How to Turn Your Plants Into...Way More Plants (for Free!)

Why we're filling our home with all the greenery.

January 25, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

During the busy holiday rush not too long ago, two of my co-workers surprised our team with the neatest gifts. Your mind might immediately go to a pan of Super Fudgy Brownies or a stack of Chocolate Chunk Cookies, but not this time (though we'd certainly never say no to those types of treats either).

My dear teammates brought in a smattering of plants—yes, plants! More specifically, cuttings from Pothos and lipstick plants, as well as some succulents. These "pups" or "babies," as they're known in green parlance, are usually pulled (gently!) or neatly cut off from the stem of an existing plant. With care, these offshoots can regrow, or propagate, into lively and lovely plants of their own. It is a fun, inexpensive, and feel-good way to add more greenery into your lives—especially for all of us city dwellers, whose small quarters and lack of outdoor space have us craving nature in any form.

"We know there is something innate about our longing to live amongst plant life," Caro Langton and Rose Ray tell me. They run Ro Co, a "green interior" company in London that gives advice on how to bring more green into urban spaces. "A bit of greenery transforms a space like magic. Because so many people, particularly younger urbanites, can’t afford their own home (and often don’t have any outside space), we think that indoor plants offer an affordable and nurturing way to enhance their living spaces."

We couldn't relate to this statement more. Read on for information and tips for propagating success, excerpted from their latest book, Root, Nurture, Grow. You'll also find below my continued conversation with Caro and Rose about the best types of plants to propagate from, and the biggest misconception of plant care.

Understanding Propagation

About a year ago, Rose rescued a damaged—but particularly pretty—succulent from a local gardening fair. The scrawled writing on its tag simply read: "mother of thousands." Huddled neatly around the fringe of every leaf were row upon row of plantlets, each a tiny replica of the parent plant, many of which, on closer inspection, had happily flung themselves onto the surrounding compost. Long story short, we now own a lot of mother of thousands (Kalanchoe daigremontiana) plants.

Propagation is the way in which plants reproduce, and there are two types: sexual or asexual—the latter is also sometimes called vegetative propagation.

Sexual propagation in plants involves seeds. It starts with pollination and, later, germination. It requires the meeting of two different sets of genetic information (the pollen from the "male" plant and the reproductive organs of the "female" plant) and results in a brand new, genetically unique offspring. It’s a bit like human reproduction, but with more bees and squirrels involved.

For the casual indoor gardener, the specific conditions—and very long wait times—required can make experimenting with seeds seem a little bit daunting. What most people ideally want is to be able to propagate their plants without too great a risk of failure.

Plants are magical because they contain cells that can easily grow into other parts; for example, the stem of a plant can produce roots, while a tiny portion of leaf or root can create stems. This is what asexual propagation—and this handbook—is all about: easy, inexpensive and generally faster techniques for expanding your plant family.

Asexual methods of propagation are also wonderful for their spontaneity; there is nothing better than being able to bring a little piece of a plant home, whether taking a cutting from a foreign plant discovered while traveling (with the permission of the owner, of course), or being gifted a precious offshoot from a relative, friend or neighbor.

There are so many reasons to learn about propagation: more (free) plants; plants with a backstory, and therefore more personality; and, perhaps most importantly, a way to connect with the natural world. For many, the emotion bestowed upon these organic forms as they grow, thrive and flourish often goes much deeper than a superficial need for something beautiful in your home, however valid or appreciated that might be. Plants and flowers embody progress, optimism and even our urge to celebrate a simple love of life.

Whatever the plant you’d like to propagate, our detailed propagation table should help you determine which method of propagation is best-suited to its needs. It lists many of the houseplants we have come to know and that we’ve found people love best, together with the most successful propagation methods for each plant.

Tips for Successful Propagation

1. Choose plants that are healthy and pest-free, unless as a last resort.

2. Propagate during a plant’s active growing period (this is usually spring or summer), and before midday if possible.

3. Fertilize the plant several months before you intend to start propagating.

4. Water the plant to be propagated a day or so beforehand; this is particularly important for succulents.

5. Ideally collect rainwater or use distilled water to quench your plants. Let it come to room temperature before watering.

6. Take more cuttings than you need, as some (sadly) may not flourish.

7. Keep cuttings at a suitable temperature—consider providing bottom heat during colder seasons by using a heated propagator or heat mat.

8. Reuse old materials, such as glass jars, plastic bottles, and takeaway boxes, which make brilliant drainage trays.

9. Always make sure tools and equipment are clean, from your cutting knife to your container.

A Chat with Ro Co

HANA ASBRINK: How did you first get into plant care, design, and (re)growing houseplants?

CARO LANGTON AND ROSE RAY: We met and studied fashion design at university together; afterwards, Rose went on to work in set design and I was a textile print designer. Years later, we were both feeling dissatisfied with our careers and began to experiment with designing miniature gardens to sell on Broadway Market in East London.

