It is fairly common for young trees purchased from the garden center to start leaning one way or the other soon after they are planted in your landscape. This can be especially true if the tree experiences heavy rains and strong winds soon after you plant it. Often, a leaning tree can be pushed back upright and staked in place, but in mild cases, you may not need to do anything at all.
Why Trees Lean
There are several reasons why a young tree may develop a lean:
- Roots not yet established: Most commonly, young trees lean simply because their roots have not yet extended out from the root ball to grip the surrounding soil.
- Unstable soil: Loose, porous soils don't provide very good support for a tree's roots. In a planting site with sandy soil that experiences frequent strong winds from one direction, many trees will start leaning away from the direction of the wind.
- Improperly planted: New trees often lean if they are planted too shallow, or if the soil is not properly tamped and compacted immediately after planting. Timing can also play a role. Young trees are best planted in the early spring before they are leafed out because this gives the soil a chance to settle and compact before there is a heavy leaf cover to catch the wind. The very worst time to plant a new tree is in mid-summer when the sapling has a full body of leaves but the roots are not strong enough to secure the tree.
- Wet soil: Soil that is too wet—either because the planting site is in a boggy area or because of recent heavy rains—will be naturally unstable. Correcting drainage patterns around the planting site may keep a tree from leaning. If the problem is a temporary period of heavy rains, the soil should stabilize once more once the rainy period has passed.
- Steady, strong winds: Wind is the single more common cause of a tree leaning, and when steady winds combine with unstable or wet soil, the result is very often is trees that bend over, sometimes permanently.
Some leaning on a small tree is normal and should be expected. A tree's natural instincts are to grow straight upward toward the sun, and a small degree of leaning may well correct itself with time. Nor should you worry too much if your tree continues to grow slightly away from vertical. A tree can grow into full maturity with a few degrees of slant to its trunk without any harm at all to its health or strength.
When to Straighten a Leaning Tree
You should, however, make efforts to straighten up a young tree when the degree of the lean is severe enough to permanently affect its balance as the tree grows into maturity. If you do stake a tree to correct leaning, the best time to do this is when the soil is quite moist and pliable. Once you stake up to a tree, though, the braces need to remain in place for quite some time—most experts recommend a full year of staking.
The Case for Staking
It is common practice to brace all small trees with stakes immediately after planting, but according to many arborists, this is not necessarily a good idea. Young trees develop stronger wood if the trunks are allowed some flexibility when they are young. If the tree remains constantly staked, the wood becomes brittle and the tree is more susceptible to wind damage. That said, other arborists and many nursery professionals recommend staking a young tree upright for the first year until the root ball has sent out a good network of roots into the surrounding soil. Once established, the stakes should be removed to allow the trunk to flex.
- Working Time: About 4 hours
- Total Time: A tree should remain staked for one year
- Material Cost: Variable; most tree-stake kits cost less than $30.
What You'll Need
- Mallet or sledgehammer
- Hand winch (if needed)
- Cables, ropes, or straps
- Stakes (wood or metal)
- Protective sleeves (such as pieces of rubber hose, rubber inner tube, or purchased tree-stake kit)
Use a mallet or sledgehammer to drive two or three wooden or metal stakes around the perimeter of the tree, outside the root ball area. If your planting site experiences winds that blow predominantly from one direction, then it is best to position these stakes on the upwind side of the tree, where they can anchor the tree against the force of those winds. Drive the stakes into the ground at an angle of roughly 45 degrees, toward the trunk of the tree.
Longer and deeper stakes will provide better reinforcement, but remember that you will want to remove these stakes later after the tree roots have become established. Stakes can be made of wood or metal, such as rebar or fence posts, but make sure they are sturdy. The stakes should be driven to a depth of at least 18 inches, if possible, and even deeper if the soil texture is loose and sandy.
Push the Tree Upright
Manually push the tree upright, applying even pressure along the trunk. Enlisting the aid of a helper is a good idea. It will be easier to shift the tree if the soil around the tree is moist and pliable. If the root ball has badly shifted, a hand winch attached to the tree and a sturdy anchor point may be necessary to hoist the tree back to an upright position. Use caution not to damage or break the trunk of the tree. Slow, steady pressure is the key to moving a tree back to an upright position.
Once the tree is upright, thoroughly tamp the soil around the base of the tree to pack the root ball in place.
Secure the Tree to the Stakes
Tie the tree to the stakes using ropes or cables threaded through some form of pliable sleeves to protect the trunk. With very small saplings, short lengths of nylon stocking tied around the trunk can then be tied to ropes or cable secured to the stakes. Strips of canvas or burlap can also work. Some people thread the ropes or cables through lengths of rubber garden hose looped around the trunk protect it from rubbing.
Finding the right position for the ropes along the trunk can be tricky. They need to be low enough to allow the tree's canopy to sway, but also high enough to allow the trunk to sway slightly. The best position is often near the first lateral branches extending out from the trunk.
The ropes should not be fully taut. Keep a small amount of slack—one inch or so—to allow the trunk some movement. Allowing some movement creates flexible wood that is less likely to crack and break.
To ensure that your tree becomes fully anchored, leave the stakes in place for a full year until the roots are fully embedded in the soil. Check periodically and adjust the tension of the ropes if necessary to make sure the tree can flex.
Handling an Uprooted Tree
If a strong wind storm has completely uprooted your small tree, it needs to be carefully assessed to see if it is salvageable at all. Generally speaking, one-third to one-half of the exposed roots must be still in the ground, and any exposed roots should appear undamaged. A tree that has been pushed over flush with the ground can rarely be saved.
Remove as much of the soil as you can from the exposed roots, then gently straighten up the tree as described above. Make sure all the roots are back below ground level, then firmly pack down the soil around the root ball. Attach guide wires to stakes—at least three of them, anchored 12 feet or so from the trunk.
- Although stakes are not attractive, if you do stake a young tree, it's important to leave them in place long enough for the roots to firmly establish themselves in the surrounding soil. Be patient and keep the stakes and ropes in place for one year.
- Consider the ground under your tree. Is it stable ground that tree roots can get a toehold in? If not, this could be the reason your tree is leaning. In this case, consider transplanting your tree to another location. In the long term, this solution may be better than bracing it.
- Special straps are available at hardware stores for staking trees. Supporting wires are fed through holes in these straps, and it is only the straps, themselves that come into contact with the trunk of the tree. Never allow bare wire or rope to come in direct contact with the tree because this can damage the bark or girdle the tree.
- Canvas hammock straps, which are designed to secure to tree trunks without damaging the bark, work very well for bracing trees to stakes.