Staking and Guying Trees: Best Materials and Technique

Authors: Gary R. Johnson, Associate Professor, Urban and Community Forestry and Marc A. Shippee, Undergraduate Research Assistant. Forest Resources Extension Department

When is Staking Necessary?

More often than not, staking is unnecessary. Occasionally, newly planted trees may require staking when:

  1. They have abnormally small root systems that can’t physically support the larger, above-ground growth (stem and leaves).
  2. The stem bends excessively when not supported.
  3. The planting site is very windy and trees will be uprooted if they are not supported.
  4. There’s a good chance that vandals will uproot or damage unprotected trees.

Proper Staking Techniques

Fig 1: Any material connected to the stem should have a broad smooth surface.
Fig 1: Any material connected to the stem should have a broad smooth surface.
Fig 2: Double staking method. Always attach the stem loosely to the stakes to allow for flexibility.
Fig 2: Double staking method. Always attach the stem loosely to the stakes to allow for flexibility.

If done properly, staking provides stability until the tree can support itself. However, if staking is done improperly or for too long, it can do far more harm than good (Fig. 3).

Figure 3: Stem breakage can result from stems attached too tightly or staked too long.
Figure 3: Stem breakage can result from stems attached too tightly or staked too long.

Staking and Guying Materials:

Staking materials vary depending on the situation and size of the tree. For small to average-sized trees (up to 10-12 feet in height), wooden stakes are sufficient. They should be at least 2 inches by 2 inches by 5 feet long. For larger or heavier trees, or trees in particularly windy situations, metal fence stakes may be necessary. The stakes are reusable, particularly the metal stakes.

Fig. 4: Correct placement of guying attachment to stem canopy.
Fig. 4: Correct placement of guying attachment to stem canopy.

Guying anchors are usually shorter and stronger, since they are driven deep into the ground and exposed only a few inches above the soil surface. Stout wooden stakes (at least 3 inches by 3 inches by 24 inches), duck-billed soil anchors, or reinforcing rods (minimum of 5/8 inches in diameter) are most often used (Fig. 4 and 9).

Fig. 5: Attachments should be made 1/3 or 2/3 up the stem. Never attach directly below the first set of branches.
Fig. 5: Attachments should be made 1/3 or 2/3 up the stem. Never attach directly below the first set of branches.

Attaching the wires/ropes to the stem. Whether attaching the tree to stakes or guying anchors, the rope, wires or metal cable should never come into contact with tree stems or branches. Any material contacting the stem should have a broad and smooth surface (Fig. 1). Wide canvas strapping, strips of old carpeting, burlap, or bicycle inner tubes are suitable materials to wrap around the tree stem and attach to the stake ropes, wires or cables. Do not insert ropes or wires through sections of garden hose and wrap around the tree stem- it doesn’t work for very long, abrasion and compression of the stem will soon occur.

Placement of Stakes/Anchors and Stem Attachments:

Placement of stakes or anchors: As a rule of thumb, use as few as possible. For many, smaller trees, one stake is sufficient to keep the tree vertical and stable (Fig. 6). Place the stake upwind from the direction of prevailing spring/summer winds. Drive the stake into the outer edge of the planting hole, safely away from the root system but still within the mulched planting area.

If one stake is not sufficient, place two stakes that run parallel to the prevailing winds (Fig. 7). For guying straightened, wind thrown trees, use three stakes or anchors, equally spaced around the tree with one placed upwind from the prevailing winds (Fig. 8). Never place guying anchors outside of the mulched planting bed because this can become a safety hazard to people walking by or playing near the trees.

Fig. 6: One stake, 2/3 up the stem.
Fig. 6: One stake, 2/3 up the stem.

