Short answer, don’t. Most trees that are staked do not need to be. In fact I would venture that most trees you, the individual homeowner, plant do not need to be staked. Yes, any tree small enough to be handled by one person really doesn’t need to be staked. Trees only need to be staked when their top growth massively outweighs their rootball, and that tends to mean a large tree.
However, if you must stake a tree, let me explain to you how, because it is not as easy as you may think.
The above tree is an example of what not to do. For one, the tree is far too small to need such massive stakes. If your stake is wider than the trunk of the tree, you’re doing it wrong. For two, there are three stakes. The people obviously thought they needed to immobilize the tree trunk, and long term, those stakes have been there years. This is not the goal of staking.
Staking is used to moderate swings or to protect the tree from violent winds that could uproot it prior to it being established. It is not meant to prevent all movement. If a tree does not move it does not develop a strong trunk. Trees develop strong trunks in response to wind, it is a response mechanism, all plants do. This is also why plants grown indoors can be spindly and tall, there is no wind indoors (you can direct a fan at your seedlings to correct this).
So, when plants aren’t allowed to bend, then don’t put energy into growing stronger, so instead they grow taller. You can see this in nature. Trees clustered together in a grove will be taller and skinnier because they offer each other wind protection. Whereas the tree alone in a field with no wind protection develops a much wider trunk. This has repercussions even within the maple syrup industry as farmers have to balance planting density with the desire to encourage large trunk development.
In addition to not wanting to completely immobilize the tree, you also only need to stake it until it is established, which means one year, tops. Any longer than that and you can permanently weaken the trunk. The tree will grow tall, and spindly, and if you ever unstaked it it’d tip over like a limp noodle, so you think it needs to be staked more, nope. The only think that’ll fix a spindly trunk is removing the stakes. You stake for the roots, not for the trunk. Because of how staked securely increases vertical growth in lieu of a thicker trunk, nurseries often do it because many unwitting consumers buy the tallest tree. When you do your shopping, do yourself a favor, buy the one with the widest trunk.
Then, finally, the actual material you use to tie the tree has a big impact as well.
The above is a picture of my espaliered apple tree. Espalier is a method of training a tree to grow two dimensionally (such as along a fence) as opposed to three dimensionally. It is used for aesthetics, but also to increase air flow, make it easy to harvest fruit, and to spray fruit trees. Training is the exception to all of the above rules and is different from staking, if you’re training a tree for bonsai, espalier, niwagi, or whatever else (such as training a weeping tree to stand upright), you obviously need to tie it and manipulate it as such, but I show you this picture to show you what can happen. I had wrapped a wire around the trunk of this tree and forgotten about it, as you can see the tree has now grown around the wire and is completely encapsulating it. There is also now a good chance that eventually this wire could choke off and kill all the top growth of the tree. This wouldn’t be the end of the world to me, because two good scaffold branches exist below this point, but it would be a set back. What I should have done is loosened the wire every year, I forgot to.
But I mention all this to illustrate what can go wrong if you use the wrong material, like wire (or even synthetic ropes), to stake your tree. The tree can and will grow into it. and it can permanently harm the tree. The one thing the first picture in this post did right was to run their wire (which they shouldn’t have been using to begin with) through a bit of tubing to provide it some padding, but over time even that tubing is not big enough to fully prevent the tree from growing over it because padding or not, it is still on there tight.
So, now that I’ve written you a book on what not to do, let me write you a couple sentences on what to do.
To properly stake a tree place two stakes one foot away from the trunk on either side of the trunk in such a way that they’re perpendicular to the prevailing winds (which means typically one stake on the north side, and one of the south side, unless you’ve got abnormal wind directions in your area). Tie the stakes to the tree using something broad and flexible. Specialty tree ties are made, but old nylons work great. They’re stretchy, flexible, and broad. Then, leave your stakes on no more than one year. But before you do any of that, think if you really need to stake at all, and if the tree is less than six or seven feet high, the answer to that is usually no.