A Plea for Proper Tree Staking
Updated: May 4
As a horticulturist and landscape contractor, I cannot help studying and scrutinizing every landscape I come across, whether on the job or off the clock. (And let me tell you, landscapes are everywhere, so my mind is pretty much always there. Perhaps the only escape might be to watch some post-apocalyptic sci-fi film where machines rule the world in the face of total destruction of nature as we know it. But there’s always that flashback to the way things were … and cue a lovely park with *gasp* a coast live oak planted in a lawn. Tsk-tsk.)
One of the most common mistakes I see in both public and private landscapes is tree staking. This post is my heartfelt plea to tree-owners and tree caretakers of the world: I beseech you, please to take a moment to look at your trees and make sure that they are either properly staked or, the most frequent offense, that stakes are removed if no longer needed. Because I so often find myself saying “please, can somebody please get rid of these old stakes,” I will begin this post with a slideshow of what one should not have in their garden. Following that is helpful information on why and how to stake, followed by a reiteration to remove them when their job is done.
Well, that was depressing. Better to focus my energy towards positive change. Please, read on.
Why to Stake
It would seem that trees in nature seem to grow just fine without stakes, so why do we need them in a landscape? The difference between wild trees and cultivated trees, excluding the hundreds of years of human meddling and manipulation in plant growth and genetics, is that the roots of the trees we plant are limited to the dimensions of the nursery container in which they are grown. Roots anchor a tree to its location and grow relative to the crown. For example, imagine two trees of equal size. One is in the ground, the other in a box. The roots of the tree in the ground likely stretch much farther than the dimensions of the box, acting like hands or strings grabbing on to the earth. When a strong wind blows, the roots counteract the force and keep the tree upright. Thus, without this underground support system comes the need for stakes.
However, stakes are to be treated like training wheels, not a permanent crutch. Eventually, the tree’s roots will extend beyond the planting hole and will anchor the tree to its new location. Stakes left in place indefinitely can have long-term detrimental effects, such as weakening the tree or damaging it.
So, you have a new tree to add to your yard because you are generously contributing to the greening of our cities with an arboreous legacy. Or perhaps you have been mandated by the city to do so after removing the ill-placed “heritage” redwood tree the previous homeowner cleverly planted in the lawn? Or your mother-in-law has gifted you an adorable apple sapling ? Whatever the story may be, you must be asking yourself: Should I stake it?
DO stake your tree if:
· It is top heavy with a bare trunk (think lollipop shaped)
· It is exposed to frequent and/or strong winds
· It is going to be planted close to areas with a lot of foot traffic (and does not meet the first 2 criteria below in the "DO NOTs")
· It is a bare-root
· It cannot stand straight on its own
DO NOT stake your tree if:
· It is multi-trunked or low-branching (think vase-shaped)
· It is pyramid shaped with many low branches (think Christmas tree)
· It does not meet any of the first 4 criteria above (in the "DO" section) and can stand straight on its own
Trees with lower branches are not as top-heavy and are therefore unlikely to be moved from their proper orientation by wind or other factors.
How to Stake
If you’ve determined the tree needs staking, here’s how to go about it:
1) Remove the nursery stake
Almost all trees will come with a nursery stake. This is usually bamboo or a lodge pole placed right up against the trunk of the tree and tied in place with nursery tape or string. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. If left in place, the stake will rub against the tree’s trunk as it grows and will damage the bark. The ties quickly become tight as the trunk grows and can lead to girdled or misshapen trees.
EXCEPTION: On some occasions, we have planted trees that are very light and flimsy and cannot stand straight without the nursery stake in place. I’ll name names. It was Agnois flexuosa ‘After Dark.’ Gorgeous tree, but a rather weak cultivar in my experience. Do replace the plastic nursery tape with velcro tape (one of our favorite products) so it can be easily adjusted. The nursery stake should be removed as soon as the tree is able to stand on its own. Check back on a monthly basis. Remove after one growing season (maximum of 6 months).
2) Install 2-3 stakes outside the rootball of the tree
Proper stakes are 8' or 10' long lodge poles. Bamboo or 1" redwood stakes are not sturdy enough. If the tree isn't top-heavy, the minimum number of stakes to use is 2. For a tree with a denser canopy, 3 is necessary. If using 2 stakes, off-set them slightly from the trunk of the tree. If wind is a factor, keep in mind the direction and align stakes perpendicular to the direction of the prevailing wind. If using 3, triangulate evenly around the base of the tree.
Stakes should be placed 12" - 14" from the trunk, outside the rootball, or 18" maximum if the tree's branching is dense.
Always use a level to be sure stakes are installed straight. Stakes should be pounded deep enough into the ground so they are solid and not easily moved, about 2' deep into the ground.
For extra stability, stakes should be connected to each other with a 3"-wide piece of plywood, preferably pressure treated. Plywood resists splitting under pressure better than lumber. Wood bars should be installed on the outside edge.
3) Tie the tree in place
Ties should be flexible and smooth. Wire or other thin materials should not be used as they will easily damage the trunk. Ties should be tight enough so the tree is supported and not leaning, but should allow for some movement and sway. This strengthens the trunk.
4) Monitor tree’s growth
We recommend to our clients to leave the stakes for at least 6 months to 1 year. With California’s wet winters, stakes provide needed stability through winter storms and extra support when evergreen trees are heavy with rainwater for the tree’s first winter season.
Most trees can have their stakes removed after 1 year. However, trees that have been trained into a standard (the nursery term for a plant trained to have a bare trunk and dense crown) might need extra time with the stakes. Because this is not the natural shape of the tree, it will take it longer to develop a trunk strong enough to support the dense growth on top. If possible, thinning standard trees can help alleviate the need for stakes and give the trunk a chance to grow, without the stress of holding up such a large head.
5) THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP: Remove stakes
Unfortunately, our cities and neighborhoods are plagued by tree stakes left in place way past their date of utility. Have I mentioned this yet? Problems caused by this oversight include:
· Stakes leaning on trees, scratching and damaging the trunk
· Ties constricting tree’s growth or even growing into the tree itself
· Unkempt and dilapidated looking gardens
· Severe irritation of horticulturists, often resulting in heated tirades or long blog posts on the topic.