Placement of stem attachment: For staking trees, the wide, flexible stem attachment materials should be placed either 1/3 or 2/3 the distance from the ground up to the first set of branches (Fig. 6, 7). Never place the attachments directly beneath the first set of branches. Stems will snap in heavy wind loads if the canopy (branches and leaves) move but the stem is held rigid directly below the canopy (Fig. 4). For guying trees, the attachments should be made on the canopy stem, that is, around the stem above the first set of branches (Fig. 9). This will allow maximum stability of the entire tree during windy periods.

Fig.7: Two-stake method, 1/3 up stem.
Fig.7: Two-stake method, 1/3 up stem.

Always attach the stem to the stakes or anchors loosely, with some flexibility at the point of attachment to the stem as well as the attachment of the ropes/wires to the stakes or anchors. Trees need to move a little during windy periods in order to develop flexible strength and stem diameter. Rigidly supporting trees to stakes or cables will result in tall but weak stems.

Removing the Stakes and Anchors: Install the staking or guying attachments at planting time or straightening time and leave them in place for one growing season. Remove the attachments in the autumn for spring planted trees and in the autumn for trees planted the previous autumn. After removing the attachments, check the tree for stability

If the tree’s root system still moves in the soil when the stem is moved or if the stem still bends excessively, reattach the connections to the stakes – loosely to accommodate new growth – and leave the stakes/anchors on for one more season.

Fig. 8: Three stake method.
Fig. 8: Three stake method.
Fig. 9: Guyed tree with attachments on canopy stem and anchors placed within the mulched area.
Fig. 9: Guyed tree with attachments on canopy stem and anchors placed within the mulched area.

Straightening Wind Thrown Trees

Occasionally, wind thrown trees can be straightened and saved. The success of this technique depends on several key factors, however:

1. It must be a true, wind throw. That is, the roots must be pushing up through the heaved soil as in Fig. 10. If the tree is leaning or horizontal and there is no evidence that the roots are pushing up and heaving the soil, then the tree stem probably broke off below ground and is essentially lost.
2. It is most successfully done when the trees are relatively small: up to 15-20 feet in height and a stem diameter of six inches or less. Larger trees may be straightened, but it takes a skilled tree care company with special equipment to perform the operation.
3. The roots must still be alive. If they have dried out or if it’s several days after the windstorm, the chances of success are greatly reduced.
4. The soil must be moist. Straightening trees in dry soil conditions, especially if the soil is clay in nature, is generally not a very successful operation.
5. The tree should be in good health. If the tree was diseased, infested with insect pests or otherwise stressed, the chances of survival are not very good.
6. Shallow-rooted species (e.g., maples) may be straightened with more success than deep-rooted species (e.g., walnut).

Straightening the Tree

Fig. 10: Wind thrown tree.
Fig. 10: Wind thrown tree.

1. Straighten the tree (Fig. 10) soon after the windstorm has subsided, at least within a couple of days. If you can’t straighten it immediately, keep the root system moist with irrigation and a mulch such as loose straw or burlap.

Fig. 11: Excavate under up-rooted root system. Straighten with winch.
Fig. 11: Excavate under up-rooted root system. Straighten with winch.

2. Excavate under the heaved-up root system to the depth of the lifted mass of roots and soil (Fig. 11). This allows the root and soil mass to settle back to a normal depth once the tree has been straightened. Never pull or winch a tree into an upright position without excavating under the heaved-up roots. Without the excavated area for the root and soil mass to settle in, it will be pulled up and out of the ground, which will result in more broken roots on the opposite side.

Fig. 12: Backfill, water, mulch, install guy wires and anchors.
Fig. 12: Backfill, water, mulch, install guy wires and anchors.

3. Install a triangular guying system, water thoroughly, back fill with loose soil to fill any open areas around the roots, water again and mulch the entire rooting area (Fig. 12). Make sure that you include the guying anchors within the mulched area.

The information given in this publication is for educational purposes only.  Issued in furtherance of cooperative extension work in Forest Resources, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Gary addresses a variety of urban natural resource issues. He’s with the Department of Forest Resources in St Paul.

