Plant Propagation Boxes: Tips, Tricks & How to Open a window to a mini indoor jungle

In Orchids
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Plant propagation boxes are potentially one of the coolest things in a plant hobbyist’s collection. Not only do they offer a fun and versatile way to grow a diverse range of plants from seeds, stem cuttings, or “leaf props,” but they also require a fraction the maintenance compared to most potted plants. The plant propbox is essentially a closed system and that means you only need to water about once a month. It’s so easy… that I literally just toss in whichever plant cutting I have, or corms/seeds, and I wait to see what pops up—I’ve got crazy mosses, nepenthes seedlings, and all sorts of neat plants on the go. It’s great! I highly recommend one for yourself if you can afford the space. You may even find “hard-to-grow” species (like blue begonias, sphagnum moss, or ferns) MUCH easier because the controlled environment creates stable and optimal conditions. When you’re able to provide both these conditions and “the prefect light”, all sorts of plants are able to thrive and flourish from even their the tiniest sizes. But you should be prepared for a few losses too—not everything that goes in, comes out alive. When planned appropriately, plant propboxes can make an attractive display featuring a huge range of plants. Over time, as you add more and more to your boxes, you end up with a miniature ecosystem that’s incredibly captivating—akin to a saltwater reef aquarium that has loads of different species living together in harmony. In this article, we’ll cover the ins and outs of setting up your first prop box, along with a step-by-step guide to creating your very own propagation haven.

A top-view of one my plant prop boxes showcasing a range of plant diversity

 

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How to Create a Plant Propagation Box

Firstly, there are many ways to approach this. You can go as high or low budget as you like; I’ve repurposed takeout containers and plastic cups for prop boxes and I’ve bought premade containers that fringe on an enclosed terrarium. You can also just get a terrarium. It all depends on what you want to invest. At the most basic level, your goal is to have a box that you can throw plants into; it needs to be transparent enough to let light in, big enough to grow the plants you want, and have some way for you to increase or decrease airflow. Other than the box itself, light is the most important “ingredient” to your success, and you need to find the “Goldilocks Zone” of enough to grow lush plants, but not so bright it causes issues (more on that later).

 

Setting up your prop box

  1. Choosing a container: Start by selecting a suitable container for your propagation box. Pick what works best for you: for your budget, your space, and your plant interest.
    • Recycled Containers: literally cost you nothing and you can use what works (fruit baskets, takeout containers, plastic cups and so on). Not only are smaller options like this extremely mobile, they also isolate any outbreaks that may happen with algae, bacteria or fungus. The only issue…the can look a bit junky.
      Plant Propagation in Plastic Cups: Alocasia azlanii corms
    • Larger DYI Plant Propbox: You can make a “do it yourself” larger box using a plastic storage container or an old aquarium. Tupperware and Rubbermaid containers are a popular choice, though they can look a bit clunky and may not suite all people’s aesthetic. Ensure the container has a lid or cover to maintain humidity levels, and consider adding vents for airflow if needed—if there are no holes, you can just leave the lid open a crack too.
      Plant Propagation in Tupperware or Rubbermaid Containers
    • Prefabricated Plant Propbox: In recent years the pre-made propagation boxes have really come a long way. They used to be pretty flimsy and cheap looking, but some of the more recent once look pretty nice—nicer looking than a Rubbermaid bin or Tupperware container.
      Plant Propagation in a Specially-Made Container – these ones specifically are made by Garland
    • Propagation Box Sizes: Pick your prop box base don the plants you want to grow. Obviously, the bigger you go the more it will impede on your living space. I have worked with boxes as small as a brick, but have the best result with something a bit larger, in the range of 18″ x 24″ with at least 12″ height.
  2. Pick a Planting Method:
    When it comes to how you put plants into your propbox, you’ll want to invest a bit of though at the start. A lot of people just throw in their preferred potting soil and then toss in the plants—it’s functional, easy, and gets you started quickly but it can result in root entanglement as the plants establish or root issues if you accidentally overwater. Alternatively, you can create a setup that allows you to group plants in pots within the container, or add partitions to certain groups. I like to elevate the plants off the floor using eggcrate; it allows me to water more effectively and drain off excess if I need to. However, each method has its pros and cons.  

    1. Just put soil in the bottom: this is the fast and care-free method. It has some drawbacks though: you have to be careful not to overwater and you may find algae starts to buildup around the sides of the container.
      Example of plants props potted directly in the bin
    2. Put a rocky drainage layer and then soil: offers better drainage and keeps the top layer a bit drier.
    3. Elevate the plants off the floor: using egg crate or some other type of solid mesh, you can prop pots above the floor of the prop box. This allows you to change and wash out the tray from time to time, and you can set a combination of pots and wide/flat trays inside.
      Example of elevated pots within a propbox
  3. Pick your plants: 
    I like to put anything tropical into my boxes. It makes them look more lush and it often works as an insurance plan for my most-prized plants (if something dies, I have a backup in my propbox). Speaking of dying plants…beware: not everything will survive the prop boxes…but most things will if you’re careful to avoid rot and extremes of too much or too little (light, fertilizer, water, etc), but losses happen—it’s good to make a few props of each plant if you’re particularly hopeful for the outcome.If your goal is to produce plants for profit, or to grow only certain types of plants, then you should follow whatever selection serves your needs. Typically, the plants best suited for prop boxes are those from low-to-medium light jungles that don’t vine. You can still put vining plants in a prop box to start their growth, but you’ll likely want to take them out after they get going or they may crowd-out other plants quickly.

    Photo of Begonia pavonina leaf propagations in a takeout container
  4. Put them all together:
    Once you’ve picked your box, decided on your planting method and have the plants you want to add, it’s a pretty simple process to get started. You just put them inside the box and then put them under light.

