Last week happened to be one of the busiest weeks of my life. I ran around giving estimates, checking on job sites, and buying material for planting projects. On my errands I did notice a ubiquitous site. Tree after tree was in decline because of improper planting. I must have seen hundreds of trees that have been recently installed dying because of neglect or planting problems. As busy as I was, I took some time to stop and snap some photos of these problems. After my last blog on plantings I felt there were many issues I did not emphasize or explain completely. I want to clear up some of those issues and give you more examples of how tree plantings should be done to insure longevity in trees.
Lets start with planting depth issues. Planting depth is very important in the establishment and long term survival of a tree. When planting a tree, find the root flare. What is a root flare? The root flare, also called a root crown, is the area where the main roots join the tree. The root flare is important because it shows the proper depth the tree should be. For example if you take a walk in a state park or an area untouched by human hands, all the trees will have an exposed root flare (View the picture to the right).
Another issue with planting depth is over mulching. Mulch is a great cultural practice to protect and help trees. It does many things that benefit the tree like protecting from soil compaction, providing nutrients to the roots, and limiting competition. It is also a big money maker for landscapers. I hate to pick on landscapers all the time, but this problem is a reoccurring trend I see. When companies mulch a property they put down 4 inches of mulch around the plants. That’s great! That is what should be done. Not every year though, because 4 inches of mulch turns to 8, and 8 inches into 12, and just 4 years later there will be 16 inches of mulch covering your plants! With that much mulch, how is water going to penetrate the absorbing roots located in the upper few inches of soil?
Tree roots do not go as deep as previously thought by botanists or arborists. I was taught that tree roots will only go as deep as they can find water and oxygen. That’s typically only the upper few feet of soil. The large roots of a tree are for anchorage and support, and the small fibrous roots are for absorption. So the small little roots that are always being torn out of the ground to make room for flowers or sprinkler lines are the absorbing roots. When trees are buried too deep they will try and combat the depth by growing upward. Ultimately, growing upward could lead to it’s own demise by growing around itself and dying from strangulation, this is called a girdling. Just remember, if a tree looks like a telephone pole, it is buried too deep.
Transplanting and installation:
Most of the trees that I see dying, are ones that have been recently transplanted from a nursery. One reoccurring problem is that these trees are planted too deep, and they are left with the metal basket and/or burlap left on. As I went over in my last blog on planting, the burlap and metal basket is used to keep the root ball intact and protected during transportation. My experience has taught me that the burlap or wire basket has no right being planted with the tree. I have never seen a tree live a long and vigorous life with the burlap left on. View the pictures below and I will explain some points.
The two pictures above are of the same tree. This Beech tree has been recently installed. The dieback in the crown shows you where the problem is. When you see the tips of the tree dying, your eyes should go directly to the root system. Sure enough when I got close to the tree and inspected the root system, the burlap was left completely intact. No attempt was ever made to remove the burlap. This tree, under favorable circumstances could survive for years, but will never reach its full potential.
The photo to the left shows what happens when roots grow inside the burlap. This tree was cared for, but was never installed correctly. The tree was properly watered and continuously pruned. While the tree was constantly producing dead wood, the branches were just pruned off and no attempt was made to find the true cause of the problem. So for years the roots have been growing inside the burlap. The tree’s root system is small and very tightly knit. They were never given the chance to reach new soil, leaving the roots with only a limited amount of space to occupy. Once that space is filled up the tree roots will suffocate each other and the tree will die, if no action is taken.
I could have show hundreds of pictures, but I limited my collection to a select few. Any town in the United States most likely has an example of this inconvenience. This problem won’t solve itself without education. So if your reading this blog remember the problems I explained, and feel free to share to friends and colleagues. Sometimes the smallest details make the biggest difference.