How to Stake a Tree
Written by Ron Vanderhoff
Two weeks ago we discussed one of the most basic of gardening tasks. . . digging a hole. Not surprisingly, I received lots of emails and encouraging comments about the column. As I assumed, most gardeners had never been instructed on this fundamental skill.
With the heavy rains and winds we have been receiving I am seeing a lot of leaning trees, uprooted trees and snapped trunks. So this is a good week to answer another basic gardening question, "How do I stake a tree?"
The short answer is, don't.
Most trees that are staked do not need to be. Trees only need to be staked when their top growth significantly outweighs their rootball, which usually means the tree is rootbound and not a good investment anyway.
The diagram shows a properly staked tree, as well as some comments on the planting hole and soil.
The three cardinal sins of tree staking are: staking too tightly, staking too high and staking too long.
Most importantly, the goal of staking a tree is not to immobilize the tree trunk. This is an important misconception. If a tree does not move, it does not develop a strong trunk. Tree trunks strengthen in response to wind and movement. Imagine if your arm were in a cast for a couple of years, with no bending, lifting or other movement. Once the cast were removed, your arm would be thin and incredibly weak. A firmly staked tree is no different.
Trees that are over-staked develop a dependency on the stake. Their trunks are thin and weak and their root development is significantly reduced. Not coincidentally, these incorrectly staked trees are the ones most of us saw in our neighborhood's this past week, blown over or snapped at the truck.
Instead of immobilizing the tree trunk, the true goal of staking is to provide a little time for a newly planted tree to establish its roots into the surrounding soil and anchor itself.
In addition to not wanting to completely immobilize the tree, you also only need to stake it until its roots are established, which means one year, tops. Any longer and when you unstake it, it will tip over like a limp noodle, just as your arm would, coming out of a two year cast. By the way, there's a tip here: when you go shopping for a tree, don't buy the tallest, buy the one with the widest trunk, it's the better investment.
To properly stake a tree place two parallel stakes about a foot away from the trunk on two sides. Drive them firmly into the soil in such a way that they're perpendicular to the prevailing winds (which usually means north and south for us).
The ties should be placed as low as possible along the trunk and never higher than 2/3 the height of the tree, lower is better.
Tie the stakes to the tree using something broad and flexible. For small trees I prefer simple plastic tie-tape. It stretches with the tree and never scratches or cuts. Old nylons also work well, but the neighbors might talk.
Once the tree is anchored, usually following the first winter, it's time to permanently remove the ties and stakes. Just like getting the cast off your arm, you want the tree to get some exercise. A little blowing, bending and moving around will build a strong trunk; and you won't have to worry about your tree being one of those that you just saw - unrooted or snapped at the trunk.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar. You can learn more about Ron, including more of his plant recommendations on his Featured Experts page or visit his profile at www.themulch.com/my-profile/609-ron-vanderhoff.
Questions from Readers December 26th, 2009
I’m having some erosion on my backyard slope. What is the best mulch for reducing erosion during the winter, as well as conserving water during the summer?
Shredded mulches are definitely the best. Either shredded redwood (my favorite) or shredded cedar is perfect for this. Use a thick layer, at least 2-3 inches. In the landscape trade this sort of mulch is called Gorilla Hair. Shredded wood mulches have an amazing ability to weave together and not wash or slide away on a slope, yet still allow air, water and nutrients to pass through. These are both made from timber waste, which would otherwise be disposed of, so they are environmentally correct as well.