Staking your New Trees
By Janis Norton
General Manager, The Urban Farm.
Did you just get a new fruit tree? If so, then I am excited for you and the rewards that will show up in the next few years if you properly care for your tree. These trees you plant are counting on you for enough water, sunlight and nutrients – and some of them might need a little extra support against winds to succeed, too. Literally supporting your tree is an important first step and I’d like to help you do that right.
Let’s talk about the shape first – and how the sun affects this.
Trees in the forest compete for sunlight in close quarters. Trees in urban settings however, especially here in Phoenix, tend to have plenty of light – sometimes all to themselves. This will affect the growth in positive and negative ways.
Citrus trees have a thin bark that needs protection from getting too much of our brutal summer sun as they can literally get sunburned. If the trunk is not naturally shaded, we recommend either a biodynamic tree paste (Greg is writing up the recipe for this) or tree wrap. This layer should give protection from sunburn and pests while not restricting the tree’s growth. Apply the protection method of your choice on any section of the trunk which gets direct sunlight for more than a couple hours a day.
Another interesting tidbit about newly planted trees and plants, especially citrus trees, is that they crave sunlight to help them gain strength. For some deciduous trees this can result in multiple branches growing and competing with one another to become the “leader”. One strong central leader is preferred for some fruit tree varieties, while others benefit from having a balanced set of branches that
However, despite having many strong branches, too many branches can make the tree overall weaker. Trees, especially fruit bearing trees, need a defined trunk to support the weight of the branches and the heavy fruit. Trees need a sturdy central core to withstand strong winds and avoid storm damage. If you allow your trees to grow large, a poor central core could cause future structural issues and bring costly repairs later.
Nursery stakes are only for transport
Some of the younger citrus trees will come with nursery, or transport stakes. This needs to be removed (and if necessary, replaced) after planting. No tree should be supported long term with a stake adjacent to the trunk, as this tricks the tree into thinking it is strong enough to grow branches that are too heavy for its core to support. If that was not enough of a reason to remove it, consider these reasons. Larger stakes can disrupt the growth of the root ball. Plastic ribbon ties on nursery stakes cannot expand thereby disrupting the growth of the tree. And the trunk rubbing on the stake causes abrasions and chaffing which give an entry vector for pests and disease.
Staking a tree should be a temporary step to give them the support they need without making them dependent on external structures. If trees don’t move slightly with the wind, they will not be encouraged to grow stronger trunk fibers and deep roots for a stronger grip on the soil – thus developing a weaker root base.
Do you even need to stake your tree?
If you are asking yourself this, you are in a good place to start. With the end goal to have a tree that does not need support, plan on staking the following trees:
- Trees with a small root ball
- Trees that bend easily or unable to stand straight on their own
- Top heavy trees with no lower branches
- Young or weak trees in a high wind area
- New trees in highly sandy soil
- Trees in soil that is too wet or too loose
- Trees in areas with lots of foot traffic
How to stake your newly planted or young tree
Now that you have determined that your tree needs support, let’s do it right. First, remove the nursery stake if there was one. Gently cut the ties without nicking the bark and pull it out slowly. Inspect the trunk to make sure there is no damage from the stake. If there is light to minimal damage, clean the wound with water and leave it bare. Covering a scrape on a tree with any paste, tar, paint, or wrap can encourage fungal growth and even interrupt the tree’s own process of compartmentalizing the wound.
Any significant injury or wound should be photographed and sent to the nursery from which you got your tree. If your nursery cannot help you, contact an arborist for proper care.
Next, use your hands to hold the tree in different places. At the lowest point the tree starts to bend, this will be the first line of support then support again just under the lowest branches and again if the tree needs support higher. This will help you determine how tall your stakes should be and where the support ties will connect with the tree.
Which sides of the tree do the stakes go on?
This is a key point to remember: If there is a defined wind direction the stakes should be to the sides of the tree with the wind blowing between them. By allowing the tree to sway a little in the wind it will build up its trunk strength. This is akin to us building muscles by using our bodies in repetitive motions of exercise, we just need to give the tree time to build the inner fibers of the trunk.
You can do a little research and figure out which directions the wind comes from most often. Take note of physical barriers or channels that will affect the wind direction. For trees in front of a wall the stakes should be in front of and behind the tree, or perpendicular to the wall. Pathways between houses can channel and intensify winds so the stakes would be on the sides of the tree. Trees out in the open are a little trickier and could be better off with three stakes.
Using two or three stakes is better than just one. Stakes need to be sturdy and securely placed in the ground. The material of the stake is not crucial. Large wooden poles are common and usually aesthetically more pleasing than the metal stakes, however the metal T-bar stakes have ribs that make securing the straps at a particular height easier. These are also easier to remove than the wooden poles. Regardless of the type of stake, place them on opposite sides of the tree leaning out at a 25–30-degree angle. Stakes for young trees should be 18”to 24” away from the trunk and no closer. NEVER put the stakes into the root ball.
Securing the tree to the stakes
The stakes themselves are only half the equation. The other important part is the line that is used as well as how tight it is set up. Do not use rope or wire alone when staking a tree as it can rub on the bark causing new potentially expensive problems. Use soft material like canvas strapping or tree staking straps. If rope or wire is used, give an extra protection layer to the tree with a piece of old garden hose or other pliable tubing which is several inches longer than the diameter of the tree. Slip the tube or hose piece onto the rope so that it is the only part that connects with the tree. If needed you can secure it onto the proper section of rope with a knot in the rope before and after the hose piece. When attaching the straps, allow enough slack so the tree can naturally sway.
NEVER tie a rope, wire, or strap tightly to the tree. Trees can eventually grow around these ties which could potentially disrupt the flow of water and nutrients. This can also become an entry vector for pests and disease.
Staking is temporary.
The general rule of thumb is that a stake is used for about six months and removed for the next growing season. With extremely bendy trees, plan on giving the tree a full year to start. This is important as stakes left longer can cause the tree to become dependent on the artificial support and won’t stand on its own.
After six months of being staked, the tree should be evaluated for its ability to stand on its own and its ability to resist a moderate push. If the tree needs another season adjust the ropes to give a bit of slack and make a note on your calendar to test again in six months.
So, good luck! and join us in our Monthly Tree Chat if you still have questions. Click HERE to sign up.
About this author:
Janis Norton. General Manage – The Urban Farm
The Urban Farm Fruit Tree Program.