Teaching children about propagating plants in water or soil
Propagating plants in water or soil is a great way to ‘grow’ your plant collection for free! Some plants are easier to grow in water than others so you may want to start with easier ones first.
Propagating plants in water or soil with children also allows them to learn about plants and how they grow and reproduce. The Science National Curriculum for England recommends that children try growing plants from cuttings (Year 5). Propagating plants in water is also a great way for children to observe parts of the plants (plant structures) and how they grow and change (Year 1). It provides them with the opportunity to examine different parts of the plants and their structures and then to begin to understand their purpose (Year 1). Older children can see firsthand the different functions of plants (Year 3). Observing plants can help them to see what plants need to grow and stay healthy (Year 2, 3).
There are many edible plants as well as house plants which can be grown from cuttings. This means there is a lot of choices depending on time, space and if you want to keep them for decoration, eat them or plant them outside!
What you need for propagating plants in water or soil
- Containers – You can use glass or plastic bottles or glassware to grow your plants. I often just use our water glasses if we plan to plant them in soil later. If you’re going to have young children help, it might be wise to use plastic bottles.
- Plants (for the cuttings)
- Plant fertilizer
How you take cuttings can vary depending on the plant. For some plants, there are several options as I will discuss here.
Propagating plants using stem cuttings
First, I will discuss how to take cuttings for plants such as Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema), English Ivy (Hedera Helix), Philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum), Pothos (Epipremnum aureum), Wax Plant (Hoya), Arrowhead (Syngonium podophyllum), and Wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebrina).
For these plants, it is possible to take a cutting from the stem. Make the cuttings at least 6 inches long with at least one node (where the leaf offshoots). Try to have at least an inch of stem below the final node so that you can place it in water without submerging the leaves. Some of these plants such as Ivy, Pothos and Philodendron have little bumps that easily grow into roots. Try to include some of these in your cutting as this will make it easier to grow roots. Place the stem in the water with the leaves above the waterline. You will need to add in a little bit of fertilizer to the water as well. The water should be replaced every 2-3 days. The roots should begin to grow within days or weeks depending on the plant and the time of year.
The plants can be grown in water indefinitely or you can plant them into the soil after a couple of weeks (when the roots have grown). Alternatively, you can place the cuttings directly into the soil to grow roots rather than rooting them in water first. A final option to propagate is to repot the plants. This is done by dividing them and placing them into different pots (they will then grow and multiply in the new pots).
Propagating plants using runners or offshoots
Some plants, such as spider plants and strawberry plants, have runners which are little offshoots that can grow into new plants. These can be cut off and placed in water or a new pot to grow roots. They can also be left attached to the ‘mother’ plant and placed in a new pot to grow roots and then cut off once the roots of the new offshoot plant are established. I have found it easiest to cut them off and grow the roots in water before replanting in soil.
Many succulent plants, such as jade can be propagated by taking a cutting and placing it in water or soil to grow roots. However, for plants such as Aloe vera, I have never found this to work. Aloe vera tends to grow ‘pups’ or ‘babies’ which are offshoots of the ‘mother plant’ connected by the roots below the surface. These offshoots can be separated and cut off and then replanted in the soil so that they can grow into larger plants.
Best plants to grow from cuttings
House plants to grow from cuttings
The following plants can be grown from cuttings, runners or pups. They can all be rooted or propagated in water as described above, apart from Aloe.
- Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema)
- English Ivy (Hedera Helix)
- Philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum)
- Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)
- Wax Plant (Hoya)
- Chinese Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena braunii)
- Arrowhead (Syngonium podophyllum)
- Wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebrina)
- Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum wallisii)
- Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum) *produces runners
- Jade Plant (Crassula ovata)
- Succulents (particularly from the genus Echeveria)
- Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis) *produces offsets. These are best propagated from offsets in soil rather than in water or from cuttings.
