Fruit Tree Pruning Basics

Last week I helped to train Master Gardeners about pruning fruit trees. January and February are the months that we recommend fruit tree pruning in Southern California.  In colder climates, pruning may not occur until later when freezing temperatures are minimized and there is less chance of damage to new growth. While trees don’t “need” pruning to bear fruit, pruning practices can enhance fruit production, promote earlier fruiting bearing buds, and increase fruit quality if done in an informed way. In many respects, modern fruit trees have been bred for big fruit, and pruning might need to be done to prevent limb breakage, reduce the number of fruit and position it in the tree fore ease of harvest. Misinformed pruning can lead to disease or loss of bearing wood. “Fruit tree” is a broad category, but for this blog, I am referring to deciduous trees (not subtropicals such as citrus, avocado, mango etc.). Two main categories are common: Pome fruits such as apples and pears and Stone fruits such as cherries, plums, apricots, peaches, almonds and pluots.

The first thing to figure out when pruning any tree grown for fruit production is where the fruit will be formed. This requires examining and understanding buds, twigs and the age of growth that is produced. Second we need to understand the tree’s responses to pruning and how that will affect future fruit production. Finally an understanding of negative consequences of pruning is essential.

Peaches produce fruit on last year’s growth
Apples and pears produce fruit on spurs

Why prune you ask if trees will produce without pruning? Pruning shapes a tree, and helps to create fruiting buds that are conveniently placed for harvest-this keeps fruit pickable with less time on ladders. Pruning gives an opportunity to remove fruiting buds thereby invigorating remaining buds and increasing size and quality of the fruit that will form with less fruit thinning later. Pruning also gives an opportunity to remove diseased, damaged, tangled or infested branches.  While various training styles can be used for structural pruning of young fruit trees the open vase or modefied central leader systems are preferred and descriptions of them can be found in extension leaflets.  For my own trees I usually do not prune them the first year after planting in order to encourage a stronger root system.  In the second and third years I pick scaffold branches or train branches on the central leader.

Fruit is produced on various aged twigs or branches depending on tree species. Peaches produce fruit on growth from the previous year or one year old wood. Since peaches grow vigorously fruiting wood ends up on the outside of a tree. Heading back (or heading) cuts (reducing last year’s branches by at least half their length) will remove ½ the fruit and stimulate buds lower in the tree that will make more fruiting wood. For this reason peaches are usually pruned “hard” to stimulate maximum amounts of fresh fruiting wood. Apples, Pears, Plums, Cherries and Apricots produce most of their fruit on small side branches called spurs. Apples and Pears may also produce fruit from the terminal bud.

Young trees often make many long whips and these are usually headed back (heading cuts remove the terminal bud) to stimulate spurs in the following years. Once the overall shape and size of the trees are set, less pruning is required as spurs may produce fruit over decades of time. As trees mature spurs build up so removing densely clustered spurs on mature trees with thinning cuts (removing an entire branch, spur or twig) will increase the size and quality of fruit formed on the remaining spurs.

Pruning is often used on newly planted trees to form the structure of the tree. When forming the branch structure do no indiscriminately head back every branch as this will stop the growth of the branch that is headed. New growth will only resume from buds that are released to grow. Think carefully about what you want to grow and what you want to slow-down in growth. Pruning is always a growth retarding practice. Branches are best spaced up and down and around a central leader. In other training systems for stone fruits one heading cut when the tree is just a whip will create an open vase shape where all the branches arise from a single point on the trunk. While this is considered a branch defect in shade trees, it is a convenient training system for fruit trees if you don’t let the tree get too large and manage the fruit loads that are produced. Trees trained to a modified open center where branches are spaced on a central leader have stronger branch attachments and can bear greater fruit.

This apple is extensively sunburned from over pruning

As trees age and grow they require regular training with heading cuts to shorten vigorous branches of peaches or thinning cuts to remove whips, water sprouts or other unwanted branches.  Be careful not to over-prune especially in summer or sunburn can result.  When fruit sets in the spring or early summer it can be thinned by hand.  This form of pruning will increase size of the remaining fruit and quality.   Summer pruning is sometimes practiced on very vigorous trees to slow their growth and invigorate buds for the following spring.  Prune with care in the summer espeically on green barked trees like apple and pears to avoid sunburn.

Flammability of Landscape Plants–Why the lists are BAD!

California had the worst fires in the last two years of its existence as a state. Hundreds of thousands of acres of brush and forest burned. More importantly thousands lost their homes as fires moved across urban/rural interfaces to destroy communities. The entire town of Paradise, California was burned to the ground. Here in Ventura County, the Thomas Fire was the state’s largest fire by the time it was done, and hundreds lost homes. No other time in history have we been so focused on what will burn, why it will burn, and what we can do to have a “firewise” landscape.

