I just bought a dwarf lemon tree and it would not have survived the past two days without a stake. Here in Austin, Texas, it’s been rainy and pretty windy lately and I’m thankful that my tree came with a stake. But why do dwarf fruit trees need stakes? Are they really that fragile?
Most dwarf trees need stakes for at least 2 years because their roots are weak and can’t support themselves just yet, especially in windy conditions. Dwarf trees like apples and cherries have especially weak roots and often require permanent staking. Without staking, the trees can die from breaking or falling over.
Even though dwarf fruit trees have a hard time holding themselves upright, there are ways to help stabilize them. And we’ll get into that. But first, why are dwarf fruit tree roots weaker than their full-size counterparts, to the point where they need staking?
Do Dwarf Fruit Trees Need Staking?
There are two main problems if you try growing a fruit tree from seed. First, it will be a full-size tree. And second, the fruit tree won’t be “true-to-seed”, meaning its fruit won’t be the same as you used to grow it. It will also take more years for the tree to grow and bear fruit. Dwarf trees help solve these problems, but they almost always need to be staked.
Dwarf fruit trees should be staked because of their higher chance of falling over in high winds or rain. When you buy a tree that’s a dwarf variety, you’re really buying a generic dwarf rootstock with a fruit tree grafted onto it. That dwarf rootstock is going to have a dwarf root system and lack proper anchorage.
While it might seem strange to want a dwarf fruit tree that has weaker roots, you get a lot of benefits from growing a grafted fruit tree. Not only do you get a tree that fruits earlier but also one that’s more efficient, cold-resistant, and pest-resistant.
Properly staking your dwarf trees will compensate for their lack of strong roots and ensure you won’t lose them with an increase in the wind or heavy rain (often softening the soil, making it easier for the tree to fall over).
Which Dwarf Fruit Trees Need Staking?
Staking is essential to help dwarf fruit trees not fall over from the weight of the fruit or foliage. Often times pruning can help prevent collapsing, but it really depends on how sturdy the tree is and the size of the tree.
Dwarf fruit trees that require staking make up just about every type of tree including apples, pears, cherries, lemons, limes, and more. Most, if not all, dwarf fruit trees need to be staked as they will likely not have the same thickness of trunk or roots as their full-size counterparts.
Even though dwarf fruit trees normally range between 8-10 feet tall, semi-dwarf trees can reach 12-15 feet and often don’t need staking due to their sturdier root system and trunk.
When it comes to sturdier dwarf fruit trees, it’s important to not stake a tree that doesn’t need it. This doesn’t necessarily apply to regular dwarf trees, but it does apply for semi-dwarf and other varieties. If you see your tree’s trunk filling out and it seems like it can stand on its own, consider removing the stake. The movement of the wind will only help strengthen the trunk and make it thicker as the tree is challenged. This will also help promote root growth.
But if you have a dwarf tree, especially one that’s young, it won’t stand much of a chance against the wind. If it’s swayed back and forth too many times, it will cause space in the soil called a “crowbar hole” where water can collect. Over time, this stagnant water can create root rot and slowly kill the tree.
Lastly, if you’ve staked your tree, and it’s still falling over, it could be because the tree grew too large or bore too much fruit. In this case, you may want to prune the foliage and fruit down to help the tree support itself.
What Kinds of Stakes to Use
What you use to stake is important, as getting the wrong materials can either be ineffective or cause more damage to your tree. There are several materials you can choose from, and it comes down to the height on the tree and the toughness of ground you’re staking.
When it comes to selecting a stake for your dwarf fruit tree, you can use t-posts, ground anchors, or strong electrical conduits that are over 6 feet tall. You can also use multiple smaller stakes to sturdy the tree even further. Make sure to use a flexible tie to prevent damage to the tree when it grows.
In general, use thinner stakes as thicker ones will block part of the tree and it will naturally want to bend away from the stake. The stake should still be sturdy and not bend or break under pressure.
Many homesteaders use T-posts, but they can be too short for most needs. However, if you can find some over 6 feet tall, then they’ll probably work well.
