Live Stake Propagation
Tips and case-studies for re-vegetating and pioneering large system.
Live-stake cuttings are a type of hardwood cutting taken from mature, woody material from certain deciduous tree and shrubs that root very easily.
Live-stakes cuttings are generally taken during a period of dormancy (AKA winter), with the long stake material being “staked” directly into the ground where they will grow long term.
Because of being relatively inexpensive to use and simple to install under the appropriate conditions, live stake propagation is commonly used in large scale ecological restoration and ecological engineering (using ecological principles or living organisms to achieve engineering related goals).
In Windward’s case, we’ve been employing live-staking to pioneer multi-functional hedgerows, and provide quick soil building wind breaks for developing ecological agriculture systems.
The primary species we are utilizing for live stake propagation include:
- Scouler’s Willow (Salix scouleriana)
- Austree Willow (hybrid of Chinese Salix babylonica and White Willow Salix Alba.
- Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera),
- Black Mulberry (Morus nigra), and
- Blue Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea).
These plants have either an excellent or fairly good capacity to root themselves and get established without rooting hormone and carefully crafted propagation environment. They are also reasonably well adapted to our dry, rocky and windy conditions up on the plateau.
Below, I outline some of the practices and lessons learned in the processing and establishment of several hundred live-stakes in various areas of Windward’s property over the past two Winters.
Taking Live-Stake Cuttings
All the live stake cutting were taken through December and January, during cold frozen weather, and in small batches that could be processed in one or two days.
The first step is to find plants to take cuttings from. Generally, the best material for live staking is from hard wood growth (material that has turned woody) that is only a few years old, and from near the base of a the plant.
Over the past few years, I have been wandering the canyons and hillsides in and around windward for populations of Scouler Willow, Poplar, and Elderberry form which I can take materials for propagation.
These local native plants are the most adapted to our conditions, and represent the best and most resilient genetic stock for our systems.
Most of the cuttings were taken with a heavy-duty pair of loppers or a pruning saw. However when I want to make a clean cut on a big shrub for coppicing I use a chainsaw such as in the image above.
I roughly sort and process the material in the field so as not to take more biomass from the harvested system than in needed.
For large cuttings taken from the base shrubs I remove all side shoots and cut anything smaller than 1/2 inch off.
For a mature ~12 foot shrub like Scouler willow, I usually end up with pieces about the 6-8 ft long section that I haul out of the forest. These pieces are later cut to the right size for live-staking.
For the Mulberries, Poplars, and Elders, I was working with larger trees and did not cut any of them to the ground. Instead I removed healthy shoots at least 2 feet long and at least 1/2 inch in diameter with several good healthy buds or nodes. These shoots were all at least 2 years old, and I suspect no more than 4 or 5 years old. Relatively young for such trees, but old enough that they have significant starch reserves for the process of rooting.
The long pieces were then taken back to Windward and set in a creek near where I was working. It is important that the cuttings remain moist before they are put into the ground, and the cut cells can very easily dry out.
In preparation for staking the long pieces were cut into 3 foot length, depending on how much material the was to work with on a given stick.
I tried to make the bottom cuts close to a healthy node so as to facilitate it rooting from the very bottom. Cutting randomly between nodes encourages the excess material to rot. For the most part, anything below a living node or bud will not root and may enable pathogenic organisms entering the heart of the wood. This seriously effects the long term health of the cutting.
For most of the larger willow and poplar cuttings I did not really endeavor to cut them to a final length. My experience in the past is that the willows and poplars spout shoots from the very top of the cutting. I was unsure how deep I would be able to get any given cutting – given that the actual sub-soil depth in most of the areas I was potentially less than 2 feet.
Because of this, I stuck the cuttings as deep as I could, and then came back through with loppers and cut them down to about 8 inches above the soil level. This should help the plants take on a more shrubby form (which is desirable for the hedgerow applications) as well as having a lot of area under the soil surface to grow roots in relation to the top growth.
I also went through an painted the cut ends of all the cuttings with acrylic latex paint. It was done in order to slow/stop evaporation from the open wounds, to prevent insects from sucking the moisture and sap from the cuttings, and to help me identify them among the rough mulch at a glance.
