Monday, 16 November 2015

Garden myth series: Why do gardeners insist on staking their plants?

You may be doing more harm than good or merely wasting your time

No stakes here
Today I argue that trees frequently do not need staking and herbaceous perennials should be grown with minimal or zero support.
(green print for herbaceous and black print for trees and shrubs)

The garden centre where your bought your tree will wish to persuade you to buy a tree stake, tree tie and tree guard. Consider buying the tree guard. 
You might have similar crutches in the corner of your shed. Leave them there.

You might have an endless supply of birch branches and twigs or strong hazel rods. Leave them for nature and deprive yourself of endless hours of fun cutting and twisting and carefully placing them in your herbaceous borders. Let your plants grow as nature intended.
Expensive plastic and metal paraphenalia look cute in the Sunday newspapers. Keep your garden natural and your money in your pocket.

Most unsupported plants grow straight and thicken their trunks and stems in respond to wind stresses. Tree and shrub trunks become strong and lay down strengthening xylem and have a healthy trunk taper.
Herbaceous stems thicken and grow firm, especially when in large open clumps and when they are not drawn by poor illumination.

Some sites receive very strong and persistent winds from a prevailing direction. Tree trunks might lean. Maybe you can amend this by pruning? Perhaps you should construct a windbreak or plant a strong hedge or screen grown from small vigorous young plants to protect your garden.
I concede – in some situations trees might need staking. But the kind of support offered at the garden centre will not be enough if your garden faces the sea on an exposed site I once saw on the west coast of the Isle of Mann!

If your garden consists of tall herbaceous plants planted in narrow borders and there are lots of sheltering walls which draw growth and create swirling wind turbulence perhaps then some of your plants such as delphiniums, lupins and peonies need some support.

Cathi’s paeony gets drawn in a narrow border between the hedge and her house. She has supported it in her own idiosyncratic  way

My paeony in a more open space gets no help at all
Why to try to avoid staking trees 
a) Unstaked young saplings and trees will grow straight and strong in response to natural stresses.
b) Often, container grown young trees – larger than you might imagine – are sufficiently anchored by their rootball to not need a stake. When planting return surrounding soil firmly. Do not plant extra deeply which will often kill trees.
c) Positioning a straight stake to accommodate a container grown plant is difficult and skewering the rootball of a young plant is damaging.
d) Trees become dependent on their stakes. It is very common when trees lose their stakes which have been in position for a very long time they blow over or the trunk snaps.
e) Ties might be too tight or become so as tree girth expands. Left on too long the tree becomes strangled.
f) Nothing is more ugly than still-staked maturing trees.
Worse going into gardens where the tree now holds up a rotten stake and the owner has not noticed.

Cathi’s apple tree had become dependant on its stake which I removed last year. Some apple rootstocks have a reputation to be poorly anchored. It is no surprise this top heavy plant on wet sandy soil started to blow over! I am afraid its necessary new stake is rather Heath Robinson! I shall lighten the top by pruning today!

This stake is now useless
If you must stake
Open ground trees with a poor rootball will sometimes need staking. The heavier a trunk the more likely a tree to be unstable. Although it is frequently better to plant a small tree, needs must, and it is sometimes appropriate to plant a large tree and stake.

My own preference where staking is unavoidable is to use a short stake. It might be eighteen inches deep with a further foot above ground. The tie must be broad and not cut into the stem. Many proprietary belted tree ties are ideal. 
Such less-intrusive staking gives the tree the best chance of making a strong pliable trunk.
If this does not appeal go higher but preferably no more than half way.
We planted this ‘Williams’ pear in remembrance of Harry last year and used a short stake. I left in its cane and failed to use a sufficiently long tree guard! Despite my incompetence it now thrives and the stake must be removed

Tree ties should not be too rigid and it is desirable that some limited movement can take place down to the root. Sometimes a strong bamboo cane will serve better than a rigid stake. Any canes used by the nursery on a container grown plant are likely to be useless and should be removed.

Eliminate the stake as quickly as possible. If in the growing season this may be as little as a few months after planting. If you give it a whole season of new growth it will be better to remove the stake before the start of the next one. Only on very large top heavy trees do you need to leave the stake in longer.

Herbaceous perennials
When I worked at Askham Bryan my course of horticultural students maintained under my supervision the herbaceous borders in the grounds. You might guess that my methods were rather unorthodox.
The college is on a very windy glacial ridge in the flat Vale of York. I refused to stake anything! 
New seasonal growth was exposed to the elements from early Spring emergence. The wind was not usually strong but was very frequent. The plants in their island borders grew straight and sturdy in full sunshine.
Despite Summer gales they always stood straight like soldiers.

Now I do concede that after particularly stormy weather I would stroll around the borders and cut away the occasional aberrant shoot or broken stem.
I swear this was no more  damage than any gardener would suffer where she or he had conventionally staked. Perhaps even less.
The only difference was that the conventional staker would take the view that the damage was an unfortunate act of nature and he or she had done everything possible to prevent it. 
The casual observer would perceive the damage in my borders as a result of neglect! Its all in the mind!

My Morecambe and Wise border is unstaked

Peter does not stake either. I love the skilled height variation
The same psychology applies to the planter of trees. The thinking is that when staked everything has been done to avoid accident or disaster (and perhaps consequent ridicule).
Much better to risk the rare blowing over that comes with the first storm. It is not  usually too late to reconsider readjusting a leaning newly planted tree. I guarantee that if the trunk of an unstaked newly planted tree actually snaps then nature has done you a favour and revealed a serious flaw.

