that shouldn’t work do. For example, I’ve seen:

  • Roses blooming quite nicely in a woodland even though “everybody knows” that they need to be planted in full sun.
  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) positively thriving in zone 3, whereas in theory it’s not reliably hardy beyond zone 5.
  • African violets full of flowers that their owners claimed were fertilized with…birth control pills!

The gardening world is jam-packed with these exceptions. Sometimes really good overall garden conditions can compensate for a weak point, for example, but other times the result is simply a total mystery. However, if it works, does it matter? Just keep on trucking!

He Said, She Said

Of course, sometimes conflicting gardening advice is simply due to two different points of view on how things should be done and both methods work. Here’s one example.

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Sure you can root cuttings in water… but you’ll get better results if you root them in potting mix.

It’s easy enough to prove that softwood cuttings root significantly better when rooted in potting soil under high humidity (under a plastic dome or inside a clear plastic bag) then when placed in a glass of water. Try a side-by-side experiment at home with cuttings from the same plant and you’ll see: soil-grown plants started “under glass” (the term used for starting them inside a mini-greenhouse) inevitably grow faster with greater vigor and are less subject to rot than cuttings rooted in water. But cuttings rooted in water often do well enough too, especially easy-to-root plants, like philodendrons and coleus. So, if it works for you, keep at it!

Just Don’t Poison Anybody

I have a hard time, however, stomaching home remedies that could have serious consequences… and there are a surprising number of them. Yes, they often work, but the risks just aren’t worth taking.


Insecticide made from cigarette butts: who are you trying to kill? The pest or yourself?

For example, homemade nicotine insecticides, popularly made from tobacco or cigarette butts, are just too toxic to be used safely. Imagine! A spoonful of many of these homemade concoctions could easily to kill a child! Yet there are still many people who use such nicotine pesticides without even wearing protective clothing. If that’s your case, may I suggest you stop immediately?

Another example is the popular technique of placing mothballs in the garden to keep away cats, groundhogs, deer, etc. Yes, it may sometimes be effective and you may be pleased with the result… until your dog eats them and dies. And young children in the neighborhood could mistake them for candy! No, the risk is just too great!

When you garden, no, you shouldn’t mess with success. As long as you’re pleased with the results, just keep at it… but do make sure what you’re doing is safe!20170408E

Starting Cuttings in Water: Not Such a Good Idea


The roots of these coleus cuttings are far too long: pot them up without delay.

For generations, gardeners have been rooting cuttings in a glass of water placed on the windowsill. And it works… sometimes. But it’s still not the best way to root cuttings.

You see, cuttings grown in water get too much of a good thing: H20. Yes, they need moisture to root, but they also need oxygen. And as water sits on a windowsill, it becomes more and more stagnant (oxygen-depleted). Also, most stem cuttings give off their own rooting hormone… that is diluted and therefore less effective when they sit in water. Plus harmful bacteria start to form on stems sitting in water, coating the stem and new roots in a gooey sludge, while rot-causing fungi, which do best in an oxygen-depleted environment, tend to move in and work their way into the stem. Fast-rooting plants (coleus, begonias, etc.) do all right in water, but other cuttings seem to start well, then go downhill. As well they might, given the declining state of their environment.

Secondly, even when the cuttings root successfully in water, people tend to leave them there far too long a time. Soon the glass is full of roots that are impossible to transplant intact, especially fine roots, which clump together when you take them out of the water and tend to break when you spread them out as you pot them up. Your newly rooted plant can lose half its roots or more as you plant it and each wounded root can possibly lead to rot: not such an auspicious beginning!

Rooting Cuttings in a Substrate


Root cuttings directly into a substrate.

You’d do better to root your cuttings in a tray or pot of some sort of substrate: it just needs to be well-aerated and fairly sterile. Potting mix, seedling mix, vermiculite, coarse sand and perlite are good choices. (Pelargoniums especially seem to prefer sand or perlite). Soil fresh from the garden is not a good choice, contaminated as it is with microbes! You can apply rooting hormone to woody cuttings, but just slip green ones right into a moistened substrate. You’ll find more information on rooting cuttings in a terrestrial environment in Now is the Season to Take Houseplant Cuttings.


Transfer cuttings from water to a terrestrial environment as soon as you see the first signs of roots.

Still Sticking With Water?

Old habits die hard and if you wish to continue rooting cuttings in water, that’s your business. Just don’t wait too long before potting them up. As soon as you see small white or yellow nubs appear on the stem (these are future roots), transfer them to potting soil so they can start their life in an appropriate terrestrial environment. In some cases, that means your “cuttings in water” will need to be potted up in just 3 or 4 days!