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Live Stake three month after planting (August); Live Stake one year after planting (June); Live Stake hedge two years after planting (August). Project: Residential Woodland Edge Enhancement, Amherst, MA

Live Staking: Cost-effective Method for Establishing Vegetative Cover

On a project site a few years ago, I showed a conventional landscaping crew what appeared to be a twig being inserted into the ground, and told them the twig would soon grow to be a large shrub. They didn’t believe me. I wished that crew could have returned in Summer of the second year after planting to see that the hundreds of “Live Stakes” they had planted, all the while shaking their heads at this crazy task. They had indeed grown into a respectable three-foot-high hedgerow! A few years later this same native fruiting hedgerow had grown to a full 8-10’ high and wide thicket providing the intended effective privacy screening from a neighboring property and excellent wildlife habitat benefits, particularly for songbirds.

What is Live Staking?

Live staking is a revegetation technique well known by the fairly small, select group of landscape architects, engineers and other restoration professionals who are involved with ecological enhancement, slope/shoreline stabilization, and wetland mitigation projects. Few others are aware of this cost-effective and environmentally beneficial approach to establishing rapid native vegetation cover with large woody plants including shrubs and trees. It is surprising to me how infrequently this method is used in restoration oriented and more general landscape planting schemes, particularly where rapid vegetation cover needs to establish over large areas.

Live stakes can be a great choice for naturalizing lawn and developed area edges as long as there is sufficient seasonal moisture! Photos below illustrate varied applications for live staking.

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Left to Right: Live Stake Bundle just before planting (April); Newly planted Silky Dogwood Live Stake (April); Live Stake one month after planting (May). Project: Residential Woodland Edge Enhancement, Amherst, MA

What are Live Stakes?

Live stakes are live cuttings from the stems, branches and young trunks of a number of native shrub and tree species. They are “live” because they are cut from live plants in well-established open grown stands, and are “stakes” because they are essentially straight stems with sharpened (chamfered) downward ends. The sharp ends facilitate inserting the stakes into the soil. Depending upon the application, live stakes may vary in length from about three feet to as much as six feet, though shorter stakes are more commonly used. Stakes range from about ½” to 2” in diameter at their thickest point near the bottom end of the stem.

How are Live Stakes used and planted?

Live stakes are harvested from source plants and planted during the dormant season while bare of foliage (roughly November through April in New England). From the time of cutting until planting, cut stakes MUST be kept submerged in water and never allowed to dry out. Live stakes are most often planted in tight staggered rows to rapidly establish thick woody vegetative cover. Planting alignments are sometimes linear to create hedgerows, but also can be placed over wider areas. Each live stake is inserted into a narrow, columnar planting “hole” or core that is no wider than the stake itself. Holes may be most effectively made by driving rebar (reinforcement bar), or equivalent long and narrow drill or auger bit, into the ground. Slow-release fertilizer may be added to the planting hole to feed the live stakes’ early emerging roots. Then the live stake is inserted into the planting hole. At least two-thirds of the live stake’s length should be inserted into the hole, while the top of the stake remains exposed to the light. Holes should be tightly tamped down to prevent planted live stakes from drying out.

NOTE: There are other less common approaches to using live stakes often combined with other live and dead cut brush. In some cases, live stakes are bundled into “brush bundles” or “fascines,” columnar tube-like structures, that are staked in place. Another method lays stakes down in stacks or “brush mattresses” that also include dead branches, and then drives additional stakes vertically through the mattress and securely into the soil below. These more intensive uses of cut brush and live stakes are most commonly applied to highly erosive environments along river banks, shorelines and to secure steep slopes.

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Residential slope stabilization adjacent to public wetland conservation area, requiring wetland permit. Left to Right: Live stake at planting (April); Live stakes sprouting new leaves (May); Same slope in August of first growing season after planting. Project: Residence, Amherst, MA.

Which Plant Species? 

Live stakes are typically sourced as cuttings from wetland or moisture-tolerating native shrub and tree species. The most common and fastest growing are shrub and tree Willow (Salix) species, such as Pussywillow (Salix discolor), followed closely by shrubby Dogwood (Cornus) species, such as Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum) and Red Osier or Redtwig Dogwood (Cornus sericea or stolonifera), which shows off brilliantly red bark in winter. Other native shrubs that can be used in live stake form include Alders (Alnus spp.), Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) and Viburnums (Viburnum spp.). Additionally, trees species such as Poplars/Aspens/Cottonwoods (Populus spp.) and Birches (Betula spp.) may also be used to create taller fast-growing thickets and groves.

Historical Antecedents

Live staking is not new. In Europe, and particularly the British Isles, farmers have long understood the thrifty benefit of cutting and staking certain shrubs to provide “living fences,” for the purpose of containing livestock such as sheep. Also, permaculture practitioners have long recognized the “stacked” benefits of coppicing nut trees and shrubs to increase nut production, reinvigorate and stimulate older stands, and propagate entirely new plants from the cuttings.


The cost of live staking can be substantially less than planting rooted shrubs and trees, yet with a similar level of vegetative cover produced in as little as two growing seasons. Also, many more live stakes will typically be planted in the same space that one individual rooted shrub or young tree could occupy. If a few live stakes don’t make it that’s not a big deal! Whereas, if you lose the one shrub or tree it may be more noticeable, costly and soil disturbing to replace. From a regulatory perspective, typically a 75% success rate on plantings (as assessed one year after installation) is generally considered acceptable. Achieving 95% cover with the intended (live stake) species by the third year after installation should be the ultimate goal. The thick density with which live stakes establish is hard to replicate with rooted shrubs and provides excellent erosion control and habitat benefits.

With all these benefits, why not give live stakes a try on your next project? Or give Wellnesscapes Design a call at (413) 687-1135  or contact us here to help you integrate this valuable restorative approach, and other innovative approaches, to ecologically-minded, cost-effective site design!

Left to Right: Live Stake three month after planting (August); Live Stake one year after planting (June); Live Stake hedge two years after planting (August). Project: Residential Woodland Edge Enhancement, Amherst, MA

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