The saddest sight in the garden world just might be badly staked trees. You’ve seen them – trees tied so tightly to a steel pipe that the tie, and part of the post, has disappeared inside the bark. Or a tree lying on its side – roots out of the ground – with a stake still attached to the trunk. Or a tree snapped in half after a stake was removed. And all because even some landscape professionals don’t know how to properly stake a tree.

Staked tree

Support a young tree using flexible ties between two stakes on either side of the trunk.

Photo Credit: Robert Smaus

Universities have devoted serious time to studying and experimenting with staking because it’s so important to the health of the public’s street trees, but their recommendations are seldom followed.

This may make the tree situation in your back yard sound hopeless, but it’s not! Though not a simple subject for professionals since there are so many variables, home gardeners usually deal with small trees, so staking is actually pretty straightforward.

Here’s how you do it:

First off, prepare to throw out any stake that came with the new tree in its pot. Leave it on until you’ve provided better, but don’t even consider keeping it – that stake was only intended for nursery use.

Instead, you want two stronger stakes. They should be long enough to reach the lowest part of the tree’s crown, with an added 18-24 inches, which will be pounded into the ground. Placed the stakes about 6-8 inches on either side of a smallish tree trunk (and further away if the trunk is thicker). For young trees planted in an area that’s protected from strong winds, a 1x1-inch wood stake will work fine. A young tree placed in a garden spot that gets stronger winds should have 2x2-inch stakes.

The tree then needs to be tied between these stakes in a way that it can still sway in every breeze but not be blown over or snapped in half. If the young trunk is quite weak, it may require another set of ties somewhere along the trunk. (By removing the old nursery stake and sliding your hand up the trunk, you can get a good idea of where the tree needs the most support.)

On young trees in protected garden areas that don’t get strong winds, simple green plastic garden tape stretched between the 1x1-inch wood stakes works. This tape has pretty much replaced twine and twist ties because it’s easier on the plant. It doesn’t abrade bark, and if you forget to take the tape off, it won’t strangle growth, but simply stretch to go along with it. (The green color is supposed to make it blend in, but it’s still pretty obvious, so you may want to search for the same product in its clear form.) Just remember to find and take off any clear tape when it’s no longer needed.

Where winds are stronger or trees bigger, you’ll need the thicker stakes and some sturdier ties, such as cut-up sections of bicycle inner tube.

The idea is to use the minimum stake and tie possible so the tree trunk can move in the slightest breeze and flex its “muscles.” Much like a human arm in a cast, if you keep a tree immobilized, it’ll lose strength. But if you let it bend and flex, it’ll become strong. Then you’ll be able to remove those stakes entirely within 18 to 24 months.