It is fairly common for a young tree to lean if it encounters extreme weather conditions like heavy rains, ice storms, heavy snow, or strong winds or is planted in unstable soil. In cases where a small tree leans only slightly, you might not need to do anything at all. For more significant leaning that could adversely affect the tree's growth, you can straighten it up and stake it in place to temporarily provide support until its root system becomes established.
It's common to stake young trees in place immediately after planting, but many arborists say this isn't necessarily a good idea. Young trees develop stronger wood and root systems if the trunks are allowed some flexibility. That said, other arborists recommend staking young trees for the first year until they've sent out roots. Then, remove the stakes to allow the trunk to flex.
When to Straighten a Leaning Tree
Make an effort to straighten a young tree when the lean is severe enough to permanently affect its vertical growth as it reaches maturity. The best time to stake a tree is when the soil is moist and pliable, which is often the case in the springtime. If soil is dry, you can make it more pliable with a dowsing from a garden hose.
Equipment / Tools
- Mallet or sledgehammer
- Hand winch (if needed)
- Garden hose
- Cables, ropes, coated wire, or straps
- Stakes (wood or metal)
- Protective sleeves (such as pieces of rubber hose, rubber inner tube, or a tree-stake kit)
Drive the Stakes into the Ground
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, it is best to position stakes on the upwind side of the tree where the stakes anchor the tree against the force of the winds. Drive the stakes into the ground at a 45-degree angle toward the trunk of the tree.
Longer and deeper stakes provide better reinforcement. But remember you need to remove these stakes after the tree roots have become established, so don't drive them unnecessarily deep. Drive the stakes 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
It will be easier to push the tree straight if the surrounding soil is moist and pliable, so consider wetting the area with a garden hose. Then, manually push the tree straight and upright, applying even pressure along the trunk. Enlisting a helper is a good idea.
If the root ball has shifted significantly, a hand winch attached to the tree and a sturdy anchor point might be necessary to hoist the tree back to an upright position. Use slow, steady pressure so you don't damage the trunk. After the tree is upright, thoroughly tamp the soil around the base to pack the root ball in place.
Secure the Tree to the Stakes
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 in contact with the tree trunk. Canvas hammock straps also are an option. Never allow bare wire, cables, or rope to come in direct contact with a tree trunk because doing so can damage its bark, introducing disease and pests.
Use rope or cables threaded through some form of pliable sleeve to tie the tree to the stakes. With very small saplings, short lengths of nylon stocking tied around the trunk can be tied to ropes or cables 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 to prevent the rope or cables from rubbing against the bark.
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 so the trunk can sway slightly. The best position is often near the first lateral branches extending out from the trunk. The ropes also should have a small amount of slack to allow the trunk some movement.
Allow Time for the Tree to Anchor Itself
To ensure that your tree becomes anchored, leave the stakes in place for at least one year until its roots are fully embedded in the soil. Check the tree periodically, and adjust the tension of the ropes if necessary to make sure the tree can flex.
Why Trees Lean
Some leaning on a young tree is normal and should be expected. A tree's instinct is to grow straight upward, which can correct a small degree of leaning over time. A tree can grow into maturity with a few degrees of slant to its trunk without any harm to its health or strength.
There are several reasons why a young tree can develop a lean:
- Unestablished roots: Young trees most commonly lean simply because their roots have not yet extended out from the root ball to grip the surrounding soil.
- Unstable soil: Loose, porous soil doesn't provide 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.
- Wet soil: Soil that is too wet—either because the planting site is in a boggy area or because of recent heavy rains—can cause a tree to be unstable. Correcting drainage patterns around the planting site might keep a tree from leaning.
- Steady, strong winds: Steady winds combined with unstable or wet soil often results in leaning trees.
- Improper planting: New trees can lean if they are planted too shallow or if the soil is not properly tamped down immediately after planting. Timing can also play a role. Young trees are best planted in the early spring before they leaf out because it gives the soil a chance to settle before a heavy leaf cover catches the wind. The worst time to plant a new tree is in mid-summer when the sapling has a full body of leaves but its roots are not strong enough to secure the tree.
Handling an Uprooted Tree
If a strong storm has completely uprooted a small tree, it needs to be carefully assessed to determine if it is salvageable. Generally speaking, one-third to one-half of the roots should still be in the ground and any exposed roots should be undamaged.
Remove as much of the soil as you can from the exposed roots and then gently straighten the tree. Make sure all the roots are below ground level before firmly packing down the soil around the root ball. Then, stake the tree to give it support as its roots take hold again.
Another Solution for Leaning Trees
If the planting area isn't suitable due to windy conditions, unstable soil, or other elements, consider transplanting the tree to another location. In the long term, this solution might be better than staking it..