In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
June, 2008
Regional Report

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Trees can suffer permanent damage from staking wires.

Should Trees Be Staked?

It used to be common practice to stake newly planted trees by encircling their trunks with guy wires attached to vertical supports. But staking has probably killed as many trees as it has helped, simply because so many of them were never unstaked. As their trunks grew, the guy wires slowly tightened their grip, girdling or strangling the tree to death. Or they were staked so rigidly that once the guy wires were removed, the trunks -- made artificially inelastic -- snapped in the first heavy wind.

These are heartbreaking fates and, of course, totally avoidable. I'm not saying that all tree staking should be eliminated, but I think the reasons for staking need to be reevaluated, and the ways in which we stake trees need to be improved.

When to Stake
Trees are generally staked to ensure that they stay upright and straight until their root systems have established themselves to the point where the tree will remain standing without support. How can you determine if a tree needs to be staked?

If a tree is in a windy area where it might blow over before its roots become established, it's worth staking it. If a tree has a large crown that may act like a sail, resisting the wind and causing the tree to blow over, stake it. If a tree is in a heavily used area, where people will lean on it or children will play around or on it, stake it. If a tree is located along a busy street or parking area where it is likely that cars will brush up against it, or an area where heavy equipment is in use, stake it.

When Not to Stake
Don't stake trees that are small -- less than 2 inches in caliper and under 5 feet tall -- unless the stem is very weak. Trees located in a sheltered area where wind pressure is negligible do not need to be staked. Likewise, if damage from people, cars, or heavy equipment isn't a problem, don't stake.

How to Stake
If staking appears justified, do it in such a way that the tree is able to move or flex in the breeze as trees normally do. Trees that are rigidly staked won't develop tissue that permits flexing -- called "reaction wood." If this happens, the top may snap off above the guy wire. Trees that cannot sway in the breeze won't get the message to develop sturdy anchor roots. Without anchor roots they are more susceptible to blowing over in a windstorm.

There are generally two parts to staking: the actual vertical supports themselves and the material used to attach, or guy, the stakes to the tree. I recommend plastic stakes, often made of recycled material. They are less rigid than wood or steel, and they allow tree flex.

There are many types of guy wires. A guy may be in one piece or in two (one that encircles the tree and another that hooks this strap to the stakes). This strapping material should be tree-friendly. It should have some flex and it should not rub into the bark. Wire covered with garden hose is the old standard material for guying, but it all too often ends up cutting into the tree as the tree grows or if the hose shifts or deteriorates. Better guying is made from plastic, rubber, or nylon. The advantage these materials offer is that if they are not removed when they should be, they may degrade or become brittle and snap before they cause damage to the tree. Plus, they can expand somewhat with the tree's growth.

For a small tree, or one in a location that is only moderately windy, you might need one or two stakes. Large trees or those in windier situations might require three stakes. However many you use, install the first stake on the side of the prevailing wind. Place it outside the tree's rootball to avoid damaging the roots. It can be upright or angled with its top headed slightly away from the tree. If you use two stakes, place the second one directly opposite. Three stakes should be positioned 120 degrees apart.

Attach the guy to the tree below the first branch, to allow the trunk to flex, but also allow the guy to do its job. If you are using a tall stake, attach the guy to the stake at the same height as it rests on the tree, or slightly higher. If you are using short stakes, I recommend the nylon-type guys that are meant to wrap around the lowest crotch of the tree.

When to Unstake
Don't leave a tree staked for more than a year. If a tree can't stand on its own after a year, there's a problem that staking won't fix. The tree may have had inadequate roots to start with, or may not have developed sufficient roots due to poor drainage or improper care.

Check once a month to make sure the guy wire isn't digging into the bark of the tree. If it seems too snug, loosen it slightly. If a tree has become girdled from a guy that was left on too long, it's probably best to replace the tree. The area where it overgrew the guy can be a weak point where the trunk may break in strong winds.


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