A number of cuttings were installed without painting in order see how much of a difference it makes. After only a few months, the difference is like night and day. Those cuttings with paint are all alive and healthy to the very top of the cutting. The un-painted cuttings have had much of the top of the plant die because of drying out.
Installing the Stakes
The re-bar was pounded into the ground as deep as I could get it, leaving 6-8 inches above the soil surface at minimum. The re-bar also acted as a measuring stick. I placed cuttings at 3 foot intervals along the downhill side of the main silvo-pasture swale mound.
Such a tight spacing is intended to provide for a dense hedge effect, as well as to ensure good mature coverage in the face of the death of some cuttings.
I alternated cuttings of Scouler willow (which I have in abundance) with the cuttings of mulberry, Elderberry, and Poplar.
Where We Live-Stake Planted this Winter
We tried the live stakes in several locations throughout the property, and in different conditions.
The downhill side of the main silvo-pasture swale was the first area we covered. The tightly spaced cuttings are intended to to form a thick hedge to hopefully act as a living fence in the system.
We planted several rows of Scouler willow on a steep back along one of Windward’s main roads. This bank has had a hard time re-vegetating after road construction – both because of the steepness, as well as is direct southern exposure.
The road also rides along a oak Savannah that we’re developing as a “Dehesa” style silvo-pasture. The Willows are intended to grown into a living fence to replace the already installed fencing as it ages.
The stakes were placed along the contour lines of the hillside. Oak logs created through forest restoration work were placed along the planted contours to help trap mulch and rainfall where the stakes need it most.
We also installed live stakes along fence post along the northern boundary of the property which is evolving as part of a roughly 5 acre area being developed as an integrated and intensive food forest and broader scale annual crop system.
The idea was to plant willow where we recently installed fencepost in the hope that, as the fence post decay over time, they will be able to be replace by a living fence that also acts as a productive windbreak hedgerow.
Since these fence post where installed last year, the soil around each post had been loosed to a depth of about 3 feet. This made it very easy to drive the live stakes. In addition, the micro climate made by the fence post may well help water to “wick” from lower down in the soil profile, helping to provide for the water needs of the willows.
This technique was adopted from Sepp Holzer and Austrian agro-ecologists. He has driven trunks of black locusts deep into the banks of ponds and then installed willow alongside the posts to help wick water up from lower down in soil profile to a kind of irrigation for the establishing willows.
Along the roadside in several key places in around the main silvo-pasture, we planted willow as a pioneer for living fences. These cuttings were place in two rows at 6 foot intervals with with the two rows being staggered. When these willows grow up their canopies should slightly intersect and help form the main body of the living fence.
As these willows develop we may choose to come in and plant additional rows in the shelter of the hedge. Both to add bulk the hedge, and to increase it’s functionality as a living fence, and food source for people, animals, and pollinators.
Lastly, we drove live-stakes of Scouler willow into the tops of most of the Hugelkultur beds we’ve been establishing over the past two years in our “zone 1” woodland garden.
The hope with these willows is that they will provide some fast-growing windbreaks and shade to the young trees, shrubs and herbs. Sheltering the site, while mitigating the effects of the intense summer sun.
The willows will eventually be thinned out, however in the process they will provide rough mulch to the system, along with basketry material, cuttings for further live-staking,and fuel wood.
Spring Update on the Live-stakes
We had a pretty mild winter and an exceptionally early spring. This has led to many of the live-stakes (and other plants as well) leafing out several weeks before we would typically anticipate.
It seems that the Scouler willow is the slowest to take root and begin leafing out. As of late April, most of the live stakes have some degree of bud swelling, but only about half of them have full sets of leafs out.
The Blue Elderberries have all leafed out, with some have leafed and then lost those leafs already. I take this as indication that they had not adequately developed roots prior to the first leaves, and have subsequently establish roots sufficient to support actively photo-synthesizing leaves.
The Austree willows were early to leaf out, and many have already put on a few inches of new growth. From what I have read they tend to root easily, even in comparison to other willows. In comparison to the Scouler willows they obvious have “taken” much more readily.
The Balsam Poplars are doing well. Many of the cuttings had already formed leaf buds which facilitated their leafing out earlier that most everything else (the same is true for the elderberries). From examining other smaller diameter cuttings stuck into pots for future planting, the poplars quickly form a lot of roots even with relatively low soil temperatures of an uninsulated cold frame.
