In the wild, plants mostly reproduce by seed. But the second most common method is layering. Oddly enough, few gardeners seem to know about this ever-so-natural method of multiplying plants… of if they do, they don’t often put it into practice!
What Is Layering?
In nature, layering or ground layering takes place when a branch touches the ground, takes root, and becomes a new plant … and this happens very frequently. Some plants have even become layering specialists, with stems called stolons that run along the ground and take root. This is the case for many groundcovers, such as bugleweeds (Ajuga reptans), periwinkles (Vinca minor) and strawberries (Fragaria spp.). And of course, how does the Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) that makes up most temperate-climate lawns spread if not by layering? There are even a few houseplants, such as spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum), Boston ferns (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’) and strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stolonifera) that produce stolons that will root in neighboring pots if you don’t watch them!
The Complicated Technique… and the Easy One
If layering is so simple, why does it look so complicated in most gardening books and on most gardening Web sites? It’s because they tend to show you the method that involves the most steps, including making an incision on the branch, applying a rooting hormone, using pegs to hold the branch in place, adding a stake to direct the branch’s tip upwards, etc. There’s nothing like making something very simple so complicated that it discourages gardeners from trying it!
Yet, layering can be so easy! Simply bend a flexible branch to the ground and place a rock or brick in the middle so it won’t be able to move while letting the far end protrude from beyond the weight. Yes, that’s all there is to it! In constant contact with the soil, the branch will begin to produce roots … and soon enough a new plant is born!
There is also a very different layering technique you can use to multiply plants that hold their branches far above the ground. It’s called air layering. You can read more about it in the article Air Layering: a View from the Top.
Normally, a branch layered in the spring plant will be rooted by late summer or fall (some slower-to-root plants, such as rhododendrons and lilacs, may need two summers to start to root).
To check and see if your branch has rooted, remove the rock or brick towards the end of the summer and gently try to lift the branch. If it yields, it hasn’t yet rooted. Put the rock or brick back in place and try again a few months later.
If it holds tight, that’s because it now has roots. If so, cut the branch free, slicing through it between the mother plant and the rooted section. Then dig it up and replant it in its final location. It’s no longer a branch, but a plant in its own right, fully capable of surviving on its own.
What Plants Can You Layer?
You can layer almost any plant with long, relatively flexible branches that are close to the ground, including many shrubs such as forsythias, dogwoods and hazelnuts, conifers like junipers and also almost all climbing plants (they are particularly easy to layer, since they always have long, flexible stems!). Almost any perennial that produces either a stolon or a stem that can be bent over can also be layered. Even plants that are difficult to root from cuttings, such as lilacs, rhododendrons and spruce, can multiplied by layering.
Layering: it’s so simple. Try it and see!