 

Light is Important

Light plays the most-crucial role in plant growth and health. For your propagation box, consider using LED grow lights instead of relying on direct sunlight. LED lights provide consistent and adjustable intensity, without the risk of cooking or burning to your plants. Too much light can cause issues too, so initially this is probably the most challenging aspect of setting up a propbox. If excessive, plants can go kind of yellow or grow stunted and this can happen with LED lights that are too intense. You have to strike a balance and find that “Goldilocks zone”—not too much, not too little, but just right. With first-time prop boxers, not enough light tends to be the problem because we tend to underestimate how much natural light is in our home—so my suggestion is that you target about 8-18watts of light per foot of coverage. In other words, if you have a 1 foot prop box, then you want about a 12 watt LED grow light. Light intensity falls off quickly too, so the further the light is from the box, the less intense it becomes at an exponential rate, so try and have it about 3-6” off the top of the container and increase the distance if the plants are showing sign of light stress. You can also shorten how long the lights are on for as a lot of tropical plants may only get a peak intensity of 4-10 hours. If plants look leggy, add more light.

LED lights work great for propboxes – you just have to find the right balance

 

Humidity

Maintaining a moderately high humidity level in your propagation box is fairly easy. When the water that evaporates has no where to go, it spikes the humidity. This is essential for reducing water stress on young plants and making their care more manageable. You can use a spray bottle and mist the sides of the container and potting media. Aim for a humidity level between 60-80%, as excessive humidity (over 90%) can lead to fungal or bacterial issues. If rot or fungus takes hold on any of your plants, amputate the infected tissue and decrease your humidity a bit. Ensuring proper airflow and ventilation helps prevent mold and disease, but similar to light, you need to find the Goldilocks zone. Also beware that plants not receiving enough light are more likely to suffer from mold, rot, and bacterial issues.

Misting plants & humidity
When misting plants directly, make sure to increase airflow immediately after or you could increase the risk of rot

 

Water Quality

For best results, use distilled water and add a bit of tap water (about 10% or less). In a prop box you’re generally never flushing water out; that means that any water you add leaves behind whatever doesn’t evaporate. Minerals or salts in your tap water will slowly accumulate in the prop box over time and this can result in an increase in pH, reduced nutrient uptake, mineral deposits, and limitations on which plants will thrive (some species of moss and plants are intolerant of hard water). Using pure distilled water can help keep your enclosure looking nice and allow you to grow more types of plants, but because distilled water has no minerals it can also sometimes lead to nutrient deficiencies, so that’s why I opt to add a bit of tap water.

Examples of different moss species in my prop boxes and terrariums that can be grown if the water is more pure

 

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Substrate

Choose a suitable potting mix for your propagation box—it can be whatever you prefer, but beware it may impact what you can grow. Some people like using only perlite, while others use a “jungle mix” (equal parts perlite, bark and peatmoss). I would recommend not using only “all purpose potting media” or peatmoss, which may hold too much water and make your prop box more of a bog, but if that’s all you have it’s better than nothing. Sphagnum moss can work well too—but beware of it’s short degradation timeline.

Example of plant propagations growing on sphagnum moss

If you noticed the thrips damage on some of those plants, good eye and sorry for triggering your plant-PTSD. Adding pinguiculas and sundews can help control outbreaks of pests like that.

I recommend using a rocky or inert media that wicks water up, without becoming overly soggy and then applying a top layer of either sphagnum moss or that jungle mix I just mentioned. This will help promote healthy root growth, keep the upper layer airy, and prevent root rot.

 

Troubleshooting Issues

There are a range of challenges that can pop up, but a proper setup from the start tends to avoid these problems. However, here are a list of challenges you may encounter and how you can remediate them:

  1. Leggy growth: increase light.
  2. Yellowing and stunted leaves: reduce light or fertilize more often.
  3. Root Rot: adjust soil for better airflow and consider adjusting the setup to avoid roots sitting in stagnant water.
  4. Leaf Rot or Damp off: increase airflow.
  5. Pests: If you’re struggling with fungus gnats, white flies or thrips, adding small carnivorous plants like pinguiculas and sundews can greatly help. They control pest insect outbreaks by gobbling them up. These plants will not only add visual interest to your display but also help maintain a healthy environment for your other plants. Pinguiculas (AKA “Butterworts”) are also SUPER easy to propagate. A single leaf can produce a new plant…so if you get one, strip a few leaves off and pop them in your prop box. You can sell them later if they get too bountiful.

 

Caring for Your Plant Propagation Box

Monitoring

Regularly monitor your plant propagation box for signs of pests or disease. Address any issues promptly to prevent them from spreading and causing damage to your plants.

Watering

Water your plants as needed, ensuring that the substrate remains moist but not overly saturated. Overwatering can lead to root rot and other issues, so be mindful of your plants’ specific water requirements.

Fertilizing

In a propagation box, young and developing houseplants will require nutrients to boost and support their growth. Fertilizing these plants appropriately can make a significant difference in their overall health and vitality. It’s essential to use a gentle, diluted liquid fertilizer specifically formulated for houseplants, as young plants can be sensitive to high concentrations of nutrients. Apply the fertilizer every 2-4 weeks, depending on your plants’ needs, and be sure to follow the product’s recommended dilution rates. By providing your houseplants with the right nutrients in a propagation box, you’ll set them up for a thriving future as they mature and grow.

Pruning and Transplanting

As your plants grow in the prop box, you may need to “edit them” by dividing, sharing, or cutting back the plants to maintain their size and shape (and prevent overcrowding), or transplant them to larger containers if they outgrow their current space.