Live Stakes

HI, HELLO, AND WELCOME TO THIS WEEK'S POST ON LIVE STAKES! I am sure you are wondering, "What in the world are live stakes?", but no worries, I’ll answer that for you! Live stakes are a portion of a 1-to-3-year growth tree (willows, dogwoods, etc.) ranging in a diameter of one-half inch, up to one and a half inches. The length of the stake can be as short as twelve inches but typically not longer than three feet. It is very important that cuttings are dormant between November and early April. However, once the trees begin to bud, the cutting and planting season has passed. During the planting season, stakes are inserted into the ground or stream bank so a third of their length is exposed above the ground. So, if you have a three-foot cutting one foot should be above ground and two feet would be in the soil. In most areas you will be able to push the stake into the ground, some areas may require a tap from a rubber mallet. If the soil is extremely hard you can use a piece of steel rebar as a pilot hole or use an auger to drill into the soil. After the stake has been successfully planted into the ground it will quickly begin to root and work its magic in the soil by stabilizing streambanks.

This might be a little confusing, so allow me to further explain. We will take a black willow as an example. If we come across a black willow tree that is approximately six feet tall and are looking for 2-foot cuttings, we would be able to take three 2-foot cuttings from that one tree as long as they are not thinner than a one-half inch diameter at the point or bottom. The best way to produce a successful stake is to remove all the branches and leave just the main beam of the trunk. Willows have very fragile branches making the branches easy to remove by sliding your hand up the trunk making this species a personal favorite of mine. When cutting live stakes, it is important to remember to use hand pruners or air compressor nips (pictured on the right) to cut them to length and cut a tip at the base to make the installation process easier. The tip, or bottom of the stake, is pictured below (figure 1: tip or bottom). It should be at the base of the stake and at a steep angle to both identify the direction of the stake and to make it easier to push into the ground. The top of the stake should be flat (figure 2: top of the stake). If you’re cutting many stakes at a time, I would recommend using a table with measurements marked so that each stake is the same length (figure 4: cutting table). Bundling your stakes together (50-100 stakes) when you’ve finished will make it much easier to transport the live stakes to the restoration location. Below is a picture of proper bundles of red osier dogwoods tied with bailer twine and a handle for easy carrying (figure 3: bundle).

picture of air compressor nips for cutting live stakes

Concerns may have risen about cutting down a living tree for planting live stakes to develop another area. Pictured are these magnificent trees (silky sallow, black willow) species after they have been cut down. The black willow was cut down by me using loppers (figure 5: Black Willow), and the Silky willow was cut down by a local beaver (figure 6: Silky Beaver). After the tree is cut it will develop shoots from the existing stump, sometimes as many as five or more shoots. Within one to two years’ time, those shoots will be ready to be cut again developing even more live stakes. The black willow pictured (figure 7: Hinge cut) has been hinge cut, meaning that it was cut down so that the trunk of the tree is parallel to the ground, but was not cut entirely from the stump. By doing this, the tree will still be able to pull water and nutrients from the ground and develop shoots. In the area this technique was first used about four years ago, nearly 1,000 two-foot live stakes were cut, this year nearly 10,000 cuttings were taken from the same area. As long as the roots are not damaged these species will continue to grow and come back thicker than the year before.

Now we have a better understanding of live stakes, their size, what they are used for, and how they are processed. For a do-it-yourself project, you can produce multiple trees in your own backyard! In order to save on waste of the tree and the branches removed in the process of making live stakes, you can cover the branches with soil near a stream bank and they will root and produce trees as well. Now, get out there and help save our waterways and natural habitats!

Hans Lubich - Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Intern