For Release April 10, 2005

My Tree Doth Lean

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

When you look at most photographs, and especially paintings of trees, you usually see these nice perfectly straight, perfectly formed trees. We drive through the mountains of the west or the forests of the east and we don't really see individual trees, and their imperfections, but our mind sees a collage of many trees that all appear to be perfect trees. So when you have that single specimen tree in your front yard and you look at it every morning and evening, before long you start to notice imperfections and that causes you concern.

The fact of the matter is that there is no perfect tree. Every tree has flaws, every tree has imperfections and every tree is at the mercy of Mother Nature and mankind. They are going to have problems. Some problems are preventable or correctable, others we simply have to live with. The trick is in knowing the difference!

One of the more common calls that I receive has to do with the leaning tree, or perhaps a better assessment would be the tree that isn't growing straight. To tell the difference requires you to start at the base of the tree and work your way up. If the base of the tree, the bottom one to two feet, is at a 90 degree, or right, angle to the ground, then the tree is not leaning.

If it is not at a right angle to the ground then it is leaning. This indicates, usually, that the tree was not planted straight, or it shifted after planting. You can't really fix this problem, you can only try to prevent it by staking the tree correctly at planting. The whole reason to stake a tree is to keep the root ball from moving in the soil while the roots are getting established. A tree should not be staked higher than 50% of the total height of the tree and the staking should be removed after 2 years, preferably after 1 year.

If the tree starts to bend after you get a couple feet above the ground, you are dealing with a different phenomenon. This is a tree that is not growing straight and there is probably a reason for that. The first reason has to do with sunlight. A plant will always try to maximize the light interception by the leaves. If there is shade from a competing close tree that is taller, a tree will grow away from the shade and towards the light. Technically it doesn't grow towards the light, it simply puts more energy into the part of the tree that is in the sunlight and doesn't put much energy into the limbs on the shady side. So when you are planting a tree, make sure it has plenty of sun space!

The second, and by far more common, reason that trees don't grow straight is the wind. I think we all know that the wind blows in Kansas and it blows rather strong at times, often from a southerly or southwesterly direction. Plants respond to constant wind by growing with the wind as opposed to into the wind. Take a look at any tree in an exposed location. You will usually see that a majority of the branches will sweep towards the north. Sometimes the entire tree has a definite tilt to it. Simply put, it takes less energy to grow with the wind than against the wind.

There isn't much you can do about this. Homeowners want to put cables and wires on the trunk or branches to pull it back up straight. Don't do this! First of all, the tree will just continue to lean away from the wind above the point of attachment. You aren't changing the reason for the growth, so it will just continue. Secondly, you run the risk of damaging the limbs where you attach the guy wires or even breaking parts of the tree from applying too much force. Remember, trees grow in response to the natural forces around them. Go with the flow and accept the unique nature of each tree!


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