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  1. What recommendation is there for staking a multi-stemmed tree, such as birch? These often come from nurseries with 3 or 4 stems. I’m working with a birch tree with 4 stems in which the first major root was 7-8 inches below the potted soil surface, there were 2-3 roots the diameter of my pinky (1cm) at 4 inches from the first major root. The tree was purchased from the nursery and planted about 2 weeks ago (mid-September).

  2. Dear Louise,

    Thanks for the good question! Multi-stemmed trees that need to be staked due to insufficient roots can be treated, like in your case, as 4 separate trees. In your example then each of the trees would get its own staking system as instructed in this publication.

    Good luck with this venture!

  3. I have a young apple tree (about five years old) that has grown crookedly. Should I attempt to straighten it? I’m not sure if being crooked will affect its health over time, but it seems to be healthy at the moment. I grew this tree from a twig and I don’t want to damage it in the process of straightening it. It does look really weird currently.

  4. Howard,

    An apple tree that is only 5 years old can probably be corrected if you straighten at this time of the year. Starting with the stem about half way up the tree, pull to the point where the entire tree is straight. If it straightens at that half way point, that’s where you should attach the staking material (e.g., burlap belt, strip of carpeting, strapping from chaise lounge repair kits) that will then be attached to a stake or pole driven into the ground on the side away from the bend. If the tree doesn’t straighten completely, move your hand up higher on the trunk until you finally straighten the tree, attach staking material to the trunk and the stake or pole. If the tree never completely straightens, then you’ll probably need to compensate for the lean by pruning on the leaning side and try to develop a new leader on the opposite side. Kind of hard to explain this with only words.

    The lean, if severe, will be a problem when the tree is mature enough to start producing a good crop of fruit. The weight of the fruit added to the side of the canopy that is leaning could cause even more of a lean…an undue physical stress on a small tree.


  5. I put tree guys on a new tree in May. I would like to remove them but they are buried 2 feet in the ground. How do I get these out?

  6. Howdy from Jackson Hole!
    I have a Snow Sweet dwarf apple tree ferried from Minneapolis that took an alarming lean last winter. Only 6′ tall with a 1 1/2″ trunk, I have no doubt this year’s heavy crop of apples would destroy it. Research led me here for excellent advice. U of Mn, thankx for this resource (& for developing the Snow Sweet strain of hardy apple trees)!

  7. I have a birch tree with 3 leaders. One will be cut off to provide clearance to build a new house next door. One of the remaining leaders is very close to our house and roof. I am considering cabling the two remaining leaders. Is that advisable ? Or should I cut down the tree.

  8. I have a very healthy hemlock that is approximately 15″ diam. at the base, growing on a ground slope of approx. 10 degrees. Tree leans over my carport but the problem is the base is growing larger and close to the roofing edge of the carport. If I could ‘guy’ the tree into a vertical position (maybe 15 degrees lean) by guying to the base of a large oak tree uphill, it would give me ‘clearance’ for several more enjoyable years.

    With a healthy, mature hemlock tree is it possible to get this much correction in lean? Any advice on best techniques if possible?

  9. John,

    That’s a good question and I am sorry but I have no experience with something like this and can’t offer any knowledgeable guidance. You’re setting a precedent!

  10. A woman has asked if her flowering crab that leans at 2 o’clock because it was planted 4 years ago that way, can be straightened. It’s 20 ft tall and was planted in honor of her husband! I’m thinking my best advice to her is to find a good arborist. Any other suggestions? Is the storm damage method an option? It is otherwise healthy.

  11. Since it’s been in the ground only 4 years (is it really 20 feet tall?!), the stem and leader should still be pretty supple in the spring. Next spring, Attach (loosely, so the tree’s leader isn’t constricted) a wide, braided rope (synthetic) around the leader of the tree approximately 2/3 the distance from the ground to the top. Pull the rope easily until it’s straightened as much as possible without getting close to snapping the leader off and then anchor the tail end of the rope to a stake in the ground. Leave it like that until mid-late summer and then loosen the rope from the stake. If the tree returns to the original position or close to it, pull the tree upright again and stake it again. It may take 2-3 growing seasons to correct this, but I have used this technique before and it’s pretty reliable.

