Planting a tree is always a great moment – most trees have longer lives than we do, and although a newly-planted tree will be a beautiful addition to our gardens after just a few years of growth, we can expect most trees we plant to live longer than we do, reaching their full glory when we are gone, so tree planting is always a special investment in the future.
Tying that new tree to a stake is also a symbolic as well as practical step that usually ends the planting process. We offer the tree our support in a very literal way. But how should we do it, and why are there so many conflicting ideas around on the best way to do it? Let’s try and sort out the good advice from the outdated and potentially harmful ideas and see what the best way is to stake a tree.
Key Points in Tree Staking
- Trunks thicken quickest when not supported – so holding them rigid slows natural growth
- The crown can outgrow the trunk if incorrectly staked – and then break in the first storm that comes along
- Stabilize the root-ball, not the trunk – to allow roots to grow out without breaking
- Keep the attachments low, to allow the tree to bend – so it can grow and adapt to your location
- Remove support after a year or two – by then the roots have grown out and no more support is needed
For many years the standard way to stake a tree was with a large, rigid stake, tied all the way up the trunk of the tree in several places. This held the trunk rigid, and it stopped just below where the branches spread out to make the crown. These stakes were left in place for a long time, often only removed when the wooden stake rotted.
Sometimes, the ‘obvious’ way to do something continues for a very long time, until someone with an open mind starts to look more closely at it. This is what happened with that method of traditional tree staking, until several arborists started to look more closely. They noticed some strange things. First, trees regularly suffered damage, often with most of the crown snapping off, after stakes were removed. At first it seemed this meant they had been removed too soon, but leaving them longer didn’t make any difference, and might even make it worse. As well, it was all too common to see trunks seriously scarred by ties left on too long, and put on too tight, making trees unsightly and prone to further damage too. Then there was the work and resources used in this elaborate method.
A re-think was needed
So these arborists took a step back, and began to think again. For a tree to stay upright, and resist the wind, it needs two things. One is enough strength in the trunk to stay upright, and the other is flexibility. There needs to be a balance between the thickness of the trunk and the size of the crown, which is pushed by the wind. So how do trees in nature stay upright without staking? The answer is that the trunk grows and thickens in response to movement. The cells sense the movement of an un-staked trunk, and multiply and grow, making the trunk thicker and therefore stronger. Since more of the energy of the tree is going into this trunk thickening, less goes into the crown, so it remains smaller, and more easily supported. Plus, flexing and bending in the wind absorbs the energy, protecting the tree from breakage, not making it more vulnerable to it.
Once we hold the trunk rigid with a big stake, this picture changes. The trunk ‘thinks’ there is no wind, so it doesn’t expand rapidly. More energy goes into crown growth, creating a tree with a big crown and a thin trunk – easily broken in a strong wind once that stake is taken away.
So then why stake at all?
Based on this realization, we might conclude that a tree should not be staked at all, and this is indeed sometimes true. But there is also a good reason to stake, which has to do with the roots of the tree, not the trunk or crown. When a tree is planted, it must first send out new roots into the soil, to collect water and nutrients, but also to hold the tree steady. These new roots are fragile and easily broken. In nature a tree grows where the seed falls, and the roots are never cut. When we plant a tree, it has no roots spreading out, and it must grow them from scratch. As those tiny new roots contact the surrounding soil, the connection is fragile, and if the root ball moves that contact can easily snap. The ideal situation is to hold the root-ball as still as possible.
Resolving the dilemma
Now we have a conflict. We see that the trunk is best left un-staked. It will grow thicker sooner, and the crown will stay in proportion with the trunk’s ability to support it. As well, we will avoid the risk of scarring or damage from the ties. However, the root-ball does need to be held rigid, so that new roots can grow out safely, and quickly anchor the tree naturally, as well as accessing water and nutrients. These opposing things can be reconciled, and this is the basis of the modern approach to staking trees.
In summary, our goal is – leave the trunk able to move in the wind, but hold the root-ball rigid, to allow rapid root development.
How to stake a tree correctly
- Find the point on the trunk where the upper part can move freely but doesn’t fall over. This will almost always be low down, within a few inches of the ground. In general, a point 8 to 12 inches above the ground is as high as you should go.
- Attach three ties, in a triangular pattern, at this point. Use a rot-resistant material such as straps or nylon rope to support the tree.
- Take these ties more-or-less horizontally outwards, to short stakes placed outside the root-ball area.
- Drive the stakes in at an angle that slopes away from the tree, so they don’t pull out easily.
- Use ties that are broad, and simply loop around the tree, without being tightly wrapped around the trunk, to avoid any scarring or damage to the relatively soft bark of a young tree.
- Remove all ties after no more than two growing seasons.
If you are handy, you can soon devise your own way to do all this, but for a professional look, and to save you time, there are several kits available that contain everything you need. The one with the best reviews is the DeWitt Tree Stake Kit. This kit contains three stakes, suitable rope and broad straps all made from recycled materials. You are not consuming any new resources. The straps are pre-punched with brass eyelets for easy attachment. Best of all, the whole kit is black, so that it does not stand out – you can admire your new tree, not the support system!