By Janet Waibel
From the October 2023 Issue
Planting trees is a process that seems simple enough. You dig a hole and pop in a tree, right? The answer is yes but…. When a tree is purchased, it’s being taken from an environment where it received daily care to a new location where it’s to grow and thrive with much less attention. In order to ensure the best outcome, it’s a good idea to plan for the surrounding conditions within which a tree will be planted and take certain steps before and during planting. One of these steps often includes staking—but only if done correctly and with consideration for the particular site and tree.
Benefits Of Staking
Newly planted trees will often benefit from having tree stakes installed. These benefits include:
- Stabilization. Staking stabilizes the tree until the roots have had time to extend from backfill material into surrounding soil, which then anchors the tree.
- Straight growth. Correct staking and ties help to keep the tree straight while the trunk increases in caliper and strength, creating a stronger structure.
- Storm resilience. Stakes help to hold up small trees which may have a heavier canopy weight that is not fully supported by the trunk. For such top-heavy trees, staking is particularly helpful in keeping trees upright during wind and storm conditions. (Of note: In severe storm conditions, it may be better to remove stakes. During Hurricane Ian in Florida, wind forces were so strong that staked trees snapped. Those that weren’t staked were uprooted instead—making replanting possible in some cases.)
- Flexible strength. Trees develop stronger trunk wood as they move in windy conditions. Proper staking and installation allows the tree to move within the hose ties in such conditions.
There are some simple steps to take before actually installing tree stakes. The best staking job can’t overcome poor tree quality, planting practices, or site conditions. The first step is to carefully examine the tree at the point of purchase for the following key features:
Condition of tree in general. Look for a balanced canopy, straight (if a single trunk tree) and unblemished trunk, with few if any broken branches.
Visibility of root flare. At the bottom of the trunk there should be a slight flare outward which indicates a change in cell type from above ground structure to below ground root system.
Condition of root ball. This is a critical element to examine, as it has a direct relationship to the function of tree staking. A good root ball has a healthy, light-colored mesh of finely sized roots creating a network which fully and equally surrounds the soil mass. A root bound plant is one with roots that are encircling at the base of the soil/rootball which continue to grow in a spiraling direction and out of the container’s drain holes. (For more on emerging technology to combat root collar disorder, see “The Root Of The Issue.”)
Preparing For Tree Staking
Once a tree is purchased and onsite, it is important that planting locations be properly prepared. Do a quick evaluation of the surrounding conditions to determine if there are any utility conflicts, irrigation is available and appropriate, soil conditions are conducive to tree growth, and there are no deleterious materials in the soil that could impact tree health (concrete, rocks, caliche). It’s easier to make corrective changes before planting compared with later.
As to staking, different regions may have variations in materials (see Materials Chart above), but the basics include: backfill, stakes (8′ lodge poles or PVC pipe), rubber hose, plastic coated wire, tape measure, rubber mallet or hammer, and tools for digging, cutting and turning wire, and removing planting containers.
It is extremely important that the planting pit be prepared to match the depth of the actual rootball, so measuring is recommended. A big reason trees fail is they are planted too deep. If the hole is accidentally dug too deep, backfill and compact the material until it is at the proper depth.
After placing the plant, backfill 1/3 of the pit and install stakes firmly into the sub-grade below the depth of the pit. Continue backfilling and tamping until pit is filled and then water. After backfill settles from watering, add more backfill to fully fill pit.
Attach wires to the stakes using a heavy-duty stapler and rubber hose, cut to surround wire at trunk to prevent damage to the cambium. (See detail below.)
When To Pull Up Stakes
While staking can greatly enhance establishment of young trees, leaving them in place too long will be detrimental. Take the following steps during the first one to two years:
- Periodically check the stability of the tree by gently pushing trunk to see if there is minimal movement of the rootball. This indicates the roots are expanding into surrounding soil.
- Remove stakes when caliper of the tree is 3/4 the size of tree stake (if lodge poles are used). In general, stakes should not remain after two growing seasons.
- Check hose ties to be sure they are not intruding into the tree’s cambium layer. Loosen wires to lessen friction created by the hose.
For those who do not want to remove stakes and ties in the future, there is an alternative staking method from Ginger Tree Innovations that uses a saddle and three stabilizer bars placed over and alongside the rootball. All are completely below grade with no need to remove them. (To view how it works, see the images at right.)
A few minutes to properly stake young trees assures greater success for them to mature into valuable assets in our spaces. The anticipated vision of having shade and the beauty provided by trees is definitely worth it!
Waibel is the owner of Waibel & Associates Landscape Architecture, LLC in Tempe, AZ. As a registered landscape architect in Arizona, with experience in the landscape design, planning and horticultural professions, Waibel has participated in landscape and construction processes from planning, conceptual design and layout stages, through preparation of construction documents and project implementation. She is the author of Sustainable Landscape Management – A Guide to Care in the Desert Southwest, and Sustainable Landscape Management – Colorado.
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