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Live Staking: A Trusty Technique for Planting Trees and Shrubs on the Cheap

Live staking (or propagation by cutting) almost seems too good to be true. Cut a stem from certain species of trees and shrubs and drive it into the ground, and a new plant will grow there! This method, if executed correctly, has a high success rate, and can be a very affordable if not free way to plant native trees and shrubs.

Chesapeake Forests Program Manager, Ryan Davis, poses with a gray dogwood shrub.
This gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) was staked in March, only 8 months before this photo was taken. The reddish-purple stems are all new growth since planting the stake. Photo of Ryan Davis, photo by Marlin Graham.

 

How does this work?

To be a woody plant is to be hardy. They live for relatively long periods of time and cannot move (obviously), which means over their lifetimes they will face a barrage of abuse, from browsing herbivores to severe weather (drought, floods, windstorms, ice storms). They also engage in a constant battle for sunlight, and need to respond to space, shade, or the loss of a limb with new shoots and leaves to capture precious photosynthetic potential. As a result, most plants are well-adapted to experiencing frequent tissue damage.

The epicenter of plant growth is a localized group of undifferentiated cells (somewhat analogous to animal stem cells), called meristematic tissue. Meristematic tissue is concentrated in regions where a plant needs to grow the most: the apical meristems at the tip of twigs produce growth upwards or outwards, intercalary meristems around the nodes produce new leaves and twigs, lateral meristems produce outward growth in woody stems, and root meristems produce new root tissues.

Plant growth is regulated largely by hormones called auxins. Auxins are responsible for cell elongation and also inhibit lateral buds from growing. If the auxin-rich apical meristem is removed, the intercalary meristems are stimulated to break dormancy, and new branches will quickly grow from there. This is why trimming the top of a hedge makes it bushier; you are removing the apical meristems and distributing the growth throughout the lateral branches.

Many plant species exhibit adventitious rooting, where roots develop from non-root tissues. This can occur in normal conditions (like runners of many herbaceous species), or in response to trauma, like low oxygen levels, darkness, or physical injury. Cutting a stem and driving it into the soil stimulates the trauma response, and auxins and a cocktail of other hormones result in root growth from the meristematic tissue that is now below the soil, while new branches develop from intercalary meristems above the ground. If the new plant receives enough water and sunlight, it will develop into its own happy, healthy tree or shrub.

 

A hand holds an elderberry stem demonstrating adventitious root growth.
Adventitious roots growing from the stem of an elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) which was pushed over during a flood. Photo by Ryan Davis.

What species work best for live stakes?

Wet-loving pioneer species tend to excel at growing from live stakes. You can expect success (30-70% survival) of the following species, and others:

 

Buckets of freshly cut live stakes are stored in the back of a car.
A few hours with a few helpers can get you hundreds of live stakes! These shrub dogwood (mostly gray dogwood, some silky and red-osier) and black willow stakes were planted along streamsides to help reduce bank erosion and augment planted seedlings. Photo by Ryan Davis.

 

A live stake pilot hole driver pictured alongside a measuring stick to scale.
A live stake pilot hole driver (a piece of scrap rebar with a welded handle to help push the rebar in and pull it out). Photo by Ryan Davis.

Live staking technique

Live stakes can be harvested and planted throughout the winter, but late winter (mid-February through March) is ideal. You don’t want the stems to dry out, heave out of the soil during frost, or incur any other damage, so it is best to wait until just before spring begins and buds break. Before harvesting, make sure you have permission from the landowner and that you are 100% certain what species you’re cutting. Some invasive plants readily propagate from cuttings, and the last thing you want to do is spread something like Chinese privet or a non-native honeysuckle.

When you’re ready to cut, bring a bucket and hand-pruners or garden shears. Cut stakes that are ½ – 1½ inches in diameter (my rule of thumb is that they should be at least as big around as your thumb) and 2 – 3 feet long. Thinner and shorter stakes may work well, but cuttings with the best chances of survival are within those ranges. You can usually cut several stakes from one limb; try to have 5-7 nodes per stake. Remove small side branches to maximize the auxin production within the stake. A good practice is to make a flat cut across the top and an angled cut on the bottom. This will help you push the stake into the ground, and will help you tell which side should go up; that’s tricky to determine once the stakes are cut! Place the stakes in your bucket with a bit of water to keep the angled cut wet.

The sooner you plant your live stakes, the better. They can last for a few weeks, as long as you keep them as wet and cool as possible. Because these are moisture-loving plants that don’t have developed root systems yet, they only have good survival rates in areas that are very wet. Streambanks are excellent places to plant live stakes; the stakes will do well there and you will quickly armor your bank from erosion. Wet spots and the first 10-15 feet from a stream are also perfect places for live stakes, and possibly areas where conventional tree planting isn’t feasible or as effective.

Planting live stakes is simple: push the stake into wet soil as deep as you can (preferably about ⅔ of the stake length), perpendicular to the soil surface. If you want to establish a thicket or strong bank protection, plant in a staggered 2 foot grid. You can use a rubber mallet to pound stakes deeper into the ground, but this can sometimes lead to stem damage. A valuable tool to use if you’re planting a high number of stakes is a device to make a pilot hole. A piece of rebar is ideal for this, but make sure the rebar has a smaller diameter than your stakes.

After planting, live stakes will spend most of their energy on root development. You may only see a few leaves during the first growing season, but will likely have some new lateral branches by mid-summer. Species vary in how likely they are to survive, but willows, shrub dogwoods, and elderberry seem to do best; you can expect upwards of 80% stake survival if they are properly planted.

Jenna Mackley, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay PA Program Coordinator, plants live stakes along a stream in Lancaster County.
Jenna Mackley, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay PA Program Coordinator, plants live stakes along a stream in Lancaster County. Photo by Ryan Davis.

Are you wishing you could see a demonstration of live staking?

You’re in luck! Our newest “Tree Talk” is all about live staking, and while we were at it, we made a quick spotlight of gray dogwood, Cornus racemosa.

For more information, check out forestsforthebay.org or contact Ryan Davis at rdavis@allianceforthebay.org.

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Ryan Davis Chesapeake Forests Program Manager, Pennsylvania Office

Ryan is the Alliance's Program Manager for our Chesapeake Forests program. He focuses on forest conservation and restoration within the watershed in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York.

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