Herb Gardening Advice: The Art of Layering

Preserve your most-favored flora with these propagation techniques

| August/September 2003

  • A careful cut into the stem followed by burying and pinning the stem in place encourages root development.
  • This creeping thyme has been tip layered. A wire peg holds the stem in place.
  • A careful cut into the stem followed by burying and pinning the stem in place encourages root development.
  • This Golden Lemon Thyme is a prime candidate for any type of layering technique.

Some herbs can be grown from seed, others demand to be dug and divided, and then there are those that are best propagated by persuading a stem to transform itself into a rooted plant. This is often done by rooting cuttings, but the technique called layering — in which stems are coaxed to produce roots while they are still attached to the parent plant — should be in every herb grower’s bag of tricks.

“Layering takes advantage of the plant’s natural tendency to spread and grow,” Rita Wollmering, who grows hundreds of herbs at The Herb FARMacy in Salisbury, Massachusetts, says. “It allows for propagation of new plants with minimal disruption to the mother plant.” Layering also gives you a larger new plant than you might get from a rooted cutting, because the stem being rooted can be allowed to hold onto more leaves than it could support if it were severed from its parent. Best of all, you don’t need a greenhouse to expect close to 100 percent success with layering.

There are three main types of layering that you might do with herbs: simple layering, tip layering and mound layering. I’ll cover each of these in detail, and you can refer to the box  to see which methods work best with your favorite herbs. But first, let’s cover the self-multiplying miracles your plants are capable of performing with only a little help from you.

From Stem to Root

In layering, you are asking a stem to stop being a stem, and instead develop roots, which many herbs are very willing to do. “When plants are wounded or cut, they have the unusual ability to take cells that are normally used for other functions, change them and start dividing them, and in the process change their destiny,” Dr. Stephen Garton, extension specialist in nursery and landscape horticulture at the University of Tennessee explains.

The most promising sites for these changes in plant destiny are the nodes — the places on the stem where leaves and little leaf buds are attached. Nodes are marvelous plant structures designed to do whatever they need to do to safeguard the life of the plant. They can produce leaves or sprout a new stem if the stem’s growing tip is removed, or they can grow roots should the plants become seriously threatened. “All the special cells that may be needed are laid down as the node develops, in positions where they can quickly respond when a change comes,” Garton says.

In layering, the change from stem to root often begins with a wound or injury to the stem. The plants then stage a three-step defense. They seal the wound, produce a callus that enables them to absorb more water, and then get busy growing new roots from the nodes. When we layer herbs, we are following this blueprint.

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