Should I Stake My New Tree?

Should I stake my new tree?  The short answer is no. Trees grow strong from bending and swaying in the wind like human muscles grow strong from lifting weight.  If a person doesn’t move, their muscles atrophy.  The same it true of a tree. If a tree is not allowed to sway and bend in the wind, the result is a weak tree that is likely to break in the wind.

How do I spot a strong tree? When you purchase a tree look for a healthy tree (without a stake) that has a strong sturdy trunk.  Look for a tree that is well balanced visually, for example, the top of the tree looks balanced with the size of the trunk. Also, make sure the trunk is larger at the bottom than it is toward the top.  If the tree is extraordinarily tall with a thin trunk and appears top heavy (like a pom pom on a stick), pass it up.   It’s a weak tree.

Swamp White Oak
This is a well balanced Swamp White Oak with sturdy tapered trunk

Uh oh, what if I’ve already purchased a tree that looks like a pom pom on a stick?   Sometimes a tree is too far gone and will never be able to support its own weight. You may have to either return the tree to the nursery or buy a new one. However, if you choose to plant it, you will need to stake the tree.  But, in order for the tree to grow strong and support itself, it must be staked correctly.  Often you will see a tree with a stake driven into the ground right next to the trunk and the trunk is tightly taped to the stake from the bottom of the tree trunk to the top.  Don’t ever do this and don’t buy a tree that looks like this.  This tree will be incredibly weak and likely will never recover.

 So how do I correctly stake my new tree? To correctly stake a tree,  drive two or three stakes into the ground a few feet away from the tree trunk, with one stake on each side of the tree.  The stakes should be at least half the height of the tree.  Make sure the stakes are securely in the ground and that they do not move.  Remember, they will need to support the movement of the tree in the wind.

Then, use a soft elastic material, like old panty hose, to tether the tree to each one of the stakes, using one tether per stake.  The tethers should be placed at a height not lower than the middle of the tree, slightly higher is best. Beware of the material you use to tether the tree.  Never use materials like rope or chain as a tether as it will actually rub against the bark causing injuries to the tree  which will lead to disease and rot issues.  Next, adjust the tightness or looseness of the tether if necessary to ensure the tether is loose enough so the tree can sway in the wind but tight enough to support the tree.  The tether should limit the movement of the tree but not prevent all movement of the tree.   The idea of staking is to support the tree as it grows stronger in order for the tree to  eventually support itself.

How long should I stake my tree?  My rule is one year.  In that amount of time, the tree should have expanded its root system into the ground to stabilize itself and if the tree has been staked correctly, the trunk should have become more rigid and sturdy within that year.  If the tree is still not strong enough to stand alone after one year, allow the stakes to remain for a second year, adjusting the tether tightness if necessary.  If the tree is still not strong enough to support itself without the stakes after two years, I would suggest removing the tree.  The tree is likely too weak to ever support itself and in the case of a shade tree which will grow exceptionally tall, the weak tree may cause damage to property or be dangerous to people if it should break.

Helpful hint.  If the issue is not the strength of the tree trunk but the wind blowing the tree over, especially in cases of planting bare root trees, simply plant the tree as you normally would and place weights on the ground at the base of the tree, careful not to place rough edges against the tree trunk.  This allows the tree to sway in the wind but holds the roots in the ground so it won’t blow over.

My favorite weight to use is  old gallon milk jugs full of water as they hold the tree roots down nicely but won’t damage the tree trunk. You can you can also use large rocks or decorative landscape blocks but be careful to place them far enough away that the sway of the tree in the wind does not rub the tree trunk against the rocks.  Remove the weights as soon as the tree has rooted itself down enough to hold itself upright.  Again, my rule is no longer than one year.  In one year, the tree should have rooted itself into the ground making it safe to remove the weights.

DSCF2262
This Paper Birch tree was planted as a bare root tree.

For more information. Paul James, the Gardener Guy, who himself is a master gardener, had a TV show on HGTV called Gardening by the Yard.  One episode discussed staking trees with guest Jean Pliska, a certified arborist with 20 years of experience.  This video gives great information and demonstrations on what to do to stake a tree and what not to do. Watch the video at http://www.hgtv.com/shows/gardening-by-the-yard

The vision of a majestic tree is one of the most beautiful sights to behold.  Planted and maintained correctly, your new tree could be the center attraction in your yard for years to come.

Happy gardening!

Quote of the Day

“It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses we must plant more trees.”

-George Eliot aka Mary Anne Evans, English novelist/poet