How to Use Live Stakes to Get Free Plants
Did you know you can take a stick, shove it into the ground, walk away, and come back later to a brand-new plant? Really, it works—well, at least with certain types of woody plants. This approach is called live staking, and for plants like willows and some other woody plants, it can be a great way to get free plants for your property.
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Finding enough plants for your property can be a significant challenge. Plants are not cheap, and it can be hard to find native plants. Live staking is a great way to get free plants by taking cuttings from existing plants found on your property, in natural areas, or from neighbors or family members.
Essentially, live staking is the process of taking cuttings from woody plants and sticking them in the ground. The live stakes will root and grow, resulting in a brand new plant that is a clone of the plant the cutting was taken from.
This is a wonderful, simple way to quickly get a bunch of new plants.
But as simple as live staking is, there are some things you should know before you start sticking random sticks into the ground.
Keep reading to learn the basics of live staking and find out which plant species tend to work with this technique.
Before you scroll down, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print check-list outlining the steps for live staking. This check-list also includes a bonus list of great uses of willows on your property.
The Basics of Live Staking
To start collecting live stakes you will need to first find the woody plants you want to get stakes from. These plants should be well established (several years at least).
A list of species that can be live staked can be found in the next section.
I get a lot of my live stakes when I go through and prune my shrubs back from my trails at the end of summer. This is a great way to make use of the cutting’s leftover from pruning.
Cuttings that are too small for live staking or from plant species that can’t be live staked can be chop-and-dropped as free mulch that will build your soil and reduce your future watering.
You can also get live stakes from natural areas like state forests. When collecting live stakes from natural areas, make sure you only remove 1/20th of the branches from any one plant.
Live stakes should be collected when the plant has gone dormant. You will want to look for new growth from the previous spring/summer. These stems can be found growing out of older stems and will generally be a different color and smaller than the older stems.
Make sure the stems are at least 3/8th of an inch (9.5 mm) thick and 2 feet (0.6 m) long. If you can, try to find stems closer to an inch (2.5 cm) thick and 3 to 4 feet (0.9 – 1.2 m) long.
Cut these stems at the base where they connect to the older stem. The resulting stick can be referred to as a live stake. Make sure to keep track of which end is the bottom of the live stake, since that will be the part of the stake you stick in the ground.
You can make a diagonal cut on the bottom of the live stake to make it easier later when you push the live stake into the ground. Keep the top of the stake flat if you cut it—this is also an easy way to keep track of the bottom of the stake.
Collect all the resulting live stakes and place them in a bucket partially filled with water. Put the stakes in the bucket with the bottom end down.
It is best to stick the stakes in the ground as soon as possible, but they can be stored in the water for several days. If you need to store them longer, you can take the stakes out of the water and heel them into a pile of mulch—basically, just put them on the ground and cover the bottom half of the stakes with 6 inches to a foot (15.2 – 30.5 cm) of wood chips or other mulch.
When heeled in, the stakes could sit for a week or so. But make sure the stakes stay moist, cool, and out of the sun.
Now you just need to plant your live stakes. This can be done by sticking the stakes into the ground bottom-end first and pushing them down as far as possible, while making sure to leave at least 2 buds above ground.
The further you can get your live stakes into the ground without covering the top two buds, the more likely they are to survive.
If your soil is too hard to push the live stakes into the ground, you can use a piece of rebar to make a pilot hole. Just make sure the rebar is not bigger across than the stakes. Your stakes need direct soil contact. Large stakes can also be pounded in using a rubber or wooden mallet. But you will need to cut the top to make a nice flat area to hit with your mallet.
During the first year, the live stakes are likely to grow slowly, with most of their energy going into growing new roots.
Live stakes are often planted densely, since chances are, they won’t all survive. Adding mulch around your live stakes will help them survive and get established.
Follow these steps when preparing to live stake:
- Identify the plants you want to collect live stakes from.
- Collect the live stakes in the fall/winter when the plants are dormant.
- Choose new stems from the previous spring/summer that are at least 3/8th of an inch (9.5 mm) thick and 2 feet (0.6 m) long.
- Cut at the base where the new stem connects to an older stem.
- Collect the live stakes and place them in a bucket with water, or heel them in.
- Identify where you want to plant the live stakes and then stick them into the ground as far as possible without covering the top two buds.
- Make sure there are still 2 buds above ground.
- Apply mulch around the live stakes to improve survival rates.
Which Species Does This Work With?
Willows are the classic plant for live-staking, but there are actually many types of plants that can be planted from live stakes.
Part of the fun of live staking is that you can easily test your plants. Some—or even most—plants won’t successfully live stake, but you may be surprised how many woody plants can be live staked.
Since it’s so easy to take a cutting from a woody plant and just stick it in the ground, I often do this in the fall, just to see which plants will survive.
But just be aware that, while willow stakes will often have a high survival rate, other plants may have a low survival rate, which means you will need to plant extra stakes.
To help you get started, here is a list of plants that I have successfully grown from live stakes. Each is rated as easy (>50% survival rate) or challenging (< 50% survival rate) based on my observed survival rate for each.
Plants that Live Stake
Here are 10 plants that I have successfully live staked plus how easy or hard it was for me to get them to survive. You might find different levels of success depending on your unique site conditions.
- Willows - Easy
- Cotton Wood - Easy
- Mock Orange - Challenging
- Seaberry - Easy
- Elderberry - Challenging
- Red Oiser Dogwood - Easy
- Douglas Spirea - Easy
- Snowberry - Easy
- Black Twinberry - Easy
- Red-Flowering Currant - Easy
Use Live Staking to Boost Your Property
Live staking is a great way to quickly establish a large number of plants on your property. Just be careful, since this propagation technique results in clones of the parent plant.
But you can easily get around this by collecting stakes from a large number of parent plants.
My go-to-strategy is to get a large number of plants established without live staking, so I can make sure I have a good overall genetic diversity.
Then I can harvest live stakes from those "first-generation” plants, so I still have a good overall diversity.
An easy, free method for getting plants established, live staking lets you boost your property and quickly grow trees and shrubs that benefit wildlife as well as yourself.
Often, plants that can be live staked can also be coppiced or pollarded. This can result in a sustainable supply of wood for your property.
What plants have you live-staked on your property? Leave a comment to let us know how it worked out!
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