Multiple trees in an orchard staked with wood

Tree Staking FAQs: Why, When & How to Stake a Newly-Planted Tree

You’ve probably seen many newly-planted trees held up with stakes. And you may have wondered whether staking a tree is really necessary, what the best way is to stake a tree, and how long a tree should be supported with stakes.

In this article, we answer all of your questions about staking a tree.

Why are trees staked?

Often, it depends on who you ask. Nurseries may stake young trees to ensure they grow vertically and are easy to move, gardeners and contractors may stake new trees to protect them while they establish roots, and some people stake their trees because that’s what everyone else does.

Realistically, staking young trees is more complicated than these reasons. You need to understand your tree species, its root ball and crown, your planting location, and the on-going care that your newly-planted tree will receive.

Multiple young trees staked in the ground at a tree nursery

Nurseries often stake (and protect) young trees – but that doesn’t mean you should do the same when you plant it at home.

Does staking help a tree?

It depends! For young, nursery-grown trees in pots, being tied to a central nursery stake means space savings; young trees can be grown close together and gain vertical growth fast. When these young trees are transplanted and have their central stake removed, their tall, slender form may need tree-stake support while their trunk, branches, and root ball grow.

For field-grown nursery trees that are balled and burlapped, their excavation from the field may mean that their crown is larger than their excavated rootball can support. In this case, stakes serve to hold the tree in place after transplanting while the tree’s rootball is growing in and the tree is stabilizing itself.

Does staking harm a tree?

It can. Tree stakes are not intended to be a permanent addition to transplanted trees. Ideally, their usefulness is regularly evaluated by an arborist, public works crewmember, or experienced gardener and stakes are removed as soon as their purpose has been achieved.

Reality is often different, though, with trees going un-examined and stakes remaining in place long after their usefulness is over. This is when stakes can start damaging a growing tree.

One way that long-term staking damages a tree is that it prevents its natural movement in the wind. When wind blows around the crown and trunk of a young tree, the tree responds by producing natural growth hormones. These growth hormones encourage an increase in the girth, or diameter, of the trunk and branches. Movement also encourages a tree trunk to taper, making it thicker at the base and thinner toward the top of the trunk.

A young evergreen tree grows without the use of stakes

This young conifer tree is growing well without any kind of staking.

Should all newly-planted trees be staked?

As usual, it depends! A rule of thumb is that if the central leader, or main trunk, of a tree can’t stand up on its own after it is transplanted and its nursery stake removed, it will need staking. This will keep its trunk vertical as the rootball and lateral branches develop.

Most arborists and tree-care professionals prefer minimal staking, as a tree’s natural development in response to its environment is its best protection. But professionals also understand that a large transplanted tree, either field or container-grown, may not have enough of a root system to support its dense or spreading crown, particularly if its planted in an exposed or windy site. This is when staking is most useful.

If you’re having a tree professionally installed, be sure to ask about follow-up monitoring so stake removal can be done as soon as possible.

Are there any kinds of trees that should not be staked?

Tree-staking decisions have less to do with a tree’s species and more to do with their size, form, and the conditions where they are being transplanted.

A whip, or very young tree, is generally so small that it won’t need staking. And whips establish in place, so their roots and crown develop in direct response to their growing conditions, ensuring future stability.

Likewise, a narrow, upright tree may be less likely to need staking in comparison with a spreading, dense-crowned tree. This is because windy conditions often determine staking needs; a large, wind-catching tree crown with a small rootball is more likely to be pushed over.

Trees that don’t need staking also include trees that are staked for protection from mowers or string trimmers. Better methods for protecting these trees are to always keep a ring of mulch around the base of the tree, or to erect a fence to encircle and protect the tree.

What should you use for stakes?

Stakes can be wood or metal, as long as it’s strong enough to be driven into the soil.

The stakes’ height should correspond to the location on the tree’s trunk where ties will be attached. A rule of thumb is that stakes should be 1/3 the height of the tree, but the exact height is less important than a well-installed staking system.

A tree is staked in front of a newly-built house. The tree is surrounded by mulch

Sometimes trees are staked or anchored just because people assume it’s what they’re supposed to do. Unfortunately, it’s often done incorrectly (such as only using 2 anchors for this guyed tree) or unnecessarily.

Sometimes anchors are used instead of stakes, and you’ll see lines of flexible material from the ground up to the tree’s trunk and lowest sets of branches. This is called “guying”, and usually involves three ground-level anchors evenly distributed around a tree’s planting hole, with flexible material from each anchor encircling one place along the trunk or branches of the tree.

Where should stakes be placed?

Always position your stakes outside of the transplanted tree’s rootball, and always position your stakes according to the prevailing wind direction. If you’re using a guying system, wind direction is not a deciding factor; even distribution around the trunk is.

If you’re having your tree professionally installed, always make sure your installer knows tree-staking best practices.

How do you tie a tree to the stakes?

