How to plant a tree, part 3: When staking a tree is appropriate

Because of the increasing frequency of root defects and planting problems that we've already discussed, a growing number of horticultural experts around the country are recommending taking more drastic steps when planting trees and shrubs.

They propose removing all the soil or potting mixture from the roots of both container grown and balled-and-burlapped plants. This is done using a water bath and hose to "wash" the roots.

The process allows you to note and correct any girdling and kinked roots that weren't visible with the soil covering the roots. You also avoid problems that occur because of extreme differences in texture between the root ball and the backfill soils, such as balled-and-burlapped trees with heavy clay root balls planted in sandy soil. In addition, it's easy to tell where the root collar is located, facilitating planting at the correct depth.

After washing all the soil off the roots, the trees and shrubs are then planted as if they were bare-root plants. It's important to emphasize that this method of planting is drastic and aggressive. If done properly when the plants are young and still dormant ... and during the cool weather of early spring, plants will survive if given the proper follow-up care. The roots must be kept cool and moist during the process. It's critical not to allow the roots to dry out during the washing and planting process.

While these drastic methods of tree planting tend to upset traditional retail nurseries and negate any plant warrantees given to buyers, it may be the only way to ensure that a tree or shrub will have a long and happy life. The increased mechanization and mass production by wholesale growing nurseries has led to the frequent occurrence of root problems and root defects. University researchers have found that when done properly, the benefits of these drastic planting methods outweigh the negatives.

To stake or not to stake

In most home landscape situations staking trees is not necessary or recommended. Research over the years has proved that trees do better if they're not staked. Trees establish more quickly, developing more roots and thicker, stronger trunks without staking. Scientists believe that the swaying motion of the tree trunk stimulates the production of plant growth regulators that promote trunk and root growth.

However, in extremely windy situations a tree may need to be staked. Trees may also require staking in public situations in order to protect the tree from vandalism or mower injury.

This is best accomplished using two stakes secured to the tree using 3-inch-wide horizontal straps of webbing that are then attached to the stakes using heavy gauge wire. Never secure a tree to a stake using a hard material such as wire (even if cushioned by a section of garden hose) or plastic that can damage the trunk. The straps should be secured on the lower half of the trunk to allow for as much trunk movement as possible. Staking should not be left on for more than one year.

Next week, we'll talk about fertilizing at planting, watering, and we'll review the steps we've covered in planting trees and shrubs correctly.

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Extension Office in Benton County. Read more of Ophardt's Garden Tips columns at www.tri