I stake herbaceous perennials in none of my five gardens! I agree that in my garden at home Brenda sneaks the odd string round a clump or a few bamboo canes in a delphinium. I confess that Cathi next door has a few peonies in a chicken wire cage! Not put there by me! I admit that not all my plants grow straight. Sometimes I even cut away an odd shoot . (The only cut flowers that my new wife ever gets - she can always have more but she never asks). 
I am quite ruthless and the unchanged line of my mower prunes any plants that stray over the lawn.

In the average small garden there are some circumstances where staking perennials is appropriate. Perhaps when tall plants are grown in small clumps and in small narrow shaded borders. If you twisted my arm, perhaps 5 to 10% of the plants?

Why are trees normally staked in public places?
Is it just that it is expected and that professional contractors are following some foolish specification? Are they protecting themselves against ignorant expectation?
It might just be that they tend to plant big trees that do need initial support?

On a recent holiday in Sorrento and on our walk round Capri there were lots of street trees. All were staked and sometimes the stakes were even bigger than the trees. There was no technical need to have staked many of them and in many cases the tree had become detached from the stake.
I think there may be two reasons for staking such trees. It might deter or make life more difficult for vandals. A more subtle reason is that the stake is saying “I have been planted and I am supposed to grow here”. There are many situations that an unsupported sapling growing in a street or a hedge might otherwise be unthinkingly chopped down. If you have seen the parking in Italy you might expect to find such a tree has been run over!

In the peace of your own garden just let the tree grow without any ugly appendage.

Planting the Italian way


Completely detached stake outside our favourite Sorrento restaurant
I agonise about removing Cathi’s fruit tree stakes
They do have to go! But when is the best time and if they have become dependant  should I lighten the head by pruning?
You will see from the pictures that there is plenty of scope for pruning to adjust the balance and weight distribution at the top.
I have recently read a fascinating book about ‘Wind Pruning’ which points out that for very large mature trees giving a strong simple shape sometimes brings about vibrational rocking in heavy wind that can lead to disaster in the first storm after pruning! I am confident this will not apply to Cathi’s fruit trees(?)
As to when, there is some merit in removing the stakes when these deciduous trees are dormant and the leafless trees take less wind pressure. But is this exposing them to damage when they are not making new strengthening thickening? I speculate that by late Winter new growth will be awakening. I will remove the stakes in February but prune the trees today!

Oh dear I have failed to remove the stake on Malus 'Golden Hornet’ on the village plot! Note the mountain ash which has grown from a self sown seed and has never had any support whatsoever

My Cedrus atlantica glauca was planted as a whippy seven foot high sapling. It had no stake.

8 comments:

  1. We do use root stakes for trees on the plot. I could just imagine that without them they would go sailing down the site. The trees lean very badly as it is. I expect you would say that is because they are staked :-)
    I can't really make my mind up about supporting herbaceous plants. Some of are supported and some aren't.

    Has Cathi given permission for you to use her plants as examples of what not to do? She'll set her big birds on to you.

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    1. Well Spike, the angry old man rhea has attacked me when he charged down the wire fence where the stake had gone rotten - just like some tree stakes!
      I am on good terms with her sparrow, diamond dove and the two budgies she is fostering!

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  2. I'd read Charles Dowding’s advice on not staking fruit trees and I'm so glad to hear your tips on not supporting herbaceous perennials either. I never do and they look fine to me, but I always feel guilty because this is what I though I *should* be doing!

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    1. Never feel guilty in gardening. Just wait until you read what I have written today (And will publish next month)
      Charles Dowding is a very good grower and I am particularly pleased his advice coincides with my own. Particularly as with grafted apples and pears there are issues of a poor root when dwarfing stocks are used and also the possibility of partial graft incompatability.

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    2. I think the key reason for you not needing to stake any perennial plants is your spacing - I have noticed that your plants are very widely spaced. Most of us are not that disciplined and shoehorn in extra plants where we know we shouldn't. You do have the advantage of 5 gardens! I only stake 2 delphiniums and some heleniums - I have made a mental note to divide them for next year's plant stall - that should sort them.

      We have many trees, sometimes they start off very wonky and in time the trunks do thicken up and straighten but it can take years. I have never seen a mountain ash growing other than bolt upright - it must be in their genes - even in my son's garden where most of the 5 year old trees are 20 to 45 degrees off true.

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  3. Your son sounds marginally more horticulturally competent than mine!
    As you know Pauline a tree never straightens itself but as new straight growth comes and trunks thicken you would often not suspect a tree's dodgy start!
    I have differing planting styles for herbaceous plants Often I do like discrete clumps perhaps
    standing in a gravel garden.
    My actual herbaceous borders as opposed to any planting in mixed borders do have the plants cheek by jowl but often in large clumps. There is mutual support when it is windy.
    I know you yourself have a large garden so the very few plants you mention almost make you a none staker!

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  4. Unfortunately having a shady garden I do have problems with elongated growth Roger. There is a bit of a catch 22 situation in that I grow plants fairly close together to give some mutual support, but get them too close and it exacerbates the problem. Some plants get the "Chelsea chop" which does work for me along with not overfeeding, to grow them "hard". I am sure the secret of your success is greatly down to your gardening methods which encourage wide spacing.

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  5. I Chelsea chop a clump of Helianthus because if I allow them to flower at their natural height they will obscure a view of the countryside from the house!
    I hate the term Chelsea chop because it sounds so trendy and although Chelsea week sometimes is a good time to cut back the technique can be practiced at other times too.
    With some plants as you say chopping can help plants grow sturdy with others such as peonies you lose the flowers - as I realise you yourself know.

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