In 2017 The Thomas Fire in Ojai, California was the largest brush fire in the history of California fire fighting. It was surpassed the following year by the Camp fire in Northern California.

Fire authorities around the world have advocated creating defensible spaces around homes that are clear of ignitable vegetation. Some authorities have mandated by law that mulch, pine needles and other debris be removed as a fire prevention measure near structures. There is a general recognition that any plant can burn. Even well irrigated plants will rapidly desiccate and become flammable in the face of strong wind and a heavy fuel load that is inflamed nearby.

Flammability of landscape around homes is dependent on several factors. Vegetation placement can obstruct or allow for fire fighters ability to reduce damage to a home. While it is natural to assume that avoiding flammable plants is a part of this process, there is no standard method for testing plant flammability. Many lists of firewise plants have unknown origin or are just guesses. Flammability can be assigned four dimensions: ignitability, sustainability, combustibility and consumability. These factors refer to time till ignition; time a material will burn; rapidity or intensity of burn and quantity of material that will burn. The components of combustion are influenced by moisture content, percentage of carbon, percentage of volatile compounds; surface area to volume ratio and other factors. The varied factors are usually not all studied at the same time and are not all equally important to plant flammability. Thus assessing flammability even within the context of a controlled study will only partially assess a material’s likelihood of burning under various conditions. Hence most of the lists are not that helpful.

While fresh wood chip mulches are consideder by some fire authorities to be a fire hazard, there is little published evidence of this and a single element like mulch can not be tied to flammbability of the landscape.

Behm et. al. showed that variations in flammability between plant species exists, and also that species within the same genus can vary widely in their flammable nature. Thus lists should not assume species in the same genus all have the same flammability. There is some thinking that flammability is an evolutionary trait that some plants exploit to their benefit, i.e. they are made to burn, such as the California Chaparral plant communities. Simply burning fuels in a laboratory setting does not take into account many of the factors associated with fuel burning intensities. Species differences notwithstanding, the amount of dead plant matter (dead twigs and leaves) vs. live matter, the arrangement of leaves, mulch and adjacent species all play a role in the flammability of the landscape itself which cannot be studied in a lab setting. Landscapes are “fuel bed complexes” with multiple elements that are not replicated in studies. For instance, small leaves from some shrubs ignite easily, but when burned as litter, develop low heat release rates because of poor ventilation.

Testing live plant materials alone is misleading because the flammability of an intact shrub is caused by the interaction of live matter with “necromatter”. Dead tissues are thermal catalysts which ignite live material. The ratio of necromatter to live matter influences flammability and is generally not well studied. Fire modelling also has a role in understanding what will burn. Both wind and slope increase the spread rate and the fireline intensity of burnable plants. Fire behavior characteristics on a given plant also are affected by both its physical and chemical characteristic — tissue mineral and water content have impacts on flammability. This bodes poorly for firesafe plant lists because lists do not consider plant physical or chemical attributes and if moisture levels are low it will burn regardless of its structure and geometry or its status on a list. Sometimes though a dense wall of well hydrated vegetation can save homes such as the avocado orchards that held back fire in the Thomas Fire in Montecito, Ca.

While lists don’t satisfy scientific rigor they are great for policy makers and homeowners who want to know what to plant. Unfortunately many lists are just compilations of other lists, none of which were based on research. Sometimes lists confuse one desirable characteristic with another, such as native plant lists that tout drought tolerance. Many drought tolerant plants are not fire resistant especially after a long dry period, indeed they often evolved to burn under such conditions.

For those that live in fire prone areas, fire resistant plant lists will always be an attractive or even required element of landscapes. Lists will not save a structure in the face of high winds and adequate fuel or embers. A defined defensible space around buildings, and maintenance of plantings that removes dead matter, maintains irrigation, and maintains proper distance from combustible surfaces will be more effective than choosing landscape plants from flammability lists.

References:
Fernandes, P.M. and M. G. Cruz. 2012. Plant flammability experiments offer limited insight into vegetation—fire dynamic interactions. New Phytologist 194: 606-609

Behm, A.L., M. L. Duryea, A.J. Long, and W.C. Zipperer. 2004. Flammability of native understory species in pine flatwood and hardwood hammock ecosystems and implications for the wildland –urban interface. International J. of Wildland fire 13: 355-365.

White, R.H. and W.C. Zipperer. 2010. Testing and classification of individual plants for fire behavior: plant selection for the wildland-urban interface. International J. of Wildland Fire 19:213-227.

Fertilizer—Friend or Foe to disease causing organisms?

