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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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My opinion, based on decades of observation, experience and botany is only stake a tree if it was bare-root, purchased root-bound with a huge canopy or if you are trying to stand up a mature tree that was blown over and the roots were compromised.

Trees that aren't staked develop better root systems including roots for support and a stronger, thicker trunk.

I always try to plant trees in the fall after they've lost their leaves. Wind is only going to strengthen leafless trees. Balled and burlapped trees have such heavy root systems that are purposely grown in clay. If you've never tested the weight of these trees, try it. You'll feel a lot more confident leaving the stakes off.

Of course, if the tree is huge, out of proportion with its root ball, has a full canopy, is being moved from one location to another then you will need to stake it.

The difference between an unstaked tree and even those done loosely or low and allowed some movement...IS HUGE. The unstaked trees are easily 1/3 to 1/2 larger than the staked trees. I have never had a tree blown over, broken or weirdly bent. Never. I've planted thousands of trees and have been able to follow their growth over decades. Honest Injun! grin!!

People stake baby trees without thinking things through. These whips are planted, staked and left for a year or two (if they are lucky) and of course these trees without a root system and trunk (developed by the movement of the tree) go over, usually breaking where the stake was tied to the tree. If stakes are removed they should be done during the winter (if deciduous) so all winter long the tree will be able to beef up its root system and trunk thickness.

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