At this point we were living in Highgate in North London. We were able to use my grandparents’ old conservatory as a home base to create all kinds of products and plant arrangements, research horticulture, and generally cover ourselves in compost. We naturally learned a lot about the care each species of plant required, and wanted to help others find confidence to do the same.

Each week, we took our creations to our Broadway Market stall, and the response we received from the very first Saturday made us realize that people were, like us, beginning to see indoor plants as a way to reconnect with the natural world, and combat some of the limitations of living in an urban landscape.

This led to us writing our first book, House of Plants, and designing much larger-scale indoor gardens in collaboration with architects and interior designers. At the same time, we realized that indoor plant enthusiasts were asking "what’s next?" with their plants, and so we wrote Root, Nurture, Grow to help teach people how to multiply and share their favorites.

HA: What are your thoughts on the rising interest in plants and plant care in recent years?

CL & RR: The ever-increasing diversity of plants on offer now is extremely exciting. We know from our plant suppliers in the Netherlands that, once there is enough demand for a particular plant, they will try and cultivate it. Therefore their ranges are continuously developing with new trends. There’s no end in sight for the boom in indoor gardening, which makes us extremely happy!

HA: What are the best types of plants beginners should consider cutting and propagating from, and why?

CL & RR: Generally, the faster a plant grows, the quicker it will root. Therefore, begin by taking cuttings from those that are quick growers, such as vines and other tropical climbers and trailers, such as Scindapsus, Philodendrons, and Epiphyllum. Species from the Coleus and Begonia genera are also super resilient, and quick to root.

Division is also a great technique to try, because you can instantly multiply a plant (including its roots, stems, and leaves) and not have to wait for ages to see new growth. It’s so satisfying and easy, and a great way to share a plant with a loved one.

HA: What is the biggest misconception of plant care?

CL & RR: With cacti and succulents, it’s that they don’t need water. It’s sad to see a succulent clinging on to life, desperate for a good drink, especially in the summer when they should be sprouting, flowering, and generally grabbing the attention of the room.

Make sure to give cacti and other succulents a generous watering (always with good drainage) whenever the plant’s soil is dry throughout; normally this is about once a fortnight in the spring and summer, and much less frequently in the autumn and winter.

That said, there is also the common misconception that a wilting houseplant is thirsty, and must be watered immediately. Droopy, lifeless stems and leaves are more likely to be caused by root damage from overwatering, so make sure to check the moisture level of a suffering plant’s soil with your finger before reaching for your watering can. If you feel any dampness, hold off watering a drooping plant until its soil is completely dry.

We are so excited to be a part of the green revolution, and we love to encourage others to share their plant queries and successes with us on via Instagram. You can follow us, and get in touch @studio.roco.

Caro Langton and Rose Ray are the founders of the successful ‘green interior’ company RO CO, and authors of the new book Root, Nurture, Grow: The Essential Guide to Propagating and Sharing Houseplants, published by Quadrille October 2018.

How green is your thumb? Share your love for plantlife down below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Smaug
  • HalfPint
  • Louise Cervi
    Louise Cervi
Hana is a food writer/editor based in New York.


Smaug January 25, 2019
"Pups" or ("offsets" as plant people generally prefer) are not really the same thing as cuttings; an offset is an already complete plant produced for reproduction, while a cutting is a plant part encouraged to grow roots. A lot of succulents produce offsets, mostly rosette forming plants, particularly of the crassulaceae, such as the vaarious popular "hens and chicks". Kalanchoe Daigremontiana (and several other kalanchoe species) produce complete plantlets on the leaves; these often grow roots while still attached to the mother plant- I've even known them to produce plantlets off of the still attached plantlets. These plants are rather an extreme case of ease of propagation. There are also succulents (also mostly crassulaceae) that will easily root from detached leaves- common examples are Sedum Morganianum ("Burro's Tails") and Crassula Argentea ("Jade Tree")- some begonias and African violets can also be propagated this way. Succulents in general produce roots as a reaction to intermittent moisture- as opposed to other plants that require constant moisture. To grow them from actual cuttings (as opposed to offsets) they should generally be cut (neatly!) and allowed to dry out for several days, until a callus forms over the cut. They should the be placed on top of the cutting medium-not buried- and allowed to dry out between waterings. Good media are sand and vermiculite- I grow a lot of cuttings in soil, but a sterile medium is better for succulents. Roottone or some similar substance can be a help, though more for the fungicide than the rooting hormone, I think. Some people also use "willow water"- water that has had willow twigs soaked in it- or aspirin to help rooting.
Smaug January 25, 2019
Non succulent plants is a whole separate subject, but a few that are generally quite easy are most garden herbs, roses (though some grow much better than others on their own roots) and just about any sort of vine. And houseplants- the way to get to be a popular house plant is to be easy to propagate and hard to kill, and practically all are both.
HalfPint January 25, 2019
What are your (or their thoughts) on using a rooting hormone to encourage cutting to root?
Louise C. January 29, 2019
Very interesting