Air Layering Trees: Step-By-Step Instructions & FAQ

Air layering is a great way to make clones from full-grown trees with minimal effort or experience.

The process is simple enough, but it does require a bit of knowledge and patience to pull it off.

You also need to know which types of trees and plants you can and can not air layer.

What trees can you air layer? Nearly any tree can be air layered, including fruit, nut, evergreen, tropical, and ornamental trees. However, there are several trees that are easier or quicker to air layer, such as maples and olives. Likewise, certain trees like pines take longer and are harder to air layer.

Read on below to discover everything about air layering trees, including which trees the technique works on best, step-by-step instructions, and more

Air Layering Trees: How It Works

Air layering techniques for trees vary slightly from method to method, but they all share extremely similar basics:

  • Selecting a prime branch from a healthy tree
  • Preparing a cut or “wound”
  • Binding the wound in a damp medium
  • Covering
  • Time

Different air layering methods applied on various species require anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks all the way up to multiple months (or even seasons) to complete from start to finish.

Two Methods: Tourniquet and Ring

There are two main methods for air layering trees: tourniquet air layering and ring air layering. 

Tourniquet Method

The tourniquet method involves wrapping copper wire around the branch at the exact spot you want to produce new roots. It is a bit delicate, as is air layering in general. 

The wire needs to cut halfway through the tree’s bark, and then you dust the wound with rooting hormone.

Afterward, simply cover up your handiwork with sphagnum moss and plastic.

Ring Method

The ring method works in a similar fashion, but instead of using copper wire, you just cut slits around the branch at the area you want new roots to grow.

Once you’ve made your marks, remove the bark, and you’re left with a shiny “ring.”

The ring must be wide enough and deep enough for the tree to send out the rooting signal.

Once you’re satisfied with your ring, dust it with rooting hormone, and cover it up entirely with sphagnum moss and plastic.

Air Layering Mediums 

The art of air layering has been perfected for hundreds of years by gardeners around the world and continues to be perfected today.

That said, over the centuries, one medium has taken the crown for being the most useful for air layering – sphagnum moss.

There are of course other mediums that can be used in a pinch, such as peat moss, potting soil mixes, and more.

However, sphagnum moss is by far and wide the most effective and therefore always highly recommended to use for air layering.

Can You Use Peat Moss for Air Layering?

Peat moss is an alternative medium for using air layering methods on trees. In the absence of sphagnum moss, peat moss is best mixed with rich potting soil. 

Can You Use Potting Soil For Air Layering?

Potting soil is another medium that works for air layering trees. It is best utilized with peat moss if sphagnum moss isn’t being used as well.

When To Air Layer 

The best time to perform air layering on trees is in early to late spring. Air layering in the summer is possible but not highly recommended.

Fall is another good time to air layer because the tree is still actively producing new growth that may be converted to roots. 

However, if the tree has already entered a dormant state for the year, it is too late for air layering until the following spring.

Is Air Layering the Same as Marcotting?

Marcotting is a traditional Chinese practice of air layering. The art has been practiced in Asia for approximately 1,000 years or more.

There is no difference between air layering and marcotting, except in name.

How Long Does It Take for Air Layering To Root? 

Depending on the species of tree you’re dealing with, air layering may take anywhere from several weeks to slightly over a year. 

That said, most air layering done in the spring is ready by fall. Likewise, air layerings performed in the fall are typically ready for transplanting the next spring or early summer.

Branch Size for Air Layering 

Standard air layering procedure demands a branch size of between 2 and 3 feet long. The width should be similar to the diameter of one of your fingers.

That way, the tree is thin enough and short enough for the new root system to support it without struggling.

Some gardeners, with plenty of experience in air layering practice, may sometimes air layer trees that are several feet longer than the recommended size.

In these cases, the resulting tree requires special attention while the root system catches up with the rest of the tree.

Air Layering Pods 

The recent ingenious invention of air layering pods has made the practice of air layering easier than ever before.

Air pods, more or less a plastic case with a hole and built-in seal on each end, simply snap onto the target area and lock into place.

I’d recommend trying these high-pressure air layering pods. They come 10 to a pack so you can produce multiple new trees at once, and there are two sizes available.

If you don’t want to have to mess with flimsy plastic wrap, these are the way to go.

When using air pods, however, you must still “wound” the tree as well as cover the wound with a binder, such as sphagnum moss or peat moss and a potting soil mix.

Does Air Layering Need Watering?

Air layering only requires water in the sense that the medium placed over the wound needs to be quite damp at the time of application.

Failure to use a wet enough medium typically results in a dried-out binding and a failed air layering attempt.

Do You Need Rooting Hormone for Air Layering?

While rooting hormone is not an actual requirement for every form of air layering, it is highly suggested.

Traditional air layering methods, like marcotting, do not use rooting hormones. 

However, newer methods like the tourniquet and ring methods both often rely on the use of rooting hormone to ensure successful air layering attempts.

While a traditional rooting hormone powder, like this one, will certainly get the job done, you also have the option of using a gel rooting compound or a liquid spray (find it here) for somewhat easier application.

When To Remove Air Layering

Air layering should be removed only once roots have clearly begun to shoot through the medium with which the wound is bound.

In most cases, when the new white roots begin poking their tendrils out through the sphagnum moss, it is time to remove it.

How To Air Layer Trees: Step By Step

A tree with three branches wrapped in air layering medium for propagation.

