One of my favourite activities is pruning as it is both creative and practical. The aim is to shape your plants so that they are more productive and/or more beautiful. It’s a reasonably non-energetic job and you can get very cold, so for your own sake you may want to delay this job till the weather warms up a bit. Whether or not you go ahead, currently some plants have wood in perfect condition to take hardwood cuttings.

There are a few terms worth knowing and I’ll define them as I go along. ‘Cuttings’ are just pieces of stem or occasionally other parts of the plant such as leaves or roots. Stem cuttings are defined by the ripeness of the wood and range from greenwood/softwood to semi-ripe to hardwood. At this time of year, most UK plants are dormant (sleeping). The bark will have hardened to protect against cold so the term ‘hardwood’ applies. The stem might be red, green, yellow, beige, brown or black.

It takes some study at first to distinguish the past years’ wood from this (current) year’s wood. It gets much easier with practice. For hardwood cuttings, the stems you are looking for should be less than a year old, in good health (good colour, no damage or disease), and sturdy. If you feel unsure about what you are looking for, start at the tip and work backwards down the stem and you will come to a junction or division where the colour of the wood is noticeably darker or duller. This is where the past year’s wood stopped, and the current year’s wood started growing.

There may be a few wrinkles at the junction and possibly a cluster of buds. This junction is more obvious on fruit trees and on shrubs with brightly coloured bark such as the red or yellow/green dogwoods, or the orange willows.
The brightest colours are on the current year’s growth, and the junction between 2020 and 2019 growth should be fairly easy to see. Once you identify the new growth, look at the less flamboyant shrubs to see if you can distinguish the newest from previous years’ growth—some will be easier than others.

Not all plants can be propagated by all methods, and those that succeed best from hardwood cuttings are the tough, hardy shrubs and a few trees.
Cut a likely shoot of roughly pencil thickness (some shrubs have more spindly growth so choose the sturdiest) about 30 cm in length from a shoot near the top of the shrub. Cuttings taken from near the base may grow out more horizontally, giving you a strange looking plant.

As you are also by definition now pruning the shrub, make that cut just above a bud. To shape the shrub, choose a bud that is facing in the direction you want the next years’ shoot to grow (usually away from the centre). Cutting just above a bud also saves the shoot dying back, making it more prone to disease.

Prepare the cuttings as you go along. While they are not delicate like those taken in spring, you still want to treat them with respect so as not to damage them. Use sharp secateurs (garden clippers or snippers) to cut straight across the base of the cutting just below a bud (a node). Next make a sloping cut at the top end, just above—not through—a node. You will see at a glance which way is up when you come to plant them, as the base is flat and the sloping top is like the roof of the house. For most shrubs the finished cutting will be 15 – 25 cm long.

Lastly, remove the buds from the bottom half of the cutting, leaving at least 3 or 4 healthy buds at the top end. This prevents underground buds from growing that would make a suckering poorly shaped shrub.
Choose a clean bit of land in a sheltered place in the garden to grow them on for nearly a year. Make a v-shaped trench with your spade, and if you have heavy soil add a few centimetres of sharp sand to help drainage. Then insert the cuttings about 6 cm apart and use the spade to close up the trench, burying half or two thirds of the length of each cutting. Firm gently with your boot. Label them if you can.

Keep them weeded throughout the year, and even though you will see leaves and growth don’t be tempted to dig them up. The roots need time to develop, and the new young roots are often very brittle, breaking easily.
Alternatively, and especially if the soil is very wet and heavy, you can put the cuttings around the edge of a pot in compost that drains well. Space them about 2 cm apart, so they don’t touch each other. Put the pot into a cold frame or in a sheltered spot, and water if it is drying out during the growing season. And a liquid feed will encourage growth, from mid-June til end of July.
Don’t be in a hurry to pot up the cuttings individually unless you see signs of very vigorous root growth coming out of the bottom of the pot. If this is the case, tip it up gently to check and remove those you think are ready. Leave them as long as they aren’t tangled up with other cuttings’ roots. Disentangling usually breaks roots and wastes the energy of the little plant.
You might just want to cut some stems of dogwoods, willows and forsythia (yellow flowers in March/April) and put them in a vase in the house for a bit of fresh colour. Many stems will burst into leaf and possibly flower. If left in the vase long enough, many will root, but they don’t always pot up easily.

Try taking hardwood cuttings from black and red currants, gooseberries, willows and dogwoods, weigela, snowberry, spiraea, flowering currant, poplar, privet, deutzia, or even Virginia creeper. The books may say to do so in late autumn and early winter after leaf fall, but as the seasons are variable and changing, I would encourage you to give it a go when the plants are truly dormant.
I have had good results taking cuttings throughout winter, so give it a try. Plants for free, who can refuse? And if you haven’t got room for the grown plants, you’ll have some to swap with other gardeners for the things they have an excess of, or to give as a birthday present to your mother-in-law.