The cloning stage is the foundation for a successful perpetual garden and becoming confident and consistent with cloning plants is something that most indoor gardeners strive for. When a grower masters the art of cloning and can consistently produce healthy young plants, he or she has automatically increased the overall chance of garden success. Healthy, young plants can be continuously cycled into the garden, where they become healthy, mature plants that bear fruit or flowers.
If a grower fails at cloning or produces sickly young plants, the entire garden will suffer. In fact, one failed cloning attempt can put a grower weeks or even months behind schedule. There are many different ways to successfully clone plants and each method has its own merits. However, there is one method of cloning that has both professional and hobby growers increasing success rates and decreasing the amount of time it takes to produce healthy rooted clones. The secret behind their success: a clone machine.
A clone machine is an automated plant cloning device that is used by horticulturists to make duplicates of their favorite plants. Clone machines can come in all shapes and sizes, but generally consist of some sort of holding container or reservoir, a submersible water pump, a manifold with sprayer heads, an air pump for aeration and neoprene or plastic plant holders. A clone machine is actually a type of hydroponic system and some are even considered aeroponic clone machines.
Typically, a clone machine has neoprene or plastic plant holders that suspend the clones (cuttings from a donor plant) over the reservoir and the stem is sprayed with water via the submersible pump. Most clone machines have a built in manifold that is equipped with sprayer heads. The manifold is connected to the submersible pump so when the manifold is pressurized, the sprayers emit a mist. This misting is the key to the magic behind a clone machine. The bottom section of the clone (where the roots will form) is provided with both moisture and oxygen, the two most important things needed to stimulate new root growth.
Clone machines are often sold by the number of cells they contain or plants they can hold at one time. There are clone machines built for professional growers that can house hundreds of clones at a time and also clone machines with 10-20 plant sites designed for the hobby grower. Regardless of the size or type of clone machine, the basic principle is the same: maximize moisture and oxygen to the clones for accelerated root development.
Once a grower has decided to use a clone machine to duplicate plants, he or she should follow some basic steps to help increase the likelihood of quick root development. Many of the steps used for cloning with a clone machine are similar or the exact same as the steps a grower would use to clone his or her plants in a traditional method. In other words, many of the rules which apply to cloning plants are universal regardless of the particular cloning technique used.
Clones will only be as healthy as the donor plant from which they were taken. If the donor plant has any pest insects, disease, mold, or fungus chances are excellent that the clones taken from that donor plant will have the same issues. For this reason, a grower should only take clones from a healthy, vibrant donor plant.
Most clone machines have a fill line that indicates the amount of water to use. As with other areas of gardening, using a high quality water source is recommended. Water quality and temperature are absolutely crucial for successful cloning. The water temperature in a clone machine should be kept between 65-70 degrees F. Growers who use tap water or hard well water may have to filter or treat the water before using it in a clone machine. Reverse osmosis water with some added cloning specific solution is generally the best choice for clone machines. In a pinch, a grower can use 1/4 strength blooming fertilizer as a cloning solution. One trick horticulturists can use if the water temperature of the clone machine is exceeding the desired range is to put a cycle timer on the submersible pump. As the pump cycles, the water has time to “cool” between intervals.
The next step is to physically cut the clones from the donor plants. The total length of the cutting should be at least three inches, in order to have a sufficient amount of stem in the clone machine. Most plant varieties are best cloned when the cut is made at a 45 degree angle, right at a node space (where the branches come out of the stem). As soon as the clone is cut, it should be dipped in a rooting solution or cloning gel and then placed in the neoprene or plastic plant holder. The stem should be the only section of the plant within the cloning chamber. Put another way, only bare stem should be hanging within the cloning machine; there should be no leaves or branches. Ideally, each clone should have roughly 2-3 inches of bare stem hanging within the cloning chamber.
Cuttings placed in a clone machine will develop roots very quickly. Daily monitoring of the cuttings is an absolute must to ensure the water level and temperature both stay within the desired ranges. Just a few days after beginning the cloning process, the grower should be able to observe the early stages of root development. The first signs are usually a white “callus” which forms at the base of the stem. Once the callus develops, a close watch should be kept over the clones. The developing roots should be bright white in color. If the roots appear tinged or browned, it may be a sign that the water temperature is too warm.
After a strong root system has developed (usually 1-2 inches of multiple branching roots), the clone is ready to be transplanted. At this time, the clone can be placed in a soil or hydroponic medium of the grower’s choice.
The final step when using a clone machine is to sanitize and sterilize the system before its next use. It is a good idea to clean and disinfect a clone machine after every use. A diluted bleach solution or food-grade hydrogen peroxide can be used to disinfect the inner parts of the clone machine. If a diluted bleach solution is used, a gardener should thoroughly rinse the system after cleaning to get rid of any residuals that could potentially hinder the cloning process. Soaking the neoprene discs in food-grade hydrogen peroxide or a bleach solution should also be done after every clone run. The neoprene discs used in clone machines are very porous and are notorious for harboring pathogens. Because of this, many growers get in the habit of replacing the neoprene discs on a regular basis.
As previously mentioned, many of the steps used for cloning with a clone machine are very similar to the steps taken with traditional cloning methods. If cloning without a machine is a similar process, why are so many growers flocking to clone machines? There are three significant advantages to cloning with a clone machine and they are speed, consistency, and automation.
It is not uncommon for horticulturalists to witness new root growth on a clone within just a couple of days after being put into a clone machine. This is incredibly fast when compared with the seven to fourteen days it normally takes to produce roots with a traditional cloning method. Not only does faster rooting equate to a quicker turnaround in terms of new plants, it also reduces the chance of pathogens. During the cloning stage, the small, tender plants are vulnerable to many different potential hazards. Many pathogenic molds and diseases find the atmospheric conditions used for cloning suitable for growth. The longer a clone is kept in the cloning stage, the better the chances are that it will contract a pathogen.
Similar to just about every other aspect of gardening, consistency is the key to successful cloning. A clone machine automatically helps growers keep a more consistent oxygen to moisture ratio, water temperature, and humidity. When atmospheric conditions are kept consistently in check, everything operates more smoothly.
Aside from the set up and cleaning, clone machines are mostly hands off. This creates a higher level of automation for one of the hardest aspects of gardening: the cloning stage. This higher level of automation saves time and labor and allows the gardener to focus his or her energy on other areas of the garden.
Cloning plants is a fun and exciting way for a horticulturist to replicate his or her favorite plants. Cloning can help a gardener achieve a higher level of self-reliance and sufficiency. The cloning stage is arguably the most important stage in a perpetually operating indoor garden. In other words, any grower who is seriously considering operating a perpetual garden will need to achieve a certain level of competence with cloning.
Because of the increased speed, consistency and the higher level of automation, clone machines have, and will, continue to gain in popularity among both professional and hobby growers. For many horticulturists, a clone machine is a tool that can help them to achieve their goals. As the old saying goes, “use the right tool for the job”. When it comes to consistently producing duplicates of your favorite plants, a clone machine is the right tool for the job.
Eric Hopper resides in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula where he enjoys gardening and pursuing sustainability. He is a Garden & Greenhouse senior editor and can be contacted at Ehop@GardenAndGreenhouse.net.