Installation Tips for Staking a Tree the Right Way

Install a tree stake, but only when needed

Tree with 2 stakes
Chris Alberti/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Tree staking is never done with the intention of harming a tree. On the contrary, staking a tree is always done with love and with a desire to promote root and trunk growth. It may even be considered a way to protect a young tree from harm during damaging weather. 

Tree Staking Can Cause Harm

What some tree planters do not understand is, rather than helping a tree develop root and trunk growth, an 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 which also encourages spreading root support. So, the tree is putting most of its resources into growing taller but discourages the tree from growing in trunk diameter and limits root spread. 

If and when the stakes are removed, the lack of trunk and root development makes these trees prime candidates for breakage or blow-down. In the first good windstorm, down these trees come. They have lost the supportive protection of natural development.

Most Nurseries Provide "Stakeless" Saplings

Most correctly dug "balled and burlaped" trees or medium container grown tree seedlings and saplings do not need staking. If you are planting bare root seedlings on a questionable site you might consider staking these baby trees for a short period.

Important: If trees must be staked, place the stakes as low as possible but no higher than 2/3 the height of the tree. Materials used to tie the tree to the stake 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 but should be no longer than one growing season. Materials used for permanent tree protection should never be attached to the tree.

Notes From a Horticulture Expert

Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D. in horticulture from Washington State University says she believes there are several contributing factors from nurseries as to why people improperly staking trees:

  • Containerized nursery materials are often staked for stability, and many consumers don’t understand that the staking material needs to be removed upon transplanting.
  • Oral and written information from some retail nursery centers instructs their customers to stake their trees regardless of the need for doing so. These instructions are sometimes incorrect in addition to being unnecessary.
  • Some landscape architect specs describe outdated staking procedures, and these are followed by the landscape installation company.
  • There is little to no aftercare for many tree installation sites. Without a management plan as part of an installation agreement, staking materials will not be removed at the appropriate time (if ever).

Dr. Chalker-Scott says "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."

Improper Staking

Trees that are staked improperly will certainly grow taller but will suffer from a decrease in trunk caliper or diameter. This diameter loss will result in a weakness the tree cannot overcome during stressful weather conditions.

Related to trunk diameter is taper (a 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 trunk taper.

Under this restricted condition, a tree will grow its xylem unevenly and develop a smaller root system. This results in problems with water and nutrient uptake. If the tree is rubbing on or girdled by the stake ties, the same thing can happen.

The kicker is when the stakes are removed, the tree will be more likely to snap in a high wind after stakes are removed. Often trees are unable to remain upright after stakes are removed.

Cardinal Sins of Stake Installation

The three cardinal sins of tree staking are:

  • Staking too high
  • Staking too tightly
  • Staking too long