One of my first jobs was at Subway as a certified sandwich artist, which is not a bad gig for a high school kid (I got a 98% on my sandwich artist test, missing a question about how many ounces of lettuce go on a six-inch sandwich; I still don’t know the answer). I much preferred smelling like salami and white chocolate macadamia nut cookies to deep fryers. One of the the owner’s mandates was that we keep the radio tuned to the oldies station, so at a time when Puff Daddy and Third Eye Blind were topping the charts, I was grooving to Manfred Man, Aretha Franklin and the Zombies. And I’m glad for it.
But it sometimes means songs of old get stuck in my head on a loop. I frequently forget myself and blurt out, “Someone left a cake out in the rain!” in a warbly falsetto for no reason at all.
This week, I’ve been sing-shouting, “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich (is he rich?) like me?” and have managed to spook even the dog.
But I do love “Time of the Season” and it’s an appropriate song for this week’s activity. I’ve got a bare spot by my ferns that gets about four or five hours of sun a day and, honestly, it’s a spot that I don’t often get to in the course of a season, so I’d like to fill it up with a low-growing, shade tolerant perennial ground cover that I can, more or less, forget about.
Why, how about thyme? It fits the bill, and I have several plants from which I can take cuttings, because I’m going to need roughly 20 plants to fill in the bald spots. Pots of thyme are going for $3.49 a pop at local greenhouses. I don’t particularly want to spend $70 on plants that I’m going to basically forget about. I want to spend $0, and I can if I take cuttings.
I’m using thyme, but this will work with just about any soft-stemmed herb. It works pretty darn well with basil and most houseplants, and many others. Experiment. Go wild and see what you can get to root.
To start, using scissors you’ve hit with a bit of Lysol or similar disinfectant, you want to take cuttings that are 4 to 6 inches long that are “soft” and green, not woody. Here’s a woody stem, which won’t work:
Here are soft green stems that will work (green for go!):
The red marks are places where you could cut the stem off. You want to cut right above a set of leaves and, truth be told, I seem to have the best success when I cut right on the leaves. It’s OK because you’re going to strip off the leaves from the bottom half of the stem anyway.
The important thing is to get these cuttings into water right way, no futzing around. I take a cup of water out to the garden with me and I plunk them right in as soon as I cut them. Once they’re cut and stripped of their bottom leaves, I put them on a windowsill in any kind of clear glass container: jars, bottles, shot glasses, whatever works. Clear glass lets in the sunlight.
But! These guys need a very humid atmosphere, so you need to cover them. This is where all of the random barware and Mason jars that you have can come in handy:
And if you have a mess of Mason jars with rings lying about, you can make a clear “lid” with plastic wrap:
So, that’s pretty much how it’s done, with one important caveat: Like your undies, you need to change the water every day. The plant gets oxygen through the water, so it needs a fresh drink each day.
If you change the water and keep them covered, you should start to see roots in just a few days, though some plants will take up to a few weeks. If after two weeks you don’t see any signs of roots, pitch the stem and try again. And, when you take cuttings, take more than you think you’ll need because some of them just don’t work. But here’s what it looks like when it does work:
See those little white things at the bottom? Those are the roots. They’re about a half an inch long, which is the perfect length to move the cuttings from water to a light soil-less mix (in the stores, it’s called seed starting mix and it’s usually a combination of peat moss, vermiculite and some other stuff I can’t remember, but it’s lighter than soil and easier for the roots to develop in). You don’t want to wait until the roots are a long tangled mess; shorter is better.
I mix up some of the soil-less mix with water and put it in a clear plastic cup that I’ve cut some drainage holes in. I make a hole in the mix with a pencil, set the plant in it, and then gently backfill the hole. You want to treat these roots carefully because they’re fragile (fra gee lay).
Then I set the plastic cup in a shallow jar filled with some water so the roots can start to get used to the soil-less mix but still have plenty of water to drink while they do (a derivative of the “soil soup” idea).
Don’t forget to cut holes in your cup!
You’ll want to gradually cut back on the water. I like to mark where I filled the previous day with a dry erase marker, so that when I change the water, I add a little bit less each day. You’ll see my mark in blue below:
And, of course, you’ll want to keep this guy covered, too, for a week or so until you see it’s established and you’ve gotten to a point where there’s almost no water in the jar. I’m using a big vase that’s at the center of one of Chefie’s practical jokes with his co-worker in which they keep sending each other the vase. I don’t fully understand the joke, but the boys are having fun, and I’m glad it’s in our possession at the moment until it gets returned in some elaborate scheme involving a big box and lots of bubble wrap:
This may seem like a lot of work and fartin’ around, fartin’ around, making a major production out of everything, but it takes me about 10 minutes to cut the thyme and get them settled in glass containers on the window sill. And it takes about 5 minutes each morning to change the water. And then when they’re ready to transplant to the soil-less mix, it’s another 5 minutes or so per plant. And the one above, in the practical joke vase, will be ready to plant outside by August at the latest.
So, in my book, it’s well worth the few minutes here and there to save $70 and to enjoy the satisfaction that I did it all myself. Here’s hoping in about six weeks, I’ll be on my way to beautiful carpet of no-hassle thyme to complement my ferns.