Best herb plants to grow from cuttings
The following plants can be grown from cuttings by cutting 6 inches (or more) of the plant. There should be some leaves and at least one node (the point where leaves grow out from the stem). Be sure to leave at least an inch below the node so that the stem can be placed in the water without submerging the leaves. They can be planted in the soil after the roots grow.
- lemon balm
- peppermint *produces runners
- spearmint *produces runners
Old vegetables to grow from cuttings
It is possible to regrow some of your old vegetables from scraps. You can place the base or top of the vegetable in a bowl of water (change every other day) to propagate. The roots will regrow and you can then plant them in soil. You should check out this post by Sensational Learning with Penguin about growing food from scraps!
- Carrot tops
- Spinach, bok choy
- Lettuce (romaine) – from stems
- Green onions (bottoms)
- Leeks (bottoms)
What children get from propagating plants in water or soil
There are many benefits to children from participating in gardening. As discussed above, propagating plants in water or soil links well with England’s Science Curriculum. Propagating plants is a hands-on way for children to learn about plants’ structures, what they need to grow and stay healthy and their reproduction. Yuan-Yu et al. (2016) found that hands-on gardening is particularly beneficial to children’s learning.
In addition to supporting children’s learning, gardening and outdoor learning have been shown to have a range of other benefits for children. Gardening is associated with a range of health outcomes including improved physical, psychological and social health (Soga et al., 2017; Soga, Gaston & Yamaura, 2017; Dopko, R.L., Capaldi, C.A., & Zelenski, J.M., 2019). There is growing research to show that nature has positive effects on children’s mental health and wellbeing including measures of resilience, self-esteem, stress, and quality of life (related to health) (Tillmann, et al., 2018; Van Lier, L. E., et al., 2016; Yuan-Yu et al., 2016).
Outdoor learning has been found to support learning in maths and science and the use of creative and critical thinking skills (Waliczek, T.M., Logan, P. & Zajicek, J.M., 2003). Garden activities have also been found to promote children’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) for learning (Laaksoharju, Rappe & Kaivoa, 2012).
Take it further
See some of my other posts on activities for gardening with children including Collecting Seeds, Gardening with Bulbs and Best Plants for Classroom Learning. You may also want to see my post, Growing Tomatoes with Children.
Dopko, R.L., Capaldi, C.A., & Zelenski, J.M. (2019). The psychological and social benefits of a nature experience for children: A preliminary investigation. Joural of Environmental Psychology, 63, 134-138.
Laaksoharju, Rappe & Kaivola (2012). Garden affordances for social learning, play, and for building nature–child relationship. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 11 (2), 195-203.
Soga, M., Cox, D.T., Yamaura, Y., Gaston, K. J., Kurisu, K. and Hanaki, K. (2017). Health Benefits of Urban Allotment Gardening: Improved Physical and Psychological Well-Being and Social Integration. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(1), 71.
Soga, M., Gaston, K., J., Yamaura, Y. (2017). Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis. Preventive Medicine Reports, 5, 92-99.
Tillmann S, Tobin D, Avison W, and Gilliland, J. (2018). Mental health benefits of interactions with nature in children and teenagers: a systematic review. Journal of Epidemiol Community Health. 72:958-966.
Van Lier, L. .E., Uttler, J., Denny, S., Lucassen, M., Dyson, B., Terryann, C. (2016). Home Gardening and the Health and Well-Being of Adolescents. Health Promotion Through Arts and Gardening, 18 (1), 34-43.
Waliczek, T.M., Logan, P. & Zajicek, J.M. (2003). Exploring the Impact of Outdoor Environmental Activities on Children Using a Qualitative Text Data Analysis System. HortTechnology, 13(4), 684-688.
Yuan-Yu, C., Wei-Chia, S. I-Chun, T. and Chun-Yen, C. (2016). Exploring the Benefits of School Gardening for Children in Taiwan and Identifying the Factors Influencing these Benefits. HortTechnology, 26 (6), 783-792.