It is fairly common for young trees purchased from garden centers to start leaning soon after they are planted in your landscape. This especially can occur if the tree experiences heavy rain and strong wind soon after you plant it. With mild leaning cases, you might not need to do anything at all. Otherwise, a small leaning tree typically can be pushed back upright and staked in place.
It's common to stake young trees upright immediately after planting, but many arborists say this isn't necessarily a good idea. Young trees develop stronger wood 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 balance as it grows into maturity. The best time to stake a tree is when the soil is moist and pliable, which is often the case in the springtime. But you may also loosen the soil with a dowsing from a garden hose if necessary.
Equipment / Tools
- Mallet or sledgehammer
- Hand winch (if needed)
- Garden hose
- Cables, ropes, 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
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 stakes on the upwind side of the tree where they can 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 will provide better reinforcement. But remember you will want to remove these stakes once the tree roots have become established, so don't drive them unnecessarily deep. 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
It will be easier to shift the tree if the surrounding soil is moist and pliable, so consider wetting the area with a garden hose. Then, manually push the tree upright, applying even pressure along the trunk. Enlisting a helper is a good idea.
If the root ball has badly shifted, 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. Once the tree is upright, thoroughly tamp the soil around the base 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 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 prevent 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 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 the Tree Time to Anchor Itself
To ensure that your tree becomes anchored, leave the stakes in place for a year until the 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 toward the sun, which can correct a small degree of leaning over time. Plus, 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 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: When steady winds combine with unstable or wet soil, this 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 this gives the soil a chance to settle before there is a heavy leaf cover to catch the wind. The 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.
Handling an Uprooted Tree
If a strong wind storm has completely uprooted your small tree, it needs to be carefully assessed to see whether it is salvageable. Generally speaking, one-third to one-half of the roots should still be in the ground, and any exposed roots should appear 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 back 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.
Tips for Straightening a Leaning Tree
If your planting area isn't working out due to winds, unstable soil, or other elements, consider transplanting your tree to another location. In the long term, this solution might be better than staking 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 in contact with the tree trunk. Canvas hammock straps also are an option. Never allow bare wire or rope to come in contact with a tree because this can damage the bark.