A drawing showing how to stake a tree

By Dvortygirl – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Soft, flexible ties should be attached to the stakes and tied to loosely encircle the trunk. Don’t tie them too tightly or it will slowly “strangle” (girdle) the tree as it grows. You want to encourage movement of the tree while providing gentle support, not immobilize it.

Tying a tree so that it cannot move is also a problem. The top of the tree will move freely in the wind but all movement will suddenly stop where the tree is tied. As a result, it can cause the trunk to snap off just above the attachment point.

Attach your ties at the lowest practical height. The goal is to find the lowest point on a tree’s trunk (like a center of gravity) that will allow natural movement in the wind without trunk breakage. This should also prevent branches from damaging or being damaged by any nearby structures as they blow around, or impeding pedestrians (branches over public sidewalks should clear 7’-8’ in height).

Is there anything I should not use to tie a tree?

Yes. Never use rigid, hard, or abrasive ties, or any ties that wholly immobilize the tree. Hard, abrasive ties will cut into a tree’s bark, risking trunk girdling; taut ties prevent the natural, flexible movement of the trunk and will stunt its growth.

Wire ties are a major cause of damage to newly-planted trees, as are zip ties, plastic rope, or an otherwise flexible material pulled too tight.

How long should the tree be staked?

A general rule is from six months to two years maximum, but trees should be examined regularly and stakes removed as soon as a tree is stable. This can be less than two years, or more, depending on conditions, or it can be longer if the tree establishes slowly and the conditions are harsh.

How do I know if it’s been staked long enough? Or staked for too long?

damage to a tree trunk from tree staking. A street tree with a green metal cage around it shows obvious signs of damage from staking.

Leaving a tree staked for too long can lead to tree damage By WayneRay – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

If you remove the flexible ties from your tree’s trunk and it stays upright, especially in wind, chances are it has established itself enough to remove both ties and stakes. All trees are flexible, and the soonest a tree’s trunk can increase its girth in response to wind, the better.

Stakes that are left on too long often look too small in relation to a tree’s size, or a tree’s trunk has expanded in diameter so that it pulls the flexible ties taut. If you have a tree whose trunk is larger than its wooden stakes, chances are it’s outgrown them.

What happens if I remove the stakes too soon?

Removing stakes too soon can result in a newly-planted tree leaning or blowing over in the wind. A tree doesn’t have to completely blow over to become damaged; roots that are ripped or severed from excessive wind can stunt or kill a tree from stress and because water and nutrient uptake is stopped.

All plants are photoresponsive, meaning they grow toward the strongest light (the sun), which keeps them vertical. A flexible tree will try to establish a balanced crown and stable trunk while growing, but excessive stress from wind will shape it in response to the wind’s direction. This can be striking in coastal pines and cypress that have windblown forms but, for safety and longevity, a strong central leader and an even crown are best.

The only stake you can never remove too soon is the nursery stake that may accompany a tree that’s grown in a nursery pot. As soon as your tree is transplanted (with or without a new two-stake-with-ties system), cut all ties that attach the tree to its central nursery stake and gently pull the stake out vertically, making sure you don’t scrape the bark. Chances are you’ll be able to see small indentations in the bark where the trunk was lashed to the nursery stake while its trunk expanded.

What if I remove the tree stakes too late?

Stakes left on too long can harm trees in several ways. First, if the stakes remain rigid and hold the tree too tightly, the tree’s trunk will not develop its natural girth and strength. The early development of a tree lays the foundation for its future growth, so there should be as few impediments as possible.

Stakes themselves may crack or become unstable and lean. With the tree attached to the stakes by flexible ties, if a stake leans or falls over it takes the tree with it. The tree doesn’t have to fall over to become damaged; roots left in tension from the constant pull of the stakes and the leaning tree will be damaged or die.

A tree that outgrows the location of its stakes can be damaged by them. The tree’s naturally flexible trunk and branches often bend in the wind. If they hit a rigid stake, the repeated striking and abrasion can result in girdling.

Other things to look out for are flexible ties that have wire or cable in their center. If the flexible covering wears away, the sharp, rigid metal is exposed and will cut and girdle the tree’s trunk.

Are there any things I should look out for with a staked tree?

The best way to ensure your tree’s health is to regularly check it. After the first winter, check the looseness of the ties and check the trunk for any signs of damage. These could be indentations in the trunk, or worn areas of bark.

A test of your tree’s stability in windy conditions is a good way to evaluate its need for staking. Temporarily remove the flexible ties and observe the tree’s movement in the wind. If the tree bends and regains its original position, and if the planted rootball shows no sign of being pulled over or displaced, it’s safe to remove all staking.

A final word

Tree staking is best done and evaluated by someone knowledgeable and experienced. When it comes to staking, more is not always better, and neither is too-tight or too-loose bracing.

Depending on the size, shape, and crown density of the tree you’re having installed, as well as site conditions, underground anchoring may be better than above-ground stakes.

Professional arborists and tree installers will know the current industry standards (usually referred to as ANSI A300) and the best materials to use for your particular tree.

If you need a tree installed, or if you want to be sure that it’s safe to remove a staking system, give us a call. We love trees and want yours to succeed!

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