Tips for Live Staking
Success with live-stake is largely a combination of:
- Species selection (using species which readily root without intensive environmental manipulation),
- Timing the cut during an optimal window for the plants (typically during mid-winter when the plants naturally want to grow roots and not shoots),
- and a systematic and quick process of installing the plant material (so that the plant material does not dry out and sunlight exposure is minimized).
Species the work for live-staking. Live-staking is not for all plants. There are very few plants with the tendency to root well in unmitigated environmental conditions of field planting.
Members of the Willow family (Salicaceae) – including Willows, Poplars, and aspen are the most common plants used for live stakes.
Members of the Mulberries family (Moracea) have also evolved a capacity to root from their fallen or broken limbs common in these fast growing species. They are perhaps less tolerant of field planting in all but the moistest conditions.
Dogwoods (Cornaceae), specifically the Pacific Northwest native Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea).
As, as mentioned earlier, elderberry also has some merit as a live-stake.
Some other species that have reasonable potential for live stakes include:
- Arrowwood (Viburnum spp.) eastern North American natives which are commonly used for riparian stream bank restoration.
- Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) North American native which produces an edible fruit and roots easily in moist soil.
- Brambles (Rubus spp.) Dormant cuttings typically root well if the soil is kept moist. Due to it’s less woody nature, it can be harder to stick these cuttings deep into the soil
- Roses (Rosa spp.) typically easy rooters, many larger roses may form thick enough stems to be viable for live-stake field planting.
Take care of the cutting immediately. Live stakes are not storable and can easily die and become useless for establishment. Stakes should be installed immediately, preferably the same day they are cut. If you need to store them for a few days, keep them in a shaded, cool, moist place or even submerged in a body of water.
Open cuts of plants are susceptible to deterioration from sunlight, and should be covered with a tarp or other shading material.
My practice has been to only harvest enough material to process in two day. And to store the cutting in a creek until I am ready to plant.
Make sure the wood is hard, but still young. That usually means not using wood that is at the very base of the stem, or is relatively young.
Usually you are looking at pieces with a diameter between 1/2-2 inches. But for Willows and Poplars, success is widely achieved with very large cuttings. These species seem to take root no matter what age, given the other conditions are right.
Younger wood (less than 2 years old) at the tips of branches is less dense per unit diameter, and thus and has smaller reserves of energy for rooting. Tip growth also tends to be focused on outwardly growing leaves, which is NOT what you want.
Young-ish growth (~2-5 years old) are also more easily rooted, likely because the cellular structure and hormonal response in these section are less “determined” or set in their ways of being an above ground stem.
The same is true for parts of the plant that have flower buds on them. This can be difficult to see if you are not well versed in botany. Fortunate for the novice, most deciduous trees flower on the outside of the crown, where the branches receive the most amount of light. By discarding the 1-2 year old growth on the tips/tops of woody material is a good overall rule.
Work with the hormonal cycles of the plants. Most deciduous plants growing in temperate regions natural retreat into their root zone during winter. It is during this time that a lot of root growth happens.
Taking hardwood cuttings durring this period of dormancy is likely to be the most successful. The plant is already “thinking” about making roots, and is also not actively supporting the photosynthetic process above ground, so their need for water is small, and easily supplied by the capillary action of the soil until they can establish hydraulic roots to begin taking in water needed for budding, leafing and top-growth.
Underground wounding can be helpful. Difficult-to-root greenwood and hardwood cuttings are sometimes wounded near the base to promote rooting. Scarring the bark, slightly to expose the green cambium layer underneath on the base of the cutting can help provide the plant an easier means to callous and form roots.
Seal the tops of the stakes. As mentioned earlier, if your site is sunny and dry, it appears to be very advantageous to seal the top ends of the stakes with some kind of impermeable material. In my case that was acrylic latex paint. Other options include wax, plant resins, pitch, or bitumin.
When in doubt, add some rooting hormone. For more difficult to root plants, it can’t hurt to add rooting compound to the lower portions of the cuttings. You can also make a decoction (AKA a strong tea) of cut up willow branches and soak the live stake material in it for a day before planting out. Cuttings may also we watered in with the willow infused water to promote rooting.