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Ward off the winter blues with plant propagation

Dark blue-purple elderberries hanging on pink stems

In a season of chilly air and cold soil, gardeners cannot help but catch “spring fever”. The remedy for most is trays of soil and tiny seeds – a start of the summer garden – but transplanting those seedlings is a long way off. If plant propagation by seed is too much to remember, try growing plants from cuttings. With a few pruned limbs, you can grow entire plants. 

At The Refuge Food Forest in Normal, woody perennial fruit crops require annual early spring pruning of both diseased and healthy wood for better airflow and sunlight penetration. Sometimes, the amount of wood pruned is substantial. It is common to remove 1/3 of the healthy growth on elderberry and ½ of the healthy growth on black currants to encourage summer fruiting on vigorous new growth. Normally, the pruned wood is disposed of. However, a lot of the healthy trimmings have the potential to become brand-new elderberry or black currant plants on balconies, or in yards, of Bloomington-Normal neighbors.  

Elderberry and black currant are ideal beginner-level propagation crops based on their prolific growth tendencies which increases the chance of establishment in a variety of soil and sun conditions. As a bonus, both are tolerant of shade, so they fit into most landscapes.  

When propagating pruned black currant wood, place 6–8-inch fruiting canes immediately in a cup with several inches of water to encourage rooting. If water is not immediately available, wrap cut stems in a plastic bag to avoid drying out. Place the cup of cuttings in a window that receives some natural sunlight, at room temperature. The cup should be clear to allow observation of root formation. Small, white roots will emerge from the base of the canes within weeks. After root formation, place cuttings in ½ - 1-gallon pots with high-quality potting soil. Return them to a well-lit window, water when potting soil is dry, and wait for the black currant plant to leaf out from bud sites. The pot size will allow the cutting to develop into a strong specimen for planting outdoors in late April into early May. 

Elderberries are even easier to propagate. Elderberry cuttings have a remarkable capacity to root in soil. Cut a 6-inch section from the base of the pruned cane. Plug the base of the 6-inch section 2 inches into the high-quality potting soil in a ¼ - 1-gallon pot. Follow siting and watering recommendations for black currant cuttings. New elderberry plants will be rooting in no time flat and ready for transplant in early May. 

To some, this may sound complicated, especially if they have never pruned or propagated anything before. As an introduction to woody perennial fruit propagation to community members, there will be black currant and elderberry cane cuttings available (limit 3 per family) next week at The Refuge Food Forest. The free cuttings will be available, on a first-come, first-served basis. Once in possession of the cuttings, follow the instructions above. Soon you will be growing plants that would sell for a premium at a professional nursery. Follow The Refuge Food Forest Facebook page for the drop-off announcement. 

Propagate these easy-to-grow plants to ward away the winter blues and enjoy black currant and elderberry jams, jellies, preserves, syrups, pies, and more in the years to come. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Frillman is a Local Foods and Small Farms Educator serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. A fourth-generation graduate from The University of Illinois, Frillman has a B.A. with a double major of Political Science and Spanish and a M.S. in Crop Science with a focus on crop production. Before joining Illinois Extension, Frillman completed a field season of CSA and farmers’ market-style production at a small “beyond-organic” vegetable farm in Sandy, Oregon.