How do you straighten a leaning tree?
By Dayle Davis
Recently a reader submitted the following question, “If you have an established tree that is growing at a significant angle on a flat piece of land, is it possible to straighten it using stakes? It’s several years old. Or, will we have to replant it? If we replant it, is it likely the tree will become too stressed and die? Any tips?”
This is a dilemma homeowners often face, whether their tree’s roots have been loosened by prolonged rains and wind, causing the trunk to pull from the soil and lean at an angle from the ground, or the mid-trunk of a young tree is growing crooked and leaning more to one side than the other. In the latter case, staking will usually correct the problem. Place two stakes opposite of each other and anchor the tree to the stakes with strong wire threaded through a rubber hose to protect the trunk. Remove the support as soon as the tree can stand alone, usually after the first growing season. The tree will become stronger once the support is removed.
If the trunk is bent slightly, pound a stake into the ground on the opposite side and gradually pull the tree upright. Sometimes the tree will pull upright just a bit and then resist. Tie it off there, and gradually tighten the wire over time so that the tree eventually straightens fully. Remember to always protect the trunk by inserting the wire into a section of rubber hose where it touches the tree.
Now for trees growing or shifting to a significant angle from the ground up — more radical methods, such as lifting and replanting the tree may be required.
Here are some tips and helpful advice pulled together from a variety of Web sites on straightening a leaning tree:
First, is your tree deciduous or an evergreen? Deciduous trees have better transplant tolerance than evergreens; shallow-rooted species better tolerance than deep rooted species; and younger trees better than older trees. Besides the leaning, is the tree in otherwise good health? What is its age? Replanting will stress your tree. An older tree with an established root system most likely will not respond well to straightening.
Replanting is transplanting. And technically, whenever trees are purchased and planted, they are being transplanted. If your tree is unprepared for transplanting, the resulting stress can throw it into decline.
One big mistake homeowners make is to wait for the ground to dry before they attempt to straighten the tree. This process damages the tree by snapping more roots than may already be broken. Always straighten trees while the soil is fairly wet. This can allow roots to move in the soil rather than break.
Another school of thought is that if you try to pull a tree upright without first freeing the roots, the roots will probably tear and the tree will die. For this method, dig a circle around the tree that’s at least 10 inches across for each inch of trunk diameter and at least two feet deep. Now attempt to straighten the tree using a cable wrapped around the tree and attached to a truck. Be sure to thickly pad the trunk so the cable doesn’t damage the bark. Or, simply use brute strength to straighten the tree.
Still another method to try is to dig under the roots on the leaning-over side. Pry the tree into an upright position with crowbars or shovels and fill the gap with soil before anchoring the tree. Water well.
When replanting a tree, one should follow the same rules as transplanting: Deciduous trees are preferably transplanted in the spring after the ground thaws and before the buds on the tree begin to swell. They also may be moved in the fall after leaf drop but before the ground freezes. Fall planting should take place soon after leaf drop, providing time for new water absorbing roots to develop before the soil freezes. Evergreens need time to form new roots. They should be transplanted late in the summer to early fall and need at least six weeks before the ground freezes. In the spring, evergreens can be transplanted up to four weeks after deciduous trees have opened their leaves. Water two to three days before digging if the soil is dry. A sharp spade should be used when digging trees to assure root wounds are clean cut. When resettling the tree in the soil, orient the tree in the same direction as it was facing before.
Finally, you could save yourself a lot of work by hiring a tree-moving company to dig the tree for you, using a truck-mounted tree spade. The tree can be scooped up, straightened and lowered back in the hole in a matter of minutes. The tree can then be staked and secured for at least a year until the roots re-establish themselves.
For more information, call the OSU Summit County Hotline Tuesdays or Thursdays between 9 a.m. and noon at (330) 928-4769, ext. 3.
Dayle Davis is a freelance writer and avid perennial gardener, with a B.A. in communications and course work in botany, geology and wildflowers. Davis is certified as a Master Gardener under The Ohio State University’s Horticultural Extension.