The Best Way to Start Elderberry from Cuttings ~ 2 year testing with pictures.
Article Author Shannon Lauderdale January 21st, 2022
Elderberry from cuttings is a great, fairly cheap, way to grow your own elderberry plants. Elderberry from cuttings will retain the exact properties of the mother plant, if taken from good stock you will have an elderberry plant that is disease resistant, and has predictable harvest times and amounts.
In 2020, I set about to devise a way for elderberry enthusiasts to reliably start an elderberry from cuttings and here is what I have come up with. I have tested this for 2 years now with great success only losing 1 out of 80 cuttings the first year and 2 out of 150 the second year. This is not meant to be a permanent home for your elderberries but a starting plot making it easy [and fast] to take care of many at a time and to transfer them later to a permanent homes. If you choose this method please let me know how well you do as it helps those that come after you.
Year 2020 ~ I began with an unused old box of sand that had been left over from our house build. The dog had played in it as a puppy and had a blast digging and throwing the sand about, but she lost interest and it had been covered over with years of fallen leaves. The sides were slightly rotting but it still created an enclosed place and it was sand! It was situated near a water supply and on the edge of the woods, slightly shaded for most of the day. I began cleaning it out on February 22, 2020.
I then added a bag of peat moss to the sand and mixed thoroughly. I added the peat moss because while the sand would help keep moisture near the base of the cutting so it could easily root, it would not provide any nourishment Peat moss contains a bit of nutrients, minerals, and beneficial microorganisms, plus it also holds moisture well. I watered it all, soaking it to the point of clumping together if I grabbed a handful of it.
Next I added the cuttings taken from my field and 9 of a new variety that I had purchased from another elderberry grower. Yes this is in February and it is still cold here. Our last average frost date here is early May!
I lined them up with the help of this board (above pic) and stuck them in the soil making sure to not disturb the lower nobes on the cutting and placing them at least an inch below the surface. Just poking them into soil may break nobes off, so I made a hole first (look close on far right to see holes in above picture). I then placed them gently and pushed soil firmly around them watering again to settle soil even tighter against them. I ended up planting 80 . This is still February 29th 2020!
I covered the whole plot with chicken wire, partly because my cat was showing interest in my work. She had not known there was sand there before and I didn't want her to think that it was now hers. I also found that having this wire covering was a bonus later when low temperature nights came after they had leafed out. It was super simple to just throw a sheet over the whole plot to protect them!
By early April even though it was still fairly cold outside the cuttings started to form leaves. Here I am weeding the box. If I had used new sand I probably would not have had the weeds that I did, but since the sand had been there for years collecting blown in seed I had some weeds. On April 18th I checked for roots on an average looking one. There were roots starting! I replanted it as I didn't feel it was enough roots to transfer it to a pot.
I made sure to watch the nightly temperatures after they had leafed out and cover the box with a sheet on freezing or frost prone nights. I watered them only about 1-2 times, they really didn't need much as the sand and peat moss was doing great at holding moisture.
I checked again on May 7th and look at the roots now!
I found time to replant them all into pots on May 17th with better soil (as compared to sand and peat moss) so that I could either sell them as plants or transfer them to the field. There was only 1 that had no leaves or roots on it. No idea why but I thought that was pretty good.
Year 2 ~ Elderberry Test Plot 2021
I went back to my old sandbox that was now half sand and half peat moss. I had covered the inside with a sheet of plastic after emptying it the year before to protect against more weed seeds (and cats) but the sides had rotted completely, so I threw it out and made a new box. The Winchester was already on the used board, I have no idea why as these weren't my boards but salvaged from my brother. I thought it looked rather cute though. I did line the bottom sides in the new box with plastic so that the soil did not touch the boards in hopes to make this box last longer than the original one.
