Why You Should Avoid Staking Trees

The correct way to stake a tree. Image from the Vacaville Tree Foundation

To answer the question of why tree staking should be avoided, one can turn to the latest Extension Service advice or to the nearly 2000 year old words of Seneca:

No tree becomes rooted and sturdy unless many a wind assails it. For by its very tossing it tightens its grip and plants its roots more securely; the fragile trees are those that have grown in a sunny valley. It is, therefore, to the advantage even if good men, to the end that they may be unafraid, to live constantly amidst alarms and to bear with patience the happenings which are ills to him only who ill supports them.

Moving from practical philosophical advice to practical horticultural advice, let’s say you have a tree from the nursery that is too weak to stand on it’s own. Or you need to stake a tree planted in a public place to keep people from pulling on it. What do you do? Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Horticulturist at Washington State University has some advice:

•    If trees must be staked, place 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

Now, back to the philosophical: Seneca’s tree analogy is a good example of a system that benefits from chaos and shock. This idea is the subject of Nassim Taleb’s new book on what he calls “anti-fragility“.

By contrast, natural or organic systems are antifragile: They need some dose of disorder in order to develop. Deprive your bones of stress and they become brittle. This denial of the antifragility of living or complex systems is the costliest mistake that we have made in modern times. Stifling natural fluctuations masks real problems, causing the explosions to be both delayed and more intense when they do take place. As with the flammable material accumulating on the forest floor in the absence of forest fires, problems hide in the absence of stressors, and the resulting cumulative harm can take on tragic proportions.

For more advice on tree staking see:

North Carolina State University’s Staking Recent Transplants

University of Minnesota’s guide to Staking and Guying Trees

Linda Chalker-Scott’s pdf on The Myth of Staking

Update: Please note an exception to these tree staking rules regarding certain kinds of dwarf fruit trees. See the comments for the details. Thanks C.

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6 Comments

  1. Please note that this should not apply to intensive orchards, or some extreme dwarf tree stock that will never have enough of it’s own support and will require life-long staking. Please let your readers know this is general advice for trees on their own roots or on vigorous semi-dwarf stock or larger.

    • Thanks for the input. Interesting–I did not know about this issue. Can you give some examples?

      I would add that, personally, I would not want to grow anything that required permanent staking in a home garden. But then I live in an extremely mild climate where high winds are rare.

    • Mostly I’m talking dwarf fruit trees but especially apple. I have a honey crisp on an extreme dwarfing rootstock and it would be dead if it weren’t staked, it also won’t produce as long as a larger “standard” tree would produce, however I have a front yard to garden in and only a front yard, the property doesn’t have a back yard, so my choices are limited. Also for the high intensity plantings ..Here is a nice write-up of a commercial – high intensity planting.

      http://www.waldeneffect.org/blog/Planning_a_high_density_apple_orchard/

      A good orchard or nursery will give you information if your rootstock might need to be staked for the soil or the tree grafted onto it. I would be wary of purchasing from ANYONE who did not give you the rootstock type and what soils and conditions it handles and whether or not it would need to be staked for say.. sandy soils or all soils or.. etc.

      You might also try to do research on maypoling which is a type of supporting system for fruit trees of old.
      Your comments are quite valid in relation to say, a maple tree or oak tree

  2. Tree staking has been such a hot topic as of late, with lots of folks saying to not stake trees. I understand that it is often done wrong (trees are injured), and done for way too long. That being said, a newly planted root-balled tree up here in the Rockies would likely not stay in the ground for long. I live along the Front Range and the wind is, in a word, incredible. We do stake our trees, but only for the first year. If they haven’t taken hold by then they probably were a bad choice for us to plant in the first place.

  3. Inversely, does this also mean that after two seasons my unstaked semi-dwarf cherry which has taken root in a somewhat windy location can now be “staked” (as in, espaliered) without doing damage to its strength?

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