Air Layering: How to Propagate Plants With This Unique Method

When it comes to propagating plants, our minds jump to the usual methods:

  • Taking cuttings
  • Planting seeds
  • Dividing

But what if I told you that there’s another way?

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Enter: Air Layering.

It’s one of the most intricate propagation methods, as you are propagating while still attached to the mother plant.

Sound confusing? Don’t worry, it’s not too hard to do! We’re going to go over what air layering is, plants that respond well to air layering, as well as a step-by-step guide to doing it yourself.

What Is Air Layering?

Air layering
Two lychee growers learning how to air layer their crop. Source

It’s believed that air layering dates back to ancient China and Japan, where air layering bonsai was a popular propagation technique. It’s not the most common propagation technique by any means, mostly because it takes a while for a cutting to grow when it’s air layered.

So, why would you choose air layering over another type of propagation? Clearly growing from seed is easier, right? Well, yes and no. Seeds are simpler to start, but take much longer to reach maturity and are not genetically identical.

If you want an exact copy of a particular plant you love, you have to propagate off of it directly…that’s how you guarantee you clone it. Air layering uses existing plant material, so it produces genetically identical clones.

You might be surprised to find out that air layering happens in nature without any human intervention. If a plant’s branches droop and touch the ground, sometimes they’ll take root from the branch itself. This new stem is identical to its parent and can be severed from the parent to form a new plant.

To air layer successfully, you need to figure out how to get plant material to take root! Let’s get into that now.

What’s Happening When You Air Layer?

I believe it’s important to know exactly what is happening with any growing technique. That way you have a deep understanding of the technique and your knowledge of gardening in general increases.

Cambium Layer
The layers of a plant stem. When you air layer you remove the outer layers. Source

When you air layer a plant, you remove a 1” wide section of the outer layers of a plant stem (bark, cambium layer, and phloem) in a process known as girdling.

Then, you apply a rooting hormone to the area to stimulate root growth from the cut area and wrap the area in sphagnum peat moss to retain moisture.

Finally, you wrap the moss in a plastic wrap of some kind and secure it with rope or string.

By removing these sections of the plant, you prevent nutrients from moving below the cut area. However, water and nutrients can still move up to the area. This means that the leaves on the stem will remain healthy, and the buildup of nutrients at the cut site (along with rooting hormone) will activate what are known as adventitious buds, causing them to turn into roots. Once these roots have grown enough, the stem can be cut off the parent plant and potted up.

How Air Layering Differs From Taking Cuttings

The only real difference between air layering and cuttings is the fact that you remove the stem completely when taking a cutting. Taking cuttings is a better technique for smaller, younger stems as they can survive off of capillary action delivering water and nutrients to the plant.

Air layering answers the question, “How do I propagate from a large stem or branch?” by forcing the stem to produce roots at the cut area.

Plants Suitable to Air Layering

You can air layer almost any plant, but it’s particularly suitable to plants that are hard to propagate via cuttings, and take a while to grow from seed.

Here’s a non-extensive list of plants that are good to air layer:

It’s also a popular method for fruit and nut trees like:

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Pecans
  • Oranges
  • Lemons

How to Air Layer a Plant

Although the method seems a bit complex, it’s not too hard to do! All it takes is attention to detail and a lot of patience. But as gardeners, patience is one of our virtues, isn’t it?

Materials

You can find most of these materials around the house, except for the rooting hormone, which I’ve marked as optional. It will probably speed up propagation time, but it’s not mandatory and plants will propagate fine without it.

  • Sharp, sterilized cutting instrument
  • Sphagnum peat moss
  • Rooting hormone (optional)
  • Plastic bag or plastic wrap
  • Small piece of thin plastic (piece of plastic bottle works fine)
  • String or twine
  • Scissors
  • Water
  • Bowl

After successfully air layering, you’ll also need:

Step 1 – Prepare The Materials

First, you need to get your materials in order.

Soak your peat moss and squeeze out until moist, but not soaking. You should have a moist ball the size of a tennis ball. If you want, you can add rooting hormone to the water you soak your moss in to spur root growth.

Cut a sheet of plastic wrap to about one square foot and place aside.

Cut two pieces of string long enough to wrap around the stem on both sites.

Choose the stem on your plant that you want to propagate and the section you will cut. A good rule of thumb is to cut a 4-6 inches below a node.

Step 2 – Make Cut In The Branch

It’s time to make the cut! With a sterilized knife, make a 45 degree cut through at least ½ of the branch, but no more than ⅔. Be sure to support the other side of the branch, but keep your thumb in a position where it won’t be sliced if you accidentally cut through the branch!

Step 3 – Insert The Plastic

Take your small piece of cut plastic and slide it into the cut. This is necessary to prevent the plant from healing itself and sealing the cut over the next few weeks.

Step 4 – Wrap Moss Around Cut

Grab your moist ball of moss and firmly press it around the stem. It should surround the stem and be firm, but not extremely compressed. Over the next few weeks, the cut area will start to send roots into the moss, giving you a nice little root ball to pot up.

Step 5 – Wrap Plastic Around Moss

Making sure to hold the moss ball in place around the stem, take your plastic wrap and cover the moss. Take your pieces of string and wrap them around the top and bottom a few times, then tie them tightly. You may also need to stake or tie up the top side of the branch, as the severity of the cut might weaken its ability to stand on its own.

Step 6 – Sever Branch From Plant

Depending on the plant you’re air layering, you’ll need to wait at least a few weeks. In some cases it may even take months. Monitor your progress by looking through the plastic wrap to see if there are roots forming. When you see a critical mass of roots, you can sever the branch from the plant completely by cutting about 1” below the air layering site.

Step 7 – Pot Your Plant!

Once you sever the stem, remove the plastic wrap. Do not remove the moss ball — remember, this is where all the roots are!

Using a high-quality potting soil suited for your particular plant, pot up your plant in a small pot. You want to keep the pot small so the soil doesn’t stay wet for too long. The last thing you want is to rot the roots of your newly air-layered plant, especially after all the time you put into getting it to this point!

When it comes to propagation, our minds jump to cuttings or seeds. But what about air layering? It's unique, easy, and effective for plants with large stems.
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3 thoughts on “Air Layering: How to Propagate Plants With This Unique Method

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  2. I am doing air layer on ginkgo and using a tourniquet (zip tie) instead of cut. The leaves are starting to yellow. It has been 10 weeks from start and am doing several plants. Is this normal? I checked the area above the tourniquet has swollen almost double and the bulges along it have little white tips where the roots are about to come out. I checked a plant that still has green leaves and is a couple weeks later having tourniquet applied. The area above the tourniquet looks much the same as the others but doesn’t have the white tips yet. Usually, yellow leaves means sick plant/roots. But the tree is basically cut off from its roots. So is this normal or is my plant sick. What do I need to do next?

    • Hey there Jerry, I don’t have personal experience using tourniquet instead of cut, so I can’t offer much direct advice. I would experiment though! Test cutting the yellow one w/ roots popping off and transplanting when you feel it’s ready, and see if it comes back to life.

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