Most tree stakes are left on for too long. This is truly an epidemic problem – many are even left there for years, stunting the tree or even resulting in its death, in a number of ways. But stakes obviously serve a purpose… so how do I know when to remove them?
As a general rule, tree stakes should be removed after 6 months to 2 years. 3 years may be required for trees in exposed sites, or if top-heavy. A tree can be checked by loosening the tie and shaking it firmly 2 feet from ground level. If there is no ground movement, the stake can be removed.
I’ll unpack this in detail. I’ve even got some real-life examples for you, from trees near me.
When I first started looking into this query for myself, I only got vague responses. After much research that I’ve mostly ignored along the way, I’ve eventually learned through grim experience, having removed many stakes too late – and too early.
My aim is to actually answer YOUR query – you’ll know how long to leave your stake in place, how to check and adjust it, and even how to remove a stake that’s stuck in the ground.
Why bother to remove tree stakes?
As a tree novice, I thought that sure a stake could only be helping, and that if I removed it I was only inviting the possibility that it would be blown over in the next storm. My trees seemed flimsy – I wondered how any tree managed to grow upright in the wild without human intervention.
Tree stakes need to be removed – and the earlier, the better. Why?
- Trees that gain artificial support from a stake so are slow to develop a strong root system (or may never do so) and a natural taper (thicker trunk at the bottom) that will support it on it’s own. As they don’t need these to stay upright, they naturally put their energy into growing taller and increasing their foliage – which makes the top-heaviness of the tree even worse as times goes on.
- The tie, which binds the tree to the stake, will scrape against and eventually dig into the bark. This damages the vital cambium layer, which is responsible for the trunk’s growth. This eventually stunts the tree, interferes with the tree’s transportation of nutrients and water, and provides an entry point for disease.
- Trees often rub against the stake itself and sustain a cut into the bark. I lost a nice birch this way.
- It restores the tree’s natural appearance and beauty – trees are meant to be able to stand alone!
Why are trees staked in the first place then?
Well… most trees that are planted are from nurseries, and tend to be grown along a tall bamboo stick and tied at several points. This starts the tree off looking straight and tall, and the lower branches are pruned off as they grow, making them more attractive to the buyer. It also allows the nursery owner to pack in more young trees in the space that they have. They’re often grown in containers, where it’s impossible to develop a supportive root system. Tall nursery trees sell better of course – humans are impatient creatures, and will usually want to plant a tree that’s already a good size.
So straight growth has been artificially induced and supported from the sapling stage.
In natural woodland, the constant sway caused by wind stimulates the tree roots to develop a supportive system early on. It’s worth mentioning that they also are usually surrounded by other trees, which provide a barrier to wind.
Conversely, trees that are planted in front yards, for example, have been staked from a young age, are grown straight and thin for sale, with a small root system, and then planted alone in an exposed site. You can see why the stake is required so the first strong wind doesn’t uproot, or even snap the young tree.
Some wonder if leaving the bamboo stake attached to the tree will suffice – usually not. It’s meant to support the young tree in a container, in a sheltered nursery environment, but won’t keep it upright in the ground. You’ll need to chance to a proper solid wood stake.
When it is OK to remove a tree stake?
You will hear all kinds of advice on this – “at the end of the first growing season”. “After 6 months”. “After 2 years”. Gardening legend Monty Don advises removal after 3 years.
I’d argue there is no “one size fits all”. Why?
- Some trees are sheltered, and others are fully exposed to the prevailing wind
- Not all trees are planted optimally in the first place – planting too deep = longer staking needed (see below)
- Certain soils seem to hold the tree better than others – clay soil better than sandy soil
- Some trees are particularly top-heavy – those that are heavily fruiting, or that have been grown in containers to a semi-mature state. Or a fragile thin trunk.
- Some trees need permanent staking! Very few, but the best example is dwarf fruit trees, that have a very weak rootstock
- Others will have barely needed staking at all – particularly coniferous trees that are planted with a heavy root ball
So, how do you know then?