  12. We live in West Michigan, and I have a few newly transplanted oaks (done early this spring) that have taken root, and are doing well.
    However, some are leaning a bit because they began from stock that was bent in a heavy ice storm. As they are all 2″-3″ dia I would like to use the stake method to straighten them.
    Would this be advisable now, (November) or should I wait until the spring?

  13. Joe,

    Good question and a common one, especially with bicolor oaks (aka, swamp white oaks), although it often happens with others.

    In my opinion based on my experience, I would wait until spring, which would actually be mid to late spring. At that time of the year, new growth has started internally if not externally, and the stem and branches will be noticeably “supple” and much easier and safer to bend back into shape. If you put the support on in late April-May, you should be able to take it off in mid to late summer after the stem wood has hardened a bit more and should hold its new, straightened shape.


  14. We have a plum tree, about 12 years old, about 5″ in diameter and 15′ high. An early snow storm (40 mph winds) while leaves were still on the tree cause it to lean about 20 degrees. It has recovered a bit since the snow melted, but still leans about 10 degrees. The ground is soft and I can push the tree up a few degrees. It branches out about 4;’ from the ground.

    Should I try to stake it more upright before winter arrives (Maine), or let it try to recover on its own? If “Yes”, how should I go about it?


    Dewey Meteer

  15. Dewey,

    First, I’m concerned that the tree is that unstable after 12 years in the ground. Unless the ground was saturated (which you didn’t mention so I’m assuming it wasn’t), it sounds like the root system never really established in the landscape. That could be from a variety of reasons – including too much soil over the roots, which translates to more than an inch of soil over the roots – that have resulted in a confined root system. Just keep in mind that straightening the tree after the wind storm may be the least of the issues.

    Follow the three steps as outlined above “Straightening the tree.” I actually learned and refined this technique when living in seacoast New Hampshire, so I know how much trouble those sustained winds can cause. Do not try to simply pull the tree up straight by the trunk (I tried that…snapped the trunk). You must excavate on the windward side first so the tree drops back in place rather than being pulled up and over the soil that’s backfilled the hole. You probably should do this by hand to avoid significant damage to the tree’s root system. although you’ll need to cut some roots to get it to straighten back up.

    You could just let it be. The tree won’t actually straighten itself, but the new and subsequent growth will grow vertical and plumb, leaving a bend in the trunk, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. A tree this old will need artificial support for about 3-5 years (see figure 9 above for guying trees) until the tree’s root system has reestablished and anchored the tree as it should.

  16. I have four 10 to 12 foot Leyland Cypress too close to my fence. The trees are in good condition thick and full. I want to move them back three or four feet straight back away from fence. I was planning of trenching the ground directly behind trees and then digging around root ball. Then I had planned to drag the trees back (with the help of a few strong friends) staking the trees and hoping for the best. Do you think these five year old trees will survive.

  17. Mike,

    We don’t have a lot of Leyland Cypress growing in Minnesota, but in my previous, zones 5 and 6 life, I planted, transplanted and removed several of them. They tend to have a very fibrous root system, very well-built for transplanting. So yes, as long as you can find those strong friends…or a tractor, they should transplant with no problems.

    Transplanting is the easy part. Digging the right amount of roots/soil ball is a little more technical. I’d recommend that you refer to the Z60.1 specification manual for minimum root ball sizes for nursery stock, which will give you an idea of the width and depth of the root system that you should include with the transplanting of these trees. Also, after the transplant, they’ll be dependent on regular watering for at least one-two growing seasons. Don’t rely on meteorologists or weather reports. As long as the soil drains adequately (a 24 inch deep hole should drain in 24 hours), those trees need to be soaked once a week throughout the growing season and autumn. Mulching with 2-4 inches of organic mulch over the root system reduces the amount of water that evaporates by quite a bit, but the soil moisture where the roots are still needs to be monitored.