Air layering trees is relatively simple once you understand the process. 

Here are the steps:

1. Select Parent Tree

The first step is choosing a tree and a branch. Start by inspecting each tree and finding the healthiest ones with plenty of 2-3 foot branches to use. 

2. Girdle or “Wound” the Branch

Once you have selected a proper tree and picked the branch you want to create a clone with, cut a small and shallow notch into the branch.

Imagine peeling an apple with a knife, but leaving the peel connected on one end.

Make sure that the wound is deep enough (past all of the outer bark on the branch) but not so deep that it causes the branch to die rather than develop new roots.

If your cut is halfway through the branch, it is too deep.

3. Remove Growth Near the Wound

Steps 2 and 3 are actually interchangeable, but many prefer to remove growth after creating the wound just to be sure that they don’t unnecessarily remove too much.

After your wound is inflicted on the branch, remove all leaves, buds, and side shoots for roughly 12 to 14 inches above the wound.

4. Prepare and Apply a Moss Binding

Once you’ve properly prepared your tree branch for air layering, dampen your sphagnum moss, wring it out, and repeat the process.

You want it to be extremely damp but not leaking water.

Apply the moss to the wound, wrapping it all the way around the branch. Make sure it not only covers the wound but several inches surrounding it as well.

Cover securely with plastic wrap or a similar material to hold everything in place and to retain moisture.

5. Perform Regular Checks on the Air Layering

Until you see white root tips poking out through the sphagnum moss (or whatever medium you used to bind the wound), check up on the air layering every few days or at least once a week.

6. Remove and Transplant Air Layering

When enough time has passed and the new root system has developed enough to be clearly visible through the medium, it is time to remove it from the parent tree.

Carefully cut the tree away directly below the rooting site and directly transplant it in a new home.

Air Layering Advantages & Disadvantages

There are numerous pros and cons to air layering. For starters, air layering is cheap and effective and practically anyone can do it.

Further, the new tree produced from the air layering process is an exact and identical twin to its parent.

The main downside to air layering is that it takes a bit of time for the process to complete.

It also requires a good deal of work “upfront,” meaning the majority of the work involved occurs at the beginning of the process.

The majority of the overall experience is actually time spent waiting and watching for roots to appear.

Another disadvantage is that if an air layering attempt has failed, it may be weeks or even months before you know that it has failed.

Air Layering Pros & Cons

What Fruit Trees Can Be Air Layered?

Nearly all fruit trees can be air layered, but some may require more skill and patience than others.

Some of the most frequently and successfully cloned fruit trees via air layering include:

Can You Air Layer Citrus Trees?

Most citrus trees are air-layer friendly. In fact, it is one of the easiest and most successful ways to clone healthy citrus trees. 

For optimal results, perform your air layering on citrus trees before or after the fruiting season. Avoid air layering citrus (or any tree species) during their dormant phases.

Can You Air Layer Pine Trees?

Technically speaking pine trees can be air layered, but they are one of the hardest trees to do so.

Those who have successfully air layered pine trees report that the process may well take up to two full years!

Can You Air Layer Bonsai Trees? 

Bonsai trees are excellent for air layering. However, due to their miniature size, compared to full-size trees, your approach to the air layering process must be a bit more gentle. 

There is no definite best time of the year for air layering bonsai as they include various different species of trees.

Just be sure the tree is producing new growth before starting your air layer.

Can You Air Layer Nut Trees? 

As with most fruiting-type trees, nut trees are not immune to air layering. The best time to perform an air layering on nut-bearing trees is before or after their fruiting season.

That said, be sure the tree has not yet entered into a dormant mode before air layering.

Can You Air Layer Cedar?

Cedar is able to be air layered, but a light touch is required. Being thin and brittle, cedar branches are prone to cracking or snapping under pressure.

Hence, creating the wound needed for the air layering process can be quite tricky.

Can You Air Layer Crepe Myrtles?

Crepe myrtles are another great tree for air layering. Not only do most gardeners report great success at it, but the species also make wonderful bonsai trees.

Can You Air Layer Juniper?

Juniper trees are a diverse evergreen species that is not hard to air layer with a bit of practice. In fact, air-layered junipers make excellent bonsai trees.

If you plant to air layer a juniper, try for early spring or early autumn.

Can You Air Layer Maples? 

Maples are another easy tree species to air layer. The best time to do so is directly after winter when they begin shooting out copious amounts of new growth.

Autumn is a secondary option if the weather is cool enough and the tree is still showing signs of growth.

Can You Air Layer Oak Trees? 

Oak trees are one of the harder species to air layer due to their asexual nature, thick skin, and other factors.

But with a bit of luck, skill, and perseverance, oaks can indeed be air layered. The best time to perform an air layer on an oak tree is by far in the spring.

Can You Air Layer Olive Trees? 

Olive trees are considered to be one of the easiest tree species to air layer.

Mid-August is widely accepted as the best time of the year to perform air layering on olive trees. The new clones are often ready for removal the following spring.

A Final Word About Air Layering Trees

Air layering trees is a great way to create identical replicas of trees that you already have (or have access to).

The techniques may take a few attempts for beginners to perfect, but it is generally considered easy enough for gardeners of any skill level to eventually master.

Stick to the information and steps listed above, referring back as often as needed, and you’ll be air layering trees like a pro in no time!