Grafting Vs. Airlayering: Whatʻs The Difference?

The two most well-known ways to propagate trees are grafting and air layering. Sometimes, because these methods have similarities, they get confused with one another. This post explains the differences between grafting and air layering, so you can choose which one is best for you.

The most notable difference between grafting and air layering is the end result: grafting merges a branch and plant together, while air layering transforms a branch into an independent plant with its own root system. 

The purpose of grafting is to create different varieties from a single plant. Air layering, on the other hand, forms roots ‘in the air’ from an off-shoot, which can later be removed and planted in order to help jump-start a new plant. It’s a great way to start growing fruit trees, and is much faster than growing from seed.

Here’s a quick run-down of grafting vs air layering:

GraftingAir Layering
Root SystemTypically from seedling or specially bred rootstock
Root system is entirely attached to the parent plant.
A branch is cut, but not entirely removed from the tree and encouraged to grow its own root system.
It is then removed and planted as a new tree.
Resistance to DiseaseShow improved resistance to disease and pestsNo improved resistance to disease or pests
GeneticsChanges plants genetic make-up, produces new varieties
Gives you the power to encourage favorable traits in a plant
Makes a clone of the parent plant.The new plant, although small, is an ‘adult’ and will produce fruit much faster
No change to genetic makeup of the plant
VarietiesIncreases the variety of fruit you can produce on a single plantNo change to the fruit produced from a plant.
Fruit productionProduces significantly more fruit from a single plantProduces the same amount of fruit, but with more plants.
You can multiply the production by the number of new trees
Number of plantsAdds limbs to a single plant, but does not produce any new plantsProduces new plants with independent root systems that can be planted
PurposeTo create new varieties that would not naturally occur
To make a strong, resistant plant
Faster growing of new trees
A way to preserve a favorable plant, through forming new plants from branches
How To Air Layer Breadfruit ('Ulu) x
How To Air Layer Breadfruit ('Ulu)

If you’re interested in air layering, I have a post with step-by-step instructions for how to start.

Which method is fastest?

Grafting is faster than air layering. Whether you are thinking of the completion of the process, or when fruit will start growing, in both instances, grafting is faster.

With grafting, a new branch typically merges with a parent plant and completely ‘heals’ in about two weeks’ time. This is faster than it takes for the branch to produce a new, functioning root system from a branch with air layering. 

It takes anywhere from one to three months before a branch’s root system, with the air layering approach, is strong enough to completely remove from the parent and plant on it’s own.

For fruit production, grafting connects new branches to an adult tree. Because the parent is already grown, you can expect fruit from the grafted-in branch in 1-3 years. This is significantly faster than for air layering, because with air layering you create a new plant. 

Although the parent plant is an adult, the branch must form its own root system, and even after it is planted, it needs time to continue growing before producing fruit. You can expect fruits from an air layered tree 8 – 10 years after you’ve planted it in the ground.

 GraftingAir Layering
Propagation Completion1 – 2 weeks1-3 months
Fruit Production1-3 years8-10 years

Why not just grow a tree from seed?

If you are very patient, you could grow a tree from seed. Depending on the type of tree and growing conditions, you could be looking at 15 years or more before you saw fruits. 

You would also be taking a risk for the quality of fruit. One of the appeals of these propagation methods is that they either ensure quality fruit (in the case of air layering), or even improve fruit (with grafting).

Also, growing a tree from seed means you have to protect the small seedling and pay much more attention when it is very small – getting stepped on could end the plant’s life, for instance. 

With air layering, on the other hand, the plant gets a head-start and will already be the size of a branch when you plant it. Grafting has almost no risk at all, since you attach a new branch to an existing tree.

Grafting and air layering are not competing methods, but actually have different purposes in the field of horticulture. Each one has different approaches for plant propagation: air layering results in more plants, but takes longer, while grafting produces new varieties of fruit on an already existing plant.

Sean Jennings

Sean has been living simply Off-Grid in Hawai'i for over 18 years. He lives debt free on Hawai'i Island with his family and over 40 chickens. When he's not tinkering around the homestead, he's off exploring the shorelines for fish & surf.

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