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Sometimes in spite of our best efforts, terrarium plants will begin to get stretched out, or “leggy.” The scientific name for this is etiolation. This is most common in succulents and happens when they lack proper sunlight. In a last-ditch effort to get more sunlight, their stems grow tall and their leaves become more spread out. It’s really a shame when this occurs because they lose their natural shape and morph into something unrecognizable from their original appearance. The question on everyone’s mind is always, “How can I stop my succulents from continuing to get leggy?” The simple answer is, you can’t. Once they are stretched out, there is no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. But have no fear! This is the perfect time to begin the propagation process.
Begin by popping off the lower leaves first. Hold the leaf between your thumb and index finger and wiggle left and right until it gives way. If you hear a slight popping sound, you know you’ve done it right. If any part of the leaf remains on the stem, the leaf will not be a viable candidate for propagation. Only those leaves cut cleanly from their bases will have a chance to grow roots.
Photo from Creative Terrariums
Continue popping leaves off until you get near the top of the stem. Collect your leaf cuttings and place them near a window for two to three days. This time allows the cuttings to callus over, which prevents bacteria from entering them. Next, place the leaves on a shallow bed of soil. I like to fill ramekins or shallow baking pans with soil and set the leaves down side by side. It’s important to keep the soil moist but not drenched. Use a mister once a day to keep the soil evenly moist. You should begin seeing roots within one to two weeks and rosettes within three to four weeks. Eventually, the mother leaf will begin to shrivel and dry out. Feel free to cut off the mother leaf and plant your new succulent in a terrarium.
Examples of leaf propagation over a five-week time period. Photo from Creative Terrariums
The next step in propagation is, for lack of a better word, decapitation! The top “bud” of the plant is generally all that remains of the succulent’s original shape. The top can also be removed, allowed to grow new roots, and used in a new terrarium display. Take a pair of scissors or a sharp knife and cut the top off, about 1/2 inch (13 mm) below the last remaining leaf. You now have a succulent cutting. Allow the stem of the cutting to dry out near a window. After a few days, the cutting will be ready for a new terrarium home or living display.
Remember that leggy stem? Well, in the propagation process, no stem is left behind! Nothing goes to waste. Go back to the stem and cut it off near the base, leaving 1 inch (2.5 cm) of the stump. The stump will eventually regenerate and begin to grow one or more new baby rosettes. It also doesn’t hurt to leave one or two leaves on the stump to help collect sunlight for the photosynthesis process to continue.
After trimming the stem, the stump will eventually regenerate. Photo from Creative Terrariums
Propagation sprouts. Photo from Creative Terrariums
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Reprinted with permission from Creative Terrariums: 33 Modern Mini-Gardens for Your Home by Enid G. Svymbersky and published by Fox Chapel Publishing Company, Inc., 2019.