Q: Three years ago, we planted a row of 5-foot-tall evergreen trees along our back lot line. But some brutal winter winds made them all lean over. Can we just restake them, or do we need to dig them up and replant them?

— Herb, Holley, NY

A: Roger Cook replies: You probably need to do a little bit of both. Usually, trees lean because of settling root balls, excessive snow loads, or growing towards the sun. But if you're sure the wind is at fault, then don't try to correct the situation by pulling back on the tree trunks. This will likely tear the roots and may cause the tree to die.

Instead, take a transplanting spade and push it straight into the ground around the tree, 6 to 8 inches outside the original root ball. Sink the shovel deep to cut the roots and allow the tree to move. Now take a pair of spades and slide them into the cut you made on the side that the tree is leaning toward. Lift up on the root ball until the tree is straight, then pack in some loam to hold it in position. Also, fertilize the trees with a product high in phosphorus, which encourages roots to develop.

Once you straighten a tree, it's a good idea to stake it. Drive a couple of wood stakes on the side of each tree. Then run wire or rope from the stakes and wrap it loosely around the trunk about two-thirds of the way up. To protect the bark against chafe, cover the wire or rope with scrap pieces of garden hose. You shouldn't let your trees become too attached to their stakes. Unstaked trees develop stronger root systems than those with artificial supports. So do your evergreens a favor and take the stakes out next spring.
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