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by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

May 5, 2002

Among the multitude of tasks that crowd in on the gardener this time of year is the fascinating business of layering. This involves propagating new plants from the branches of a favourite specimen already in the garden.

For the amateur grower, ground layering is probably the easiest and most foolproof method of asexual plant propagation. As well, the process has an allurement of fecundity largely missing from the acquisition of plants at the neighbourhood franchise nursery.

On the downside, layering tends to take longer to complete than some plant-hungry gardeners are willing to wait. Nor is every species amenable to being layered. Some that are -- forsythia, viburnum and weigela species seem positively eager -- can just as easily be propagated from cuttings.

Certain plants are so anxious to get layered they don’t even require any fussing by gardeners. Honeysuckles and some roses behave this way. We have a divinely aromatic honeysuckle of undetermined parentage thriving in a damp corner at our place. It regularly drops lanky runners into the mud which, if left undisturbed, quickly root where they touch the earth. After a good cluster of roots has formed, I sever their connections to the main vine and carry off the rooted clones to start life on their own.

A popular and effusively beautiful rambling rose named Albertine is equally cooperative. She rambles along the top of an old sod roof on our woodshed, rooting herself as she goes, and thus supplying us with a wealth of healthy young rose bushes. Another willing player in the layering game is the rock daphne or garland daphne, D. cneorum. A choice rock garden or container plant, this hardy, spreading evergreen produces trailing branches with small dark green leaves and clusters of heartbreakingly fragrant rosy pink springtime flowers. There’s an old tale that you’re supposed to throw rocks at the plant, thereby scraping the stems and pinning them under the rocks to encourage layering.

I take a gentler approach: around this time of year, I simply excavate a shallow trench, bend one of the branches into the trench, then refill it with garden soil and place a flat stone over top. The branch will root readily where it’s buried, and by next spring, can be severed from the mother plant.

Other plants, such as rhododendrons and magnolias, require a bit more dexterity in order to be successfully layered. Again one selects a vigorous and pliable stem that can be bent to the ground. On the underside of the stem, at the point where it will be most deeply buried, one makes a small slanting incision less than half-way through the branch and holds this cut open with a toothpick. Another method is to remove a very thin ring of bark instead of making a cut. The idea either way is to expose the cambium layer so that rooting will take place. A dusting of rooting hormone aids as well.

The shoot can be held in place in the trench by pinning it under a small forked stick or a staple made of wire. The tip of the shoot emerging from the filled in trench may need to be supported by fixing it to a small stake.

The best time for layering is early spring, before the shoots have begun growing actively. But it’s also important that the soil has had a chance to warm up. Thereafter, the most critical element is to keep the soil constantly moist to encourage rooting. If the soil dries out, young rootlets formed on the stem may wither from lack of moisture. A flat stone or other mulch will help, as will locating the layer on the shady side of the plant.

While ready rooters like rock daphnes and honeysuckles can be removed without excessive ceremony next autumn or the following spring, the more recalcitrant rooters require an extended leave-taking. After the layer is thoroughly rooted, one severs the branch connecting it to the mother plant, but leaves the new layer in place so that it can get a full year of growth on its own before being disturbed. Top growth can be pruned back to enhance root formation and bushier growth.

Not all woody plants can be successfully layered, but many can be, so long as a few simple precautions are observed. Early spring is the optimum time. Long, pliable and vigourous shoots of the previous year’s growth, or possibly of two years previous, are preferable. And, it’s worth repeating, it is essential to keep the soil moist around the rooting layer.

There are all sorts of layering variations -- tip layering, mound layering, air layering et al. It’s a fascinating process that appeals to the twin age-old ambitions of gardeners: to acquire new plants and to do so without spending any money.



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