Firstly you can get some clues just by looking at the tree. On average, a trunk that’s about 1 inch (2.5cm) thick for a 6 foot tree, or 2 inches (5cm) wide for a 10 foot tree, will hold without a stake.
Also, if you can see the development of a decent root flare – a thickening of the trunk at the bottom few inches – it’s a clue that it’s been planted well and has started to develop supportive roots. If the trunk goes into the ground without a visible thickening at the base, like a lollipop stick, it’s probably been planted too deeply and may take an extra year to develop a strong root system.
Since these are only guidelines, I recommend actually testing the tree manually.
How to tell if a tree can have its stake removed
This should be done every 3 months. Leaving it for a longer gap means you’ll probably miss the best time and risk some harm being sustained to the tree.
I find it easier to remember to do this at the start of each quarter – i.e. the start of April, start of July, start of October and start of January.
The best way to test if a stake can be taken out is by loosening the tie and giving it a good shake with a firm grasp, about two feet off the ground. Look carefully at the ground around the base. If ground movement can be seen more than two inches away from the trunk, leave the stake in and check again every three months until it passes the test.
If the ground/mulch around the base doesn’t really move at all, and the trunk feels rock-solid, it’s definitely ready. Put your bodyweight against the tree. Do you feel like you could wrench it out of the ground? Imagine how far it’ll bend next time there’s a storm – give it a good push. If the ground is solid and the tree doesn’t feel like it’ll snap, I’d get rid of the stake. Be gone! Enjoy the tree standing tall all on its own.
For deciduous trees, if the root system still has some movement in the summer, you might wait until mid-winter to recheck it, since the tree will be dormant and won’t have heavy foliage that will make it top-heavy and catch the wind. This gives you a bit of insurance if there’s some strong wind coming.
If you’re feeling dubious about taking it off, you can try untying the tree, but leaving the stake in the ground, and watching it closely for a day or two. If there’s an unacceptable lean, tie it on and put a note in the calendar to try again in 3 months.
But if you’re doing this you’ll need to wrap some loops of burlap around the stake to prevent it rubbing against the tree (you could use bubble wrap or an old sheet instead). Just make sure you keep an eye on it – if you leave that untethered stake in the ground next to the tree for long enough, it’ll eventually damage the bark.
Should you ever loosen the tie? I would loosen it if it looks like it’s gripping the trunk very tight, where it may strangle it or restrict its growth. You may feel that you can hedge your bets by loosening enough for the tree to sway about a bit (instead of taking it off entirely), but in my experience this will only result in the bark rubbing against the stake itself, risking a fatal injury to the tree.
How to inspect a tree stake
When you examine a tree for stability and determine that it is not ready to be removed, there are some other things you should check while you’re at it…
1. Any damage from the stake?
Look for any wounds in the bark – this will be caused by rubbing against the stake during high winds. If this is happening, you can either remove the stake and put in another that’s more secure (drive another in at an angle, avoiding the root ball) or you may be able to put a screw through the tie and into the stake, so the tree doesn’t ‘swing’ around the stake.
2. Any damage from the tree tie?
Does it look like the tie is too tight, and it’s restricting the expansion of the trunk? If so, loosen it just enough so the trunk isn’t strangled, but not enough so it’s bouncing around and likely to cause damage to the bark.
You should remove the tie for a minute at each check to look underneath for any wounds or evidence or rubbing. Warning – spiders and other insects often will have made a home in there!
How to tell if a stake’s been in too long
The clearest sign is that the tie is digging into the trunk. Sometimes you can tell a mile off – the trunk is thicker than the thick stake that’s holding it up!
Ultimately you’ve got to remove the stake and use the method above – see ‘how to tell if a tree can have its stake removed’.
Then you have travesties like this:
Examples – should these stakes be removed?
Case study 1: Birch tree
Let’s look at these birches. I’m told they were planted two years ago. Let’s test the one on the right.
