How to Propagate Plants by Air Layering

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It doesn’t take long for the gardener to realize that plants can be expensive, and that bank balance can suffer when you cultivate too many. If only you and your friends already had a way to get free plants. Well, there is, and it’s called air layering.

With a few simple steps, you can use your existing plants to grow more. It’s also a great way to reproduce your favorite plant.

Whether you’re a novice gardener or an experienced person who hasn’t planted air-layered plants before, I’ll introduce you to this simple method I wish I knew sooner than I did.

What is Air Layering?

Air layering is a method of spreading similar plants from plants you already have. When you sow seeds, you plant a new plant, but when using the air layering method, you create a genetic copy of the mother plant.

This method of propagation has been around for centuries, but layering also happens in nature, so you’re essentially using Mother Nature’s own process.

Natural layering occurs when a lower stem or branch rests on the ground, and a new root system (ground layering) is formed. Since this process is asexual, the genetic material of the old plant is replicated. When you wind the plants, you are mimicking this process, but you are doing it without the stem touching the ground.

Instead, you bring a bit of ground to the top of the plant to trick the plant into thinking the stem is touching the ground.

It’s simple, effective, and free, with the addition of a few supplies you need. The procedure requires that you remove the bark and injure the plant, but don’t worry, and it won’t affect the health of your plant.

When to Air Layer Your Plants

The best time is in spring or fall. You need to make sure the plant is in a vigorous growth stage, which usually doesn’t happen in winter. Many plants will struggle to form roots in the heat of summer, but if you live in an area with mild summers, add that season to your chances.

Evergreens respond better to air layering in spring. Deciduous can be either spring or fall.

If you are trying air layering for the first time, do it in early spring when the plants are accelerating their growth.

Plants That Can Be Air Layered

Essentially, almost any supple, woody plant can be layered in the air. Some common plants include:

This is just a small list. Try it with any wood plant to see what works. Some respond better than others, but you’ll never know until you try.

How to Air Layer Plants

It’s easy, but the more you do it, the more confident you’ll be! Don’t be afraid to practice in your garden. Here’s what you need:

  • A clean and sharp knife (clean it with a layer of air between each plant to prevent disease transfer)
  • clear plastic or polyethylene film
  • tin foil
  • sphagnum moss
  • tie, string, rubber band or similar
  • Rooting hormone (optional)

The first step is to identify the stems and branches that give you the best chance for success. Choose a healthy, mature branch or stem. Must be disease free.

A strong stem is best, not a stem that is stunted or severely struggling. It should be at least pencil sized by about 3/4 of an inch.

Choose one in a sunny part of the plant as these will store more nutrients and energy, so rooting is likely to occur faster.

Length is also important. You’ll start your cut about 15 inches from the tip of the branch or stem. You will also need a branch or stem about six inches below the cut.

Steps for Air Layering

If you are a beginner, use larger branches and stems instead of smaller ones.

  • Soak a handful of sphagnum moss in water for at least two hours before starting.
  • Find a point 12 to 15 inches below the tip of the branch or stem you are using. Remove the leaves by 3 inches on either side of this point.
  • With a sharp knife, cut a line around the circumference of the branch. You should only cut away the outer bark layer and cambium layer.
  • Do the same thing about 1 1/2 inches below the first one. If the gap between the cuts is too small, the plant will attempt to re-close the bark instead of producing a root.
  • Combine these cuts by making a long cut along the length of the branch.
  • Remove the bark between the first two cuts around the perimeter of the branch. You are exposing the inner, tender parts of the branch. From here new roots will come.
  • Rooting hormone isn’t necessary, but it can boost your chances, so by all means, use some. Brush it onto the exposed inner layers of the cut.
  • Apply a handful of sphagnum moss to the cut area, so that it is completely covered. You can use a bit of cotton or thin twine to tie it securely but not too tight. Squeeze excess moisture out of the moss because too much moisture will cause decay rather than root growth.
  • Wrap the moss in plastic and seal both ends. The best method is called butcher’s seal. Place the plastic over the moss and hold the two ends together. Roll these toward the moss until tight, then seal the ends with twine. It should look like a plastic ball that is firmly attached to the plant.
  • Use waterproof tape to prevent excess moisture from getting into the plastic ball.
  • Wrap it in tinfoil if the plastic is exposed to full sunlight to prevent algae from forming.
  • Do not let the moss dry out. Loosen the top of the plastic ball and add moisture if necessary. I use a spray bottle to avoid excess excess moisture.

Steps to Air Layering Green Wood

The whole process is the same except for the cut. Green wood is difficult to cut using the above method, so use this variation.

  • Plant a leaf knot 12 to 15 inches below the tip of the stem.
  • 2 inches below the leaf node, turn your knife to the side and make a 3 or 4 or four-inch-long cut upward toward the node, stopping just past the center of the stem. This may bother you, but I have found that longer cuts are less likely to fail. Be careful not to cut your hand open.
  • This creates a lip that you can pry open with a toothpick, sprig, or piece of pebble. You need to do this because the plant will heal the cut if not kept open.
  • Cover with moss and plastic as described above.
  • Consider grabbing the branch or stem you are air layering to prevent breakage.

Removal of a new air layered plant

Check under the plastic every two weeks. You want to be able to see a mass of new roots through the plastic before you remove the plant.

There is no hard and fast rule on rooting times. It depends on the type of plant, the season, sunlight and luck. Don’t panic if roots don’t form and undo the plastic ball. Sometimes they take some time. I had one at six months, but have been successful for between four and 12 weeks.

If you have laid a plant in the air and it is not finished by winter time, you can overwinter it. Add more sphagnum moss around it and wrap it in black plastic.

When you’re sure there’s a pile of roots under the plastic, it’s time to remove your new plant.

Prepare containers by filling them half to 3/4th with potting mix. Cut the newly formed plant from the mother plant about 1 to 2 inches below the plastic ball with sharp scissors. Carefully remove the plastic and place it in the container without disturbing the moss ball or roots.

Fill the container with more potting mix and tamp down. Use a stake on either side of the plant to help hold it in place.

Water well and keep the medium moist, but not soaking.

Place a clear plastic tent on top of the plant, using stakes to prevent it from resting on the foliage. Keep it for ten days to help keep it warm until the roots develop and become stronger. Then, remove it and water the plant regularly until it is ready to move to the garden or larger container.

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