Tree staking is never done with the intention of harming a tree. On the contrary, staking a tree reflects a desire to promote root and trunk growth and may protect a young tree from severe weather damage. But improper staking can hurt a tree.
The three cardinal sins of tree staking:
- Staking too high
- Staking too tightly
- Staking too long
Risks of Staking
Some tree planters don't understand that rather than help a tree's root and trunk growth, improper tree staking can have negative consequences and could undermine a supportive trunk and root system.
When an artificial supporting system is attached to a sapling, it prevents the wind-bending "exercise" needed to make trunk cells more flexible and to encourage spreading root support. The tree will put most of its resources into growing taller but discourage growth in trunk diameter and root spread.
When the stakes are removed, a lack of trunk and root development could make the tree a prime candidate to be broken or blown down in the first good windstorm. It would have lost the supportive protection of natural development.
Although trees staked improperly will grow taller, trunk caliper or diameter will decrease, a loss that will result in a weakness the tree cannot overcome during stressful weather conditions.
Related to trunk diameter is taper, the reduction in trunk diameter from the butt to the top. A tree grown under natural conditions develops a genetically coded taper or trunk form that serves for a lifetime. Staking a tree causes less trunk taper and possibly even a reverse taper.
Under this restricted condition, a tree's xylem, the woody vascular tissue that carries water and minerals throughout the tree, will grow unevenly and yield a smaller root system, resulting in problems with water and nutrient uptake. The same thing can happen if the tree rubs on or is girdled by overly tight stake ties.
Then, after the stakes are removed, the tree will be more likely to snap in high winds.
When to Stake
Most correctly dug "balled and burlaped" trees or container-grown tree seedlings and saplings don't need staking. If you're planting bare-root seedlings on a questionable site, you might consider staking them for a short time.
If trees must be staked, attach the stakes to the tree as low as possible but no higher than two-thirds the height of the tree. Materials used to tie the tree to the stakes should be flexible and allow for movement all the way down to the ground so that trunk taper develops correctly.
Remove all staking material after roots have established. This can be as early as a few months after planting but should be no longer than one growing season.
Notes From a Horticulture Expert
Linda Chalker-Scott, who has a doctorate in horticulture from Washington State University, says there are several reasons why people improperly stake trees:
- Containerized nursery trees often are staked for stability, and many consumers don't understand that the staking material should be removed upon transplanting.
- Oral and written information from some retail nurseries instructs customers to stake their trees, whether or not they should. These instructions are sometimes incorrect and unnecessary.
- Some landscape architect specs describe outdated staking procedures that are followed by landscape installation companies.
- Little to no aftercare is provided for many tree installations. Without a management plan as part of an installation agreement, staking materials won't be removed at the appropriate time, if ever.
According to Chalker-Scot:
"The first two practices are probably responsible for most incorrect staking in home landscapes, while the last two factors are probably responsible for most incorrect staking in public and commercial landscapes."