Some of those lower branches will need pruned off when the tree’s dormant in winter – they’ll get in the way of the mower. They’re planted too deep – there top roots should be just above the level of the surrounding grass. Let’s inspect the tree tie anyway:
Looks pretty good – a bit tight, but not strangling the trunk.
Upon removal of the tie, there’s no damage to the bark. Let’s see if the tree’s stable enough to take the stake out. I’ll grab the trunk 2 feet up from the ground, and give it a really good stake with a firm grip.
Perfect – only ground that’s less two inches away from the trunk is moving with the tree – not the whole root ball.
These birches are in a sheltered spot and the trunk feels sturdy enough that it would be hard to snap. These stakes are coming out.
Case study 2: Apple tree
Let’s check out this young apple – Malus toringo. Apparently planted last year.
It’s planted too deep again – not mounded slightly above ground at the base and you can’t see the ‘flare’ wider bit of trunk right at the bottom. It’s buried! Quite the lollipop look. This means this apple tree will take longer to develop a stabilizing root structure and a strong natural trunk taper.
Planting too deep is a common problem as seems intuitive – one would think that the deeper it’s planted, the less likely it’ll be to blow over – but it’s all to do with root development. Roots grow better if the flare (wider bit at very base of tree) is at slightly above ground level.
That’s a pretty thin whip of a trunk, don’t you think? Doesn’t look like it would withstand a lot of wind given the heavy foliage above it, and this tree’s in a more exposed site. It’s a nursery tree, grown to be sold – thin and tall, with the lower branches pruned off on the way. Pretty top-heavy.
I like the way the tree tie is put on though – not too tight or too loose, and in a figure of eight – no sign of it bark damage or strangling the trunk.
Let’s test the trunk:
Okay. When I haul on this one, I see all the surrounding mulch moving with it. I think if I had to, I could wrench out this root ball. If only an inch or two of mulch around the tree was moving, that might have been acceptable, BUT this tree’s exposed and has a think trunk with heavy foliage. I’ll check it again in 3 months’ time… but I’ve got a feeling it’s not going to be ready until at least mid-winter, when the canopy is leafless and not catching the wind.
Case 3: Ornamental pear tree
This ornamental pear, Pyrus caleryana ‘Chanticleer’, was planted about 3 years ago. Let’s look at the tie first.
Looks tight to me. Time to loosen and inspect.
Whoa. Insects galore. You don’t want to see the video of this.
Looks like the tie was also trapping a lot of moisture underneath. These two factors together make it a sitting duck for disease introduction.
Perhaps we can take the stake away? Let’s test it. Grasp it about 2 feet up and – shake hard!
Perfect! The root ball feels solid. There’s a bit of tapering visible – the trunk is getting wider towards the bottom. This stake’s gotta go!
Removing a tree stake when it’s stuck
Often stakes have been driven into the ground so far it’s like someone is trying to moor the titanic.
I, uh, may have been guilty of this. In my front yard, there’s a piece of stake that’s still stuck underground, after I tried so hard to remove it that it snapped…
If you’re having trouble getting it out:
- Grab it at the top, and using the principle of leverage, try to wiggle and then shunt it from side to side and loosen it gradually. If this is working, keep going until you can pull it upwards!
- If this isn’t working, try hitting it with back and forth with a sledgehammer or mallet instead of hauling on it manually.
If it ain’t loosening at all, STOP before you hear cracking noises – you’re going to break that stake and then you’ll really be in a pickle. You’re going to need a different method:
- Affix a piece of wood along the side of the stake (say at least six inches or so long, one inch thick) to the side of the stake. This will allow you to have something to hammer UP against. Use at least three nails or screws (screws are much better) to affix it, so they don’t bend. Slowly but surely the stake will come out.
- Another way is by leverage. It’s the better way, but you’ll need some longer pieces of wood. This is best explained by this YouTube video. You can do it with one plank (just on one side of the stake) rather than one on each side.