How to Use Live Stakes to Stabilize Soil
An inexpensive, low-maintenance solution

What is a Live Stake?
Live stakes or whips, as they are sometimes called, are relatively straight pieces of branches that do not have other twigs or leaves on them. Certain native, woody species will grow new plants from live, dormant cut sections of branches when planted in moist soil.

Live staking can be a cheap option for stabilizing soils along eroding streambanks and hillsides creating a root mat that reinforces and binds soil particles together. Live stakes can also provide habitat for wildlife and improve the overall appearance of an area. Live stake cuttings are used in a wide variety of habitats and applications including wetlands, flood plains, streambanks, lake shores, landslides, road slopes and stormwater detention ponds.

Some common species native to Pennsylvania that can be used as livestakes include:

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum)
Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa)
Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)
Sandbar Willow (Salix interior) Shining Willow (Salix lucida)
Basket Willow (Salix purpurea) Silky Willow (Salix sericea)
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) Black Willow (Salix nigra)
Peachleaf Willow (Salix amygdaloides) American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

Collecting Live Stakes
You can buy live stakes from native plant nurseries that specialize in supplying ecological restoration projects. Most of these nurseries sell them in bundles of 25 or 100.

But, one of the best things about live stakes is that you can collect them yourself! All you have to do is find a mature tree or shrub of one of the species above. Live stakes are best taken when the plant is dormant, generally between late fall after the leaves fall off and early spring before the buds burst.

The best cuttings are from two to ten-year-old limbs (between ¾ to 2 inches in diameter) and should be about two to four feet long. Use a pair of hand pruners, a hand saw, and a bag or bucket with water to place cuttings. If collecting multiple species, mark each species as well as which end is up to avoid confusion.


So How Do You Install a Live Stake?
Once you’ve collected your live stakes, you’re ready to plant. They should be planted during their dormancy (late fall to early spring). Be sure to remove all side branches and terminal (top), the current year’s growth, to ensure stored energy is used to develop new roots. Soaking cuttings for 7 to 14 days allows root development to begin prior to planting. Soaking also significantly increases survival and growth rate. Planting should take place before roots have emerged from the bark.

To plant your live stakes:
  • Drive a pilot hole in firm soil with rebar. The hole should be deep enough so that at least ½ to ⅔ of the length of the cutting is underground. On drier sites, up to ¾ of the cutting should be inserted.
  • Cut the bottom end of the stake at an angle. Remove the side shoots and leaves from the stakes. Be careful not to turn the stake upside-down. Orient the buds upward.
  • Stick the live stake in the hole and then pack the soil in around it.
  • Tamp the soil down around the cuttings and water them well.

Photo Source: Maine DEP
Live stakes do not require much additional care, another reason they are an efficient option. However, since you are planting a stake that has no roots, the plant needs to regrow roots before it can grow above ground. Patience is necessary to use live stakes.

Protecting streambanks and slopes from erosion is a challenge while waiting for vegetation to establish, which can take one to two years. A number of structural components are available, such as coconut fiber rolls to provide temporary protection. Live stakes should be monitored for water needs, especially during the summer months for the first year or two.