Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Stake Your Young Tree Carefully After Planting

By Ron Sullivan
Friday July 07, 2006

Last week I left my readers with a newly installed plant, in its hole of the right size and (shallow) depth, with soil amendments, if any, added on top to be worked in gradually by our ancient allies, the earthworms and other burrowers in the soil.  

Suppose this fresh new plant is a tree. Suppose you’re beginning to get over how puny it looks—and it does, because you’ve been smart enough to buy a small youngster which will suffer less from transplant shock and require less digging on your part, and because it just lost a quarter or so of its height when you took it out of the pot in which it stood tiptoe on its roots. And the trunk is a pitiful whip compared to the might thing you have in mind.  

You might want to stake that tree. It’s often a good idea, and like most good ideas it works better if you know why you’re doing it. 

What you want to do is support that reedy little trunk until—only until—it can reliably support itself and the canopy of leaves above it. 

Don’t stake a tree to keep the neighbors’ overly enthusiastic skateboarder kids or your beloved klutzy dog from breaking the new tree in half. That requires a different sort of thing—a fence or guardrail around the tree, not touching it, and well below the first branches.  

The best time to stake is when planting, so you don’t traumatize any exploratory roots. I like big fat wooden stakes which will rot underground eventually. Those single stakes with a jughandle gizmo I see on the streets might work in a pinch, but they’re a compromise.  

You want two stakes, and something padded and a little flexible to tie the tree. The things that look like bits of used tire and wire are fine. 

Drive the stakes in as deep as you can, with at least a fist’s width between each and the tree in the middle.  

Here’s the subtlety: arrange the trio so they face as a chorus line into the prevailing wind. Here, that’s usually from the west, so the stakes would go north and south of the tree.  

Trees build up trunk tissue faster when the trunk gets some “exercise” by flexing in the wind. Some Cal professor reportedly got a bunch of grad students to untie half a set of firmly pinioned trees daily and sway them by hand for half an hour, then retie them. 

Those trees got fat faster than their peers who were kept immobile. Amazing what can be done with academic indenture.  

The stakes should be below the lowest branches, so those don’t get beaten up on them when it’s windy. 

Leave branches on as low as possible for a couple of years; that beefs up the trunk too. Remove them before you’d need a saw for that.  

Work the ties in a figure-8, around the trunk, crossed, and then affixed to the stakes. 

Be sure everything that contacts the tree is padded. Don’t garrotte your tree; leave space. Don’t let the stakes rub the bark and injure it. 

And remember to take the things off the tree! Check yearly at least. 

Nothing’s sadder than a tree with its stakes embedded in its bark and cambium, choking off its circulation and introducing pathogens.