You can also use triangular stakes or anchors (the same one that you use for tents), but you’ll have to use a cable to attach the anchor to the tree. These stakes are usually placed in more shallow ground and therefore not as secure as T-posts or conduits. However, ground anchors can be screwed in and much easier to install.
If you’re considering using electrical conduit, aim for ones that are 8-10 feet, to cover most of the height of the tree. This increased height will help support the dwarf tree more than other stakes.
If you can’t get tall stakes, consider putting in multiple shorter stakes. The combined stability will help support the tree. For best results, put the smaller stakes in a “v” shape that’s pointing in the direction you typically get the strongest wind. If you’re using multiple smaller stakes, their width should be small enough to not block the tree from growing. Place them more than 12″ inches away from the tree for the best support and to make sure the root ball isn’t damaged installing them into the ground.
Lastly, use flexible ties to help prevent it from cutting into the tree as it grows. For this reason, it’s best to avoid using zip-ties, rope, wire, or other fixed straps.
How to Stake Dwarf Fruit Trees
There are some wrong ways to stake a dwarf tree, but there are also a few right ways. Mainly, you’ll want to pay attention to the sturdiness of the soil and the amount of wind and rainfall.
Here’s how to get started staking your dwarf fruit tree.
- Dig a hole twice the width of the tree and remove large rocks and other obstructions (make sure to check for wires or pipes before digging)
- Plant the dwarf fruit tree in the hole and note where the root ball is
- Install a 6-8 foot stake in the ground that is 12 inches from the tree, about 2 feet deep
- Fasten a flexible tie around the tree and stake. You can use multiple ties and stakes if needed. Avoid making them too tight as they could cut into the trunk as it grows.
- Lightly pack the soil around the tree. Water and mulch to help set the soil and reduce weeds.
While it can take a while to dig the hole, depending on what kind of land and soil you have, the rest of the steps only takes a few minutes to get set up.
When you’re getting prepared to install a stake, consider taking out large rocks before you dig. Try to get a good depth of about 2 feet or as much as you can get.
It’s a good idea to plan on placing your stake about 12 inches from the trunk and on the side that has the strongest wind. This will help keep your tree pulling against the wind. If your stake is placed opposite of the wind, it won’t do any good. However, if you have wind in multiple directions, you can place two stakes on either side of the tree to balance the support.
Additionally, placing the stake too close to the tree can cut and fuze into the tree when its trunk is filling out, which is why those 12 inches matter so much. It’s important to remember to install your stake at the same time you’re planting your tree. If you do it later on, you could damage the tree’s roots.
Once the stake is placed, loop the straps over both the tree and the stake, and make sure it’s firmly attached. Make sure the straps are flexible enough to grow with the tree.
This same process can be used for growing dwarf fruit trees in containers. The only difference is you’ll likely be using a slightly shorter stake.
How Tall Do Dwarf Fruit Trees Need to Be Before You Can Remove the Stake?
The height of the dwarf tree has little to do with when to remove stakes. It all depends on the sturdiness of its trunk and roots (as well as how light the foliage and fruit is). If you’re considering permanently staking your dwarf fruit trees, it could harm your tree over time.
Normally, dwarf fruit trees will need a stake for their entire lifespan. This is because of their dwarf rootstock having less rooting and anchorage. However, if you have mild wind and rain, you might be able to remove the stake after 2-3 years.
The downside to permanently staking a tree is that it can stunt the tree by making it overdependent on the stake, developing a weaker root system and trunk. This is why it’s not recommended to stake fruit trees that don’t need it – they won’t be able to stand on their own.
Overall, staking depends on how much wind or harsh weather you get. If you occasionally have high winds and heavy rain, you’ll likely need a permanent stake. However, if you’re growing in an area that has much of the wind blocked, you might find you don’t need and shouldn’t use a stake, especially after the first 2-3 years.
If you’re looking for a good stake to use for your dwarf fruit tree, check out these 6-foot bamboo stakes on Amazon (they also have an 8-foot option). I used them on for my tomatoes and peas and they worked perfectly.
Also, if you have a metal stake that you no loner need, and it’s stuck in the ground, here’s a cool trick by The Hobbyist that might help to get it out.