Old Ottawa South Community Association

Trunk damage from a staking system that was removed too late.
Trunk damage from a staking system that was removed too late.

Stop Strangling the Trees!

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As someone who has drawn thousands of tree symbols on landscape plans over a 15-year career in landscape architecture, it is second nature for me to notice every tree I pass as I move through urban landscapes.

What is the surrounding environment? Does the tree have enough soil? Is it exposed to road salt? Has it been hit by a snowplow or damaged by a weed whacker? Was it planted at the right depth? Has a homeowner widened the driveway and removed a chunk of the root system? There are so many things to look for and as I do, I wonder how many of the trees on my plans have survived. Sadly, I know some have died from strangulation, or girdling as it is referred to with trees.

A common practice when planting new trees—the kind you see on streets and in parks and parking lots—is to stake them, that is, to loop one or two lengths of rubber hose or webbing around the trunk and attach it to a metal stake or two. Smaller trees that come from the nursery in pots sometimes have bamboo or wood stakes taped to the trunk most of the way up the trunk.

The purpose of staking is to stabilize the tree against wind or shallow soil until the root system has grown sufficiently to anchor the tree. Staking is necessary in some instances but not all. Some tree experts even believe that staking can harm a tree by preventing it from swaying in the wind, which stimulates root and trunk growth.

Whether staking is necessary or not, it happens a lot and it is often done incorrectly. The material around the trunk should not completely circle it, just loop around one side and return back to the stake. An even bigger problem is that the stakes are often not removed. It is usually the responsibility of the person who planted the tree to remove them after one or two growing seasons. Unfortunately, many simply never get removed, whether it’s because the property owner forgot, or the contractor didn’t return and the owner never noticed or cared.

As time goes by, the tree grows into the material wrapped around the trunk and the xylem and phloem—the vessels that carry water, sugars, and nutrients up and down the tree—get constricted causing the tree to die. I have seen this so many times that, a few years ago, I started carrying tools in my backpack and began practising guerilla tree rescuing. I have freed trees by going onto private property, climbing high planter boxes downtown and even once scaling the Bank Street Canal Bridge guardrail to save a tree near the condo building at Lansdowne.

Spring isn’t too far off, when trees will start growing again. If you or someone you know has a tree that is still staked, look to see if the tie is tight against the trunk or if the bark is marked around the trunk. If so, it’s probably time to remove the tie and stake. If it’s one of those bamboo stakes, there may be several ties all the way to the top and you might need to stand on something to reach to snip them.

Incorrectly installed staking system. The webbing should not be knotted around the trunk, just looped back to the stake. Photo by Heather Martin.

If you see trees in city parks or along roads that have stakes and ties that appear to have been forgotten, report the problem by calling 3-1-1, downloading the City of Ottawa app on your phone, or by going to the city’s website (www.ottawa.ca) and search for the page “Parks and Trees.”


Heather Martin is a senior landscape architect at the National Capital Commission and has worked with forestry departments at both the City of Ottawa and the City of Toronto. She is a member of the Enviro Crew of OOS’s tree team.

Featured in the March 2021 OSCAR.

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