  18. I am a groundskeeper in windy, flat NE South Dakota. 10 years ago they built a new high school and 8 years ago they landscaped it. A fairly mature Double flowering plum was put in on the NW corner (the direction of most our wind) and the tree is leaning a good 15 degrees from the wind and into the sidewalk which is reeking havoc with snow removal… The tree is over 12′ and has a diameter of 7″ I have had issues before with Prunus species snapping when you try to correct them. Do I have a chance or do I just keep abusing the poor thing and chopping the branches off that side?

  19. Ashley,

    It may be that in the past, you’ve tried to correct it completely and all at once and that’s why you’ve had poor success. Perhaps putting the straightening on a 3 or 4 year plan would be a better option, along with some directional pruning.

    This spring, anywhere between April and late May, begin the guying process (I really think you’ll need to guy it rather than stake it), but don’t try to correct it all of the way. At that time of the year, the wood tends to be a bit more supple and willing to bend a bit. Guy it after straightening it a bit, and then prune some of the branches on the leaning side. Prune back to laterals or buds that are growing closer to vertical or even a bit away from the lean. This is kind of hard to describe in words when a series of pictures is what I really need to provide. I’m not going to do that because I don’t have any trees in the nursery to illustrate that, though.

    I do think that straightening little by little and pruning to direct the growth away from the conflicts will work. It will just take some patience and time. The other option, which I would seriously consider, is to remove the tree and not replant. The frustration of trying to control nature in this situation may just not be worth it. Also, there’s a problem with guying trees in a landscape like a school yard…the ropes/wires become trip hazards, so that may not even be practical or possible for you to do.

    1. Thank you for the advice. That was the direction I was leaning toward as well. I have been running around pruning like crazy with this unseasonably warm March we received this year. I took several branches off the leaning side just to up the canopy and from our snow removal equipment damaging it, so I will get my supplies together to guy it next month. It is such a pretty tree when it blooms so I really don’t want to remove it, but it is on a corner where there are only fire doors, so hardly any foot traffic. Thank you for the advice. If you’d ever like to come to SD I have LOTS of trees that lean from the wind and finicky clay soils. 🙂

  20. Hi. We planted a small maple tree (about 8-10 ft tall) in our yard, early this fall. The tree was staked. After a day of sustained high winds, the trunk (about 1 inch in diameter) appears to have remained straight but approximately the top 1/3 of the tree is leaning (or has been bent) away from the direction of the prevailing winds. What is the best course of action to straighten our young tree? Should we wait until next Spring to do anything? Would it be appropriate to place another stake upwind, that is attached higher up toward the canopy of this new tree? Thank you for any help you can offer!

  21. Scott,

    Although the top part of the tree won’t get solid enough to remain straight on its own until next summer, I would give it some support right away. It gets pretty windy in MN in the autumn and winter and early spring. If the lower 2/3 of the tree is staked, the top 1/3 could snap off at the stake attachment if it gets whipping around a lot. Since you already have the tree staked, I think I would splint the top 1/3 to the bottom 2/3. Buy a bamboo cane, a strong one, and hopefully close to the height of the tree. Also, buy about 10, 8-10″ zip ties. Place the bamboo pole against the tree trunk and starting at the ground line, attach the pole to the tree trunk about every 12 inches. Once you get above the point of stake attachment, continue until you’ve zip tied the entire height of the tree to the bamboo cane. Not real tight, but tight enough that it holds the leader up straight with the pole.

    Next spring, around June-ish, loosen the zip ties above the point of staking attachment. If the top still flops, re-zip it, but loosely. Tree trunks put on most of their diameter growth in the spring before the 4th of July. If it doesn’t flop, then remove the cane pole.

    Good luck and don’t fall off the step ladder.

    Gary Johnson