Hold It! Learn Why and How to Stake a New Tree

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Hold It!  Learn Why and How to Stake a New Tree

Linda Chalker-Scott, an extension horticulturist in Washington state with an interest in busting deeply rooted gardening myths, calls the wide-spread and unnecessary staking of trees “tree bondage.”

She has a point: most newly planted trees do not need to be staked. Nevertheless, well-meaning gardeners have been known to stake their trees as securely as the Lilliputians tied Gulliver down when he washed ashore on their island.

There is a good reason to stake newly planted trees. Staking helps stabilize trees in the soil — especially sandy soil — while they get their roots down. It prevents them from blowing over. But that should be a strictly temporary measure, Chalker-Scott and professional arborists say: the goal is for a tree to support itself, and heavy-handed staking can actually cause trees to take a weaker grip than they otherwise might. Staked trees can also be damaged by the wire often used to hold them in place, especially if the supports are left in place for too long.

Staking can’t save you if you plant the wrong tree in the wrong place. Choose a tree that is appropriate for your climate and conditions, and choose its planting spot with care: moving perennials a few inches to get just the right effect is easy, but when you plant a tree, you want to get it right the first time. Proper planting is important, too. Dig a hole only as deep as the root ball, but at least twice as wide. A good spade, such as a Fiskars square garden spade or digging shovel, makes the job easy.

showing a stocking tied to stake

In a particularly windy site you may consider staking, but the goal is not to immobilize the trunk: a little movement actually encourages trees to put down strong roots and to develop a stout and healthy trunk. Trees that have been staked to prevent movement tend to grow too tall too quickly, and then when the support stakes are removed, the tree is more vulnerable to the wind than trees that have had to resist the wind while establishing themselves.

A young tree with simple stakes

Researchers at the Louisiana State University extension service describe the three most common mistakes made when staking trees: staking too high, too tight, and for too long. Stakes should never be taller than one-third the height of the tree, and the material used to tie the tree to the stake should be attached loosely so the tree can move slightly. Sometimes just a couple of months is long enough to help a tree while it settles in. After one year, all stakes should be removed.

In my neighborhood, tree bondage is a little bit too prevalent — one person sees what others have done, and naturally, assuming that everyone is operating on good advice, follows suit. This leads to some crazy home-made staking arrangements. If you must stake a new tree, drive one or two sturdy support poles firmly into the ground parallel to the tree trunk, and use a piece of jute or a flat, flexible fabric (ArborTie is a well-known brand, but a piece of fabric from the rag bag will do) to tie the tree loosely to the supports. It’s like guiding a child through the world: it’s OK to put a hand on her shoulder, but don’t try to hold her back.