Unless you are in the field of ecological restoration you are probably unfamiliar with the term, live stakes. But perhaps you are like me, and appreciate a good deal. Whether it is a pair of khakis for 50% off the last marked clearance price or a $5 Monday night burger deal at a local restaurant. I love saving money.
This frugality (my term, my wife and kids term would be cheapskate) also extends to my yard. While when it comes to landscaping tools or plants for clients, quality is the name of the game and I am willing to pay for it. Plants for my personal use, on the other hand, have become something I have a hard time paying almost anything for.
Perennials can be easier to find inexpensively than shrubs
My favorite way to acquire plants these days is to grow them from seed. I already have the equipment and its an enjoyable way to start thinking about spring. Growing perennial plants from seeds can definitely be an effective way to get a lot of plants for cheap. However, growing shrubs from seed is not something I have the patience for, although you might.
You may be asking is there another way I can cheaply grow shrubs while not waiting for seeds to sprout? – YEP!
Live stakes can be a great way to get the most bang for our buck for your landscape. It is one of the simplest bioengineering techniques from the field of Ecological restoration that can also be applied to residential landscapes and gardens as well.
Live Stakes are to shrubs what seed starting is to perennials
Ok, so you are probably asking what’s a “Live Stake”?
A cow on it’s way to the slaughterhouse?
Bad joke aside, a “live stake” is a dormant stem from a woody plant which is planted into the ground.
Live stakes are often used in streambank and shoreline restoration. They can also be used to stabilize erosion-prone slopes and hills. In fact, I had a teacher in an Ecological Restoration class I took who used lives stakes in his toolbox of techniques to stabilize mountainsides to prevent landslides.
While they work great in these projects they can also be inexpensive and easy to install way to establish woody plants in other settings.
Since you are planting a part of a plant that has no roots, it will have to regrow roots before it can grow much above ground. Patience is necessary to use live stakes for landscaping.
Where can you get live stakes?
You can buy live stakes from native plant nurseries that specialize in supplying ecological restoration projects. Most of these nurseries sell them in bundles of 25 or 100. You probably don’t want 25 or 100 of the same shrub and most wholesale nurseries don’t really want your small retail order.
A more cost-effective way to get live stakes is to instead harvest your own from parent plants in the winter dormant season. You can even use pruning debris, but you will want to use the live stakes within 24 hours of cutting them.
If you are collecting multiple species, it is a good idea to mark each species from another so you don’t get confused about which is which. One way to do this and keep track of which end is up is to paint the shoot (top) end of the cuttings with different colors of latex paint. This also helps to seal the open top of the plant so it does not lose as much moisture.
So how do you install a Live Stake?
Simply put, you drive a pilot hole in firm soil with rebar and stick the live stake in the hole and then pack the soil in around it. If the soil is very soft, you can carefully pound the stakes directly into the ground using a rubber mallet.
- Stakes should be between ¾-1½ inches diameter and 2 to 4 feet long.
- Cut the bottom end of the stake at an angle. Remove the side shoots and leaves from the stakes. Be careful not to turn the stake upside-down.
- The cuttings should be inserted into the soil so that at least 2/3 of the length of the cutting is underground. On drier sites, up to 7/8 of the cutting should be inserted. Orient the buds upward. Tamp the soil down around the cuttings and water them well.
- Install Live Stakes during their dormancy (late fall to early spring). Do not be allow the stakes to dry out. Soaking them in water for 24 hours before planting can increase their chance to survive and their growth rate.
What Plants can you grow as Live Stakes?
I am sorry to say most plants CANNOT be planted as live stakes. Most will not root before they dry out. Willows (Salix) do great, but I don’t recommend many willows for landscaping.
In fact, I cringe whenever I see someone buying a weeping willow tree. Not only will they regret it as it swallows their whole yard, but also because they could have just cut a branch from a neighbors tree, stuck it the ground and had just as big of a tree probably in a year.
There are plants that do root from fair to good when planted as a live stake. The survival rate for most of these species will be under 100%, but a majority will survive if soil conditions, spring moisture, and planting technique are decent.
Landscaping Shrubs that work as Live Stakes
These native shrubs are great at supporting wildlife and have a good chance to survive when planted as live stakes:
- Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
- Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum)
- RedTwigDogwood (Cornus sericea)
- Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
- Ninebark(Physocarpus opulifolius)
- Pussy Willow(Salix discolor)
- Elderberry(Sambucus canadensis)
- Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
- Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago)
Cultivated varieties of these plants should also work reasonably well. So for instance, Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ which is the Yellow Twig Dogwood works well (see photo above from my yard). Purple leaf varieties of Ninebark, dwarf Buttonbush and Arrowwood Viburnum should also work just as well as these straight species.
So if you want a lot of one of these plants, Live Stakes might be a way to get a lot of plants for little to no money.
Using live stakes with perennial plugs can be a fantastic way to create a native planting to stabilize a shoreline, prevent a hillside from eroding or even create a mixed planting.
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