When I discover a plant I really like I want to have more of them. But sometimes I want more then my budget can support. Fortunately, as gardeners we can save money by making our own plants.
One of the easiest ways to multiply plants is to grow new roots from the branches of shrubs and small trees. I’m not talking about taking cuttings or grafting or division. Those all have their pluses and minuses in the world of horticulture. I’m talking about an even easier technique called layering. I think it’s one of the most underutilized propagation techniques in the garden today for shrubs and trees. It can work with shrubs like rhododendrons, camellias, daphnes and even small trees like juneberries and hollies.
Other propagation techniques either require significant damage to the plant--such as division--or trying to start a plant without any roots—meaning cuttings--or trying to line up narrow pathways of the cambium—that’s grafting.
Layering gives the gardener and the new plant the best of both worlds: the new plant stays connected to the mama plant until it’s ready to grow on its own. And there’s no tricky work for the gardener. You can start a plant from layering in any season. Here, I’ll show you how simple and reliable it is to layer a fig tree.
1) First pick a few slender branches (no more than an inch or so thick) that bend easily and can touch the ground.
2) Take your pocketknife and scrape away a thin layer of bark from the side of the branch that will touch the soil. Scrape away an area about 2” long (in line with the branch) and up to a half inch wide to expose the green cambium. (Some gardeners like to bend the branch just till it cracks and that can work too.)
4) Press the cut area onto the soil after removing any mulch or other debris.
5) Hold the scraped branch in place with a stone, brick or length of stiff wire so it doesn’t move. You want the scraped area of the branch to have thorough and stable contact with the soil. The darkness, the moisture and the smell of good soil will stimulate the cambium to produce new roots from the damaged area.
6) Leave it alone for one or more seasons. I often start layering a fig in fall, let it root over winter and pot it up in late winter or spring. You can also layer them in early spring and probably pot them up in late summer.
7) When you think it’s been long enough lift the brick and brush soil away from the branch. If there are no roots, you haven’t given it enough time or it’s been too dry or too cold for much to happen. Put the brick back and wait another season. If the branch is holding in place and you can see roots reaching into the soil, then it’s ready to grow on its own.
12) If you are going to grow the new plant in a pot for a while put soil less media (I recommend 2/3 compost and 1/3 shredded pine bark) so that the potted roots will have great drainage and can get better established.
13) Alternatively, you can just cut the branch and leave the new plant in the ground where it is until you are ready to move it or give it away. Here's a picture of a new fig tree that's been dug after leafing out in spring.