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To Stake or Not to Stake? And If You Do, How?  November 28, 2006

Many balled and burlapped (B&B) trees with good root systems do not require stakes to hold them firm in the soil because their root balls are heavy enough to prevent movement in moderately windy weather, says Dr. Ed Gilman of the University of Florida. Some may require staking if the wire basket is removed at planting, he says, or if the roots are not firm in the root ball.

Container and bare root trees, particularly with light-weight root balls, often require stakes to hold them firm in the soil until roots become established, Gilman adds. Root balls need to remain stable in the soil. If the root ball moves, it can break the fragile new roots.

Tree experts, like Bonnie Lee Appleton at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, say that staking and guying young trees is performed too often and more often harms trees than helps them. Staking can be justified when a tree is planted in a windy area, if the tree has a large crown that needs supporting, or in commercial applications where people may abuse trees and even dig them up.

Linda Chalker-Scott, PhD, an extension horticulturist and associate professor at the Puyallup Research and Extension Center at Washington State University, states in "The Myth of Staking" (Click here for PDF) that “artificial supports cause trees to put their resources into growing taller but not growing wider. When the stakes are removed (if they ever are), the lack of trunk and root development makes these trees prime candidates for breakage or blow-down.”

Her three cardinal sins of tree staking are:

1) staking too high (place stakes as low as possible but no higher than 2/3 the height of the tree)

2) staking too tightly

3) staking too long

She notes that trees staked improperly will:

• grow taller, but with decreased trunk caliper
• develop less trunk taper (or even a reverse trunk taper)
• develop xylem unevenly
• develop a smaller root system
• suffer rubbing and girdling injuries from stakes and ties
• be more likely to snap in a high wind after stakes are removed
• often be unable to remain upright after stakes are removed.

“Materials used for permanent tree protection should never be attached to the tree.”

“The bottom line,” Chalker-Scott notes in "The Myth of Staking," or should we say the root of it all, is that “most containerized and correctly dug B&B materials do not need staking; bare-root trees often do.”

If trees are staked, remove all staking material after roots have established, which 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, but stand alone and should be upsized as the tree grows.

Truck Stabilization

There are two principle stabilizing methods: trunk and root ball stabilizing.
Hoses, wires and other materials tightly attached to the tree should not be used, as they restrict growth. Guy wires can put unnatural stress at the point where they attach to the tree and could cause breakage at this point if strong winds ensue. Recent recommendations are to use wide rubber or elastic material in lieu of wire cable and hose where guys or ties are needed.

Three-inch wide webbing or polyethylene strips twisted loosely at the trunk midpoint (wrapped once around) can be attached to stakes with staples. This loose wrap technique allows the tree room to grow and to sway in the breeze, which helps the tree grow stronger roots and trunk wood. A tree with a trunk 3 inches or less in diameter may need only one stake placed on the windward side (though one-sided guying can result in the trunk leaning in the opposite direction). Larger tress need staking in two or three directions. Stakes are driven about 18-24 inches into the ground.

Another problem with guying systems is that they are often left on too long. Even when the wires are removed at the proper time, the tree may still be harmed. Some experts say that artificially stabilizing the trunk with stakes and wires may result in a tree that is more prone to blowing over or breaking when stakes are finally removed.

Root Stabilization

Anchoring the root ball is a stabilization method that is gaining popularity. This method avoids such problems as bark abrasion, weakening the trunk, tripping hazards (an obvious liability). The downside, however, may be to restricting root-ball movement and retard root growth.

Stabilizing the root ball with wooden dowels for stakes is one method. One company (Tree Staple™) uses uncoated, plain carbon steel “staples” that hold a tree’s root ball firmly in-place. The longest prong provides vertical support and serves as an anchor below the root ball. This minimizes shifting in the soil.

The cross member stretches across a portion of the root ball, applying downward pressure. The company says this allows proper movement of the tree in the wind.

The shortest prong restricts twisting and further reduces ball movement and firmly locks the root ball in place.

The company literature say it takes one person approximately a minute to install two staples (you’ll need a sledge hammer). Once the staples are in place, there is no need for subsequent maintenance or retrieval, saving the labor and disposal costs associated with those activities.

You could, of course, retrieve them and reuse them if you were so inclined to go to the trouble.

Step 1: Leave burlap intact, heel the plant’s root ball into place. Set each staple opposite the other and against the outside edge of the root ball. The shorter prong should be positioned over the root ball, halfway between the trunk and the ball’s outer edge. Two stabilizers (left) may work for many applications, but the size or number of stabilizers (right) can be increased for a variety of reasons: extreme wind conditions; the tree’s size requires greater holding power; the soil is sandy or loose; the root ball is small relative to canopy or tree size (e.g., palm trees).

Step 2: With a sledgehammer, drive each staple into the ground until the cross bar is recessed one to two inches below the surface of the root ball. The staples should be below-grade. Place safety caps on exposed ends.

Step 3: Cut back burlap, leaving material under cross bars. An effective solution to working with container stock or loosened B&B material is to follow steps 1, 2, & 3, then change the position of the short prong to the outside edge of the root ball. Tie common burlap tree wrap (3''-5'' width) to the crossbars on each side of the trunk. Leave about 2''-3'' of play in the straps. Keep the straps away from the trunk and then proceed with installation step #4.

Step 4: Fill and finish planting using best practices.

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