Staking and Wrapping Trees at Planting Time
Marianne C. Ophardt
Washington State University Extension
Area Horticulture Specialist
Trees are an investment whether they’re part of a home, commercial, or public landscape. It’s a shame to see them die needlessly because they were planted improperly or not given good care after planting.
While staking a tree at planting time is occasionally done in home landscapes, it is more common in commercial and public plantings that have staking included in the installation specifications. In some cases staking is intended to protect young trees from vandalism and accidental physical injury... from car doors and fenders or errant shopping carts. Staking is also often done to protect trees from falling over in the wind or to support trees that aren’t strong enough to stand up straight by themselves.
In the past, tree staking was believed to be important in helping a tree become established in a landscape. However, in recent years research has shown that staking often hurts a tree more than it helps. Here are problems with staking trees and their solutions:
Staked trees, especially those improperly staked, tend to develop smaller root systems and thinner trunks, as well as growing taller than trees that aren’t staked. The movement of the tree trunk in the wind stimulates plant hormones that in turn stimulate root and trunk growth. When a tree is staked in a manner that prevents any movement of the trunk, the tree doesn’t establish and grow as strong. This is why young trees that are staked, are often unable to stand upright when the staking is removed.
SolutionDon’t stake a tree unless it’s needed. Usually, trees less than six feet tall or trees less than one inch in diameter won’t need support staking. Staking may be needed with larger trees, especially when the top of tree is out of proportion to the root ball or when the tree is planted in a windy site or on sandy soil.
When a tree must be staked, use two sturdy stakes, such as 2x2 wood posts, placed outside the root ball. They should be situated so that the trunk is allowed to move with the prevailing winds. Stakes should be driven 18 inches or so into the ground.
Staking may also be needed when you buy a tree with a weak trunk that can’t stand upright without support. Personally, I would avoid trees with these weak trunks and you should too. Staking may also be needed in public areas to protect against physical injury or vandalism.
The old standard of wire or plastic twine inside pieces of garden hose can cause damage to the bark and trunk tissues. These materials often cut into the bark and girdle the tree as it grows in girth, especially when not removed the first year or two after planting. Just look around at some of the commercial landscapes in our area that were planted within the last five years. You will no doubt find wire or other tying materials still securing the tree to the stakes, or at least still tied to the tree trunk. They may already be restricting growth and transport of water and nutrients up and down the trunk.
Don’t ever use rope, twine, wire, fishing line, or electrical wire to secure a tree to stakes. Use soft materials like wide cloth belting, elastic webbing, wide rubber belts, or even nylon stockings. There are a number of elastic or polyethylene woven ties now available for securing trees to stakes. Ties should be left with sufficient slack to enable the tree to move in the wind, but without rubbing against the stakes or moving the roots.
Whoever is responsible for the care of the staked tree... home owner, landscape manager, or business owner... should periodically inspect tree staking for signs of trouble. They should also start removing the staking as soon as the tree is established... after the first year after planting.
Guy wires sometimes used for staking large trees can be a hazard, as well as a nuisance when mowing.
Use guy wires only on large trees with trunks that are greater than four inches in diameter. Three to four wires are typically used to anchor a large tree. Mark guy wires with bright flagging tape or streamers to let people know that they’re there. Renew this flagging as long as the wires are present.
Sometimes you’ll see trees staked with a single stake. In some cases, the trunk above the tie will grow larger than below the tie... again because of the movement of the trunk. The tree may also bend away from the stake.
Stake trees using two supports.
For many years arborists and horticulturists have recommended protecting young tree trunks with commercially available trunk wraps. These wraps were believed to protect the tree from physical injury, from frost cracking and sunscald that result from drastic fluctuations in temperature, and from drying out. New research indicates that these tree wrap hurt trees rather than protects them. Paper wraps appear to hold in moisture and lead to problems with disease fungi, insects, and freezing injury. Severe temperature changes have also been found to occur beneath the wraps.
There are a number of materials that have been used to wrap trunks. Older and most familiar is a trunk wrap made out of kraft paper. In more recent years there have been other commercially-produced guards, generally made from plastic. Home gardeners have made some of their own wraps out of various materials such as burlap wrap or duct tape. Many of these homemade wraps have been attached to trunks with string, twine, tape, plastic ties, or other materials that don’t degrade rapidly. Like staking ties, these materials have also caused harm to trees by restricting growth or girdling trunks.
Because of this new research, it’s advisable to avoid the use kraft paper wraps with the black tar-like backing or most other tight fitting wraps. If guards are used to protect against physical injury, they should fit loosely to allow for air circulation and to prevent the build-up of moisture or temperatures.
If trees are protection is needed against sunscald on thin‑barked trees, such as ash, birch, linden or maple, a loose fitting tree guard in a light-reflective color would be better than a trunk wrap.
As with tree staking, trunk guards should be inspected periodically to make sure they aren’t restricting the trunk. Most guards can be removed six to twelve months after the tree is planted. Always remove wraps that come with a new tree. It was there to protect the bark during transport.
Keep your trees alive and protect your investment in them by checking them periodically for problems and by removing staking and guards when they aren’t needed anymore.