I started about a week later this year, March 8th, and it was still plenty cold outside. I had sold hundreds of cuttings to one farmer this year and had stored what was left in the garage refrigerator at about 40 degrees. These cuttings were not prime cuttings but rejects from my sale, cuttings that were too long to fit in the package, cuttings that had a bend in them, and some cuttings that just didn't look overly healthy. Again I added new peat moss, but only about 1/2 a bag as there was still some left from the previous year. I added no new sand. The chicken wire on the top had worked out so well I did that again and planted at 4 inches apart. Again I only had to water a few times and even then I was probably being over cautious. I think they could have made it without any water as the soil with the sand and peat moss stayed so moist. I covered the bed on nights if there was a frost warning after they had leaves. It was just a sheet thrown over the chicken wire. Plenty of weeds again so did have to weed one time.
On May 13, when I checked for rooting I found this! I had learned from last year to wait for more leaves before checking and had gotten it right.
I transferred them to pots on May 13th, easily the most time-consuming part of this whole project, but well worth it for the ease and success of the whole thing. This year I had planted reject cuttings, not as healthy looking ones and still only lost 2 out of 150! These two had no leaves or roots and looked as if they never even started.
Backstory of Elderberry Cuttings Test Plots
It has often been touted as very easy to produce a new elderberry plant from cuttings and it pretty much has been for me, however after selling them my first year I received a few emails from customers saying that their cuttings had failed. Most of their stories were similar, the cuttings would leaf out and look good for a while, then die, and when they pulled them up there were few if any roots. I then began to wonder if some were contacting me how many were failing and NOT contacting me. The next year I sold again but emailed everybody with a questionnaire 6 months after and my suspicions were right. There were not many successes. I stopped selling cuttings and set about to figure out what was causing so many failures and create a new set of instructions that would allow more people to succeed.
Why starting elderberry indoors in water or soil may not work.
Many sites that sell elderberry cuttings have instructions that include starting elderberry indoors in potting soil or water, including me when I started. I had done it this way with success but it was not 100%. Most often if I wanted elderberry from cuttings I started them outdoors in the location where I wanted them by just placing the cuttings in the soil in a new row.
What can happen when you start elderberry from cuttings indoors is that the cutting realizes the temperature has warmed so it breaks dormancy and begins to leaf out. In the beginning it is using energy stored in the stem to make the leaves. When all that energy is used up the new roots must take over in feeding the plant. If there are no roots death will soon occur. In 2019 after I realize people were not succeeding with elderberry cuttings I did several tests of starting plants indoors looking for perfection, or at least more reliable success. The problem with starting in water had always been that while the roots developed along with the leaves, as was easily visible, when one made to transfer of the plant to soil the elderberry found the shock of that change difficult and often died. I tried adding soil slowly over days to an elderberry started in water, I tried changing the new soil temperature to a cold verses warm location. It was all the same....not dependable. Sometime it would work sometimes not and there seemed to be no hard rules to follow. I also varied conditions with elderberry from cuttings in soil. Again, no RELIABLE outcomes so test over. New plan search.
Elderberry from Cuttings Started Outdoors
After my failure in 2019 with perfecting soil or water indoor starting elderberry from cuttings, I turned my focus to refining what worked best for me. Starting elderberry from cuttings in rows usually gave me about a 75% success rate. I would dig holes every four feet and place the elderberry cutting, run an irrigation line beside it, and heap the row over with mulch so the new plant wouldn't be overtaken with weeds before it got off to a good start. The ones that ended up not making it was no big deal to me, I moved plants from other places to fill in. But I thought I could make this easier. This way had drawbacks, if a late frost came it took some of them because I didn't take the time to cover each one....there were hundreds. If the drip irrigation line was not dripping exactly on the cutting it could miss watering and again a few losses that way. The soil I felt was also a problem, while good for growing an elderberry it was not exactly good for starting roots. The soil should be excellent at holding moisture close to the cutting and easy for new roots to push through as they grew. I decided a bed might be the answer to so many problems so set about to do a test run.