Do I Need To Stake My New Tree When Planted In A Garden?
As Bob Dylan, the not so famous tree expert, said "The answer my friend is blowing in the wind", literally. The conclusion of this article is that nearly all trees under 200cm tall (usually 2-3 years old in this height range) DO NOT require staking in average conditions which is good because the act of staking comes with its own issues.
The Problem You Are Trying To Address
The issue is one of wind rock and it disturbing the roots. If the roots are not anchored into the ground sufficiently, the tree can bend over to such a degree that it pulls on the roots and tears the fine feeding hairs making tree establishment time longer. The trunk can also compress the soil forming a hole around the trunk sometimes referred to as a crowbar hole. In the most severe but rarest of circumstances compacted clay soil resists drainage and water can collect and start to rot the tree. Nearly all gardens in housing estates with medium to heavy soil will provide enough shelter and support which means no staking is required. There is however, a very small group that might want to still consider staking their trees.
Plant Well First Before Checking For Windrock issues
Planting a containerised tree is the simplest. Dig a square hole at least 50% wider than the pot it came in but the same depth. You make it square because some roots can be directed by a round hole and do not grow out and remain close to the tree. The more you break up the excavated soil the better as it helps fill the voids. Remove the pot, gently tease out any spiralling roots spreading them out and put the tree in the middle of the hole. Replace soil in layers at about 50-100mm, firming the soil down each time. It is this firming action that provides a compacted ring of soil around the new rootball and supports the tree. The heavier the soil e.g. clay, the more support your tree will have.
The purists' way of planting bare root trees is to dig the hole as wide as the root system but a little deeper. Break up the excavated soil into the smallest chunks you can, smaller the better. Form a mound at the bottom of the hole and make sure the soil is firmed by compression but not to the point where it is like concrete! Lay the roots across the mound spreading them out as wide as possible and gently push the tree down aiming to have the trunk of the tree centrally placed over the top of the dome. Sprinkle a layer of around 50-100mm of the finest soil over the roots, aiming to fill as many voids as possible. Firm this soil again and repeat until you have filled the hole. Try not to move the trunk during the early stages of this process, maybe consider this a two-person job!
Checking For Windrock
The tree can literally stand on its own and go without a stake when strong winds do not cause the rootball to move in the ground or if the soil has not been compressed leaving an elongated hole around the trunk (crowbar hole) and it is more than 10mm long from soil to trunk. If you do not want to wait for high winds gently bend the tree yourself and check for root movement and soil compression around the base of the tree.
Reasons Not To Stake
We advise looking for a reason to stake the tree rather than play safe and stake it 'just in case' because actually the act of bending in the wind helps strengthen the tree, especially at the point of bending i.e. the bottom which helps give it a taper like a lighthouse which is desirable. If the tree bends at the point it is tied to the stake, the bending point occurs further up the tree promoting a bulge in the wrong place which is unsightly but also affects the trees ability to feed.
Tying the tree to a stake moves the bending point further up the tree where the trunk is thinner, arguably an easier place to break than the thicker trunk further down.
Having a tie that is too tight or too loose can cause damage to the bark from rubbing. A rubber tie or similar stretchy material provides the least amount of risk that is adjusted regularly, at least annually.
Remember that trees that are not staked have been shown to live longer and experience less damage, this is because a staked tree will put its efforts into height growth and not root growth making the branches weak in comparison.
So your windrock test shows you the soil is not holding the roots in place well enough to cope with the heavy wind so you now need to make sure you stake properly. If you have read any of the resources listed below you will see they are all credible websites but give contradictory messages. However, we have helpfully provided the points they all agree on below:
Do not tie the tree any more than a third up the tree.
Do not over tighten the tie, we suggest using wide, smooth rubber ties or other similar stretchy material and check every few months in Spring and Summer that it is not too tight.
Hammer the stake into the ground first to ensure you do not break any roots
Do not use string, wire or any other such material that could bite into the bark and cause a restriction.
Although the tie is snug around the bark, allow as much slack between the tie and post as this allows the tree to bend a little which is desirable.
Place the stake upwind of the tree. Prevailing winds in the UK come from the West.
Remove the stake and tie as soon as possible. 18 months 36 months are average time frames for trees to become established. You can always remove the tie at the end of a growing season, check for windrock and then decide to re-tie or not.
Bare Root Trees 200-260cm Tall (At The Time Of Writing We Did Not Sell Any Taller)
This is where everything you have learned so far comes into play and you need to make your own decision. The safest situation will be:
A 200cm tree with a wide and long root system.
Does not have a very thick canopy.
Has a thick trunk.
The soil is deep heavy clay and has been planted correctly.
You have lots of shelter e.g. in the middle of a housing estate or a low wind area.
The further away from this ideal situation, the more likely you should stake but remember, you can always plant and check after the first winds and check for the crowbar hole.
Remove The Stake Soonest
A tree will be established between 18 months and 3 years or exposed to 2-3 Springs (the season not curly bit of metal. Waving your car suspension at your potted tree makes no difference). Some dwarf root stocks may take a little longer. Once you reach this point, remove the stake unless you see evidence to keep it e.g. crowbar hole.
Large Parks And Gardens Stake All The Time
Those that have a sort of stake enclosure around them e.g. 3 stakes also provide protection from lawn mowers and some grazing animals so we suggest this is not a recommendation to stake. It also reduces vandalism and theft.
Expert Conclusion or Confusion
As you can see, to stake or not to stake is a tricky question to answer. As the author of this article, I can tell you I planted a wide range of 40 bare rare root trees, some over 200 cm in complete ignorance in East Midlands clay soil, 5 ft hedges, in the middle of a housing estate and didn't have a single issue caused by wind rock. Not pruning back the leggy branches which then snapped under the weight of fruit was the only issue from the whole orchard.