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I frequently see small trees staked with some support twine or rope, presumably to aid against strong winds.

However, I've heard or read somewhere that staking small trees can actually be harmful, preventing them from building a natural resistance to the wind (in trunk strength, root development, etc.)

There are many guides that explain "proper" tree staking:

It seems, from aggregating information in such guides, that staking is sometimes necessary, but that people often do it wrong.

The question then, is how do you determine when to stake a tree (if at all)? Are there lots of oddly bent or fallen trees somewhere from lack of staking? I've never seen one.

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I've seen a couple of nice examples of "oddly bent trees" from a lack of staking (at the homes of people that I know who refuse to stake), and I have a slightly crooked apple tree in my yard because I refuse to stake... but the trees are healthy and look "interesting" :) –  bstpierre Aug 12 '11 at 16:23
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Below are a few things I've picked up over the years:

  • Location.

    • It's generally recommended to stake trees planted on slopes and/or windy locations.

    • If a tree is planted in a well protected area (and on flat ground) staking shouldn't be necessary and is in fact discouraged ie Let the tree develop naturally.

  • Staking should not hold a tree so rigid that it can't "sway" a little bit.

    • Swaying encourages a thicker trunk and a stronger root system.

    • Which ever method is used to stake a tree, it should not cut into the trunk. Any sign of such behaviour should be immediately corrected.

  • Staking is not needed or should be removed once a tree trunk is approximately 3inches (75mm) in diameter.

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Unless the site is sheltered from the wind, I always stake my trees for the first two years - sometimes longer, depending on how well they have developed, and how exposed the site is - to give the trunk extra support while the roots are becoming established.

The are many different views as to the best type of support, but the one I prefer and would recommend is the angled one - see sketch.

enter image description here

The stake is angled at 45 degrees, meets the trunk about a third of the way up, points into the prevailing wind and is secured with a tree tie. Because the stake is set low, it allows the trunk to flex in the wind and grow strong. If necessary, this approach also allows you to stake the tree after it has been planted, without causing any real damage to the root system - although this is not advisable and, whenever possible, staking should be done at the time of planting.

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