Gardeners that read this blog understand that minerals are absorbed mostly by plant roots as ions, and are essential for plant growth and development. Some minerals are required in parts per hundred, and are macro-nutrients while others are only required in parts per million or parts per billion, and are considered micronutrients. As long as enough of the 16 most essential minerals are available, plants grow and reproduce in a healthful way. When not enough of one of the essential elements are available, a deficiency occurs, and plants

Nutrient deficiency symptoms in new growth of Camphor tree

may present deficiency symptoms. Mineral nutrient deficiency symptoms are considered abiotic disorders. There are, however, cases where excess or deficiency of elements can be predisposing to disease caused by pathogens. Most some mineral elements do have a role in the development of disease caused by some pathogens but this is largely demonstrated in agriculture and often most home gardens do not suffer nutrient caused plant diseases.
Diseases can be either biotic with a living pathogen driving the disease or abiotic where a physiological condition is caused by the environment and host interactions. Mineral nutrients also are often implicated in abiotic disease.

 

Blossom end rot in tomato fruit

Perhaps the most famous one is blossom end rot of tomato. This disorder is seen by gardeners around the country and is widely attributed to calcium deficiency. Expanding fruit are a tremendous “sink” for nutrients like calcium and it was thought that if not enough calcium was available in soil the disorder would occur. It is accepted that localized Ca deficiency (in fruit) may play a role in the initiation of blossom end rot, but there are many other factors that lead to the full blown condition, some of which are not fully understood. The fact that blossom end rot (BER) occurs in calcic soils in California underpins the complexity of this disorder.  In many cases, simply adding calcium to soils does not correct the problem. Research in California suggest that the plant hormone abscisic acid (ABA) regulates water flow, the development of water conducting tissues, and calcium uptake in tomato. Researchers found that ABA treated tomatoes were cured of blossom end rot.  For gardeners, making sure plants are fertilized, and avoiding varieties susceptible to BER is the best course of action.

Soil-borne pathogens are perhaps most affected by minerals dissolved in soil solution. Minerals can act in specific ways (specific ion effects) or as total ion effects (osmotic strength or concentration) having direct impact on pathogenic propagules or on the host itself. In a biological disease relationship there are several possibilities:
• Specific ions harm or favor the pathogen.
• Specific ions harm or support the host.
• Ionic strength changes the root environment making the host weak and susceptible.
• Ions change the pH of the soil solution making it more or less fit for a pathogen or the host.
• Ions change the soil physical environment making it more or less fit for a pathogen or the host.

Root rot of annual color plant is a common find in many garden centers

While it is often espoused that the well “fed” or fertilized plant is resistant to disease, it is rarely borne out in published research on ornamental plants. Keeping a good nutritional level in nursery stock will not necessarily protect plants from many of the virulent pathogens that are capable of causing disease. Excess fertilization may lead to luxury consumption by the fertilized plant and can produce succulent growth that will exacerbate of such diseases as powdery mildew. It is well known that seedling diseases caused (damping off) are more severe with increased medium salinity and it was later discovered that increased soil salinity also increases susceptibility of ornamental plants to Phytophthora root rot diseases. Phytophthora is the most common pathogen associated with rotted roots in most gardens.

Plant mineral nutrition supports plant health in two basic ways (1) formation of mechanical barriers (cell wall strengthening) and (2) synthesis of defense compounds that protect against pathogens. The role of specific elements and their compounds is complicated and unique to each disease/host system. Certainly deficiencies of molecules such as calcium and potassium can interrupt either defense mechanism and if nutrients are supplied enough to prevent deficiencies there is little role of nutrients in preventing disease.
Root rot is a disease of thousands of ornamental plants and a serious problem in many gardens. Root rots caused by Phytophthora spp. occur in a range of nutritional and pH ranges. Nitrogen has been shown to lessen root rots and this is likely due to conversion of nitrogen into ammonia gas in soil which acts as a fumigant. Many studies found no relationship of nitrogen source to root rot disease development.  Calcium increases disease resistance to root rot in avocado and other plants. While it is understood that calcium has direct effects on plant membranes, root cell membrane leakage, cell wall thickness, and many other host factors, there are also direct effects on the pathogen in soil. Calcium ions reduce the production of disease spores and disrupt their ability to swim and find susceptible roots. When soils and soil less media are low in soluble calcium, when calcium is easily precipitated out of solution, or when the pH is high and limestone minerals decrease the availability of calcium, root rots will be able to infect.  Increases of sodium ions in soils and soil less media can also increase Phytophthora caused diseases.

Some non-essential elements have become popular as disease suppressants. Research has shown Silicon increases resistance of plants to powdery mildew, root rots and to stress in general. Silicon is implicated in strengthening cell walls as well as in defense protein production in plants. But not all plants are capable of utilizing silicon, so its role in plant defense is limited to those species (mostly grasses) capable of metabolizing it. Silicon has been erroneously recommended for widespread disease prevention. Its actual utility is likely very narrow. Much more study is necessary to understand silicon’s role with ornamental plant-pathogen systems. Gardeners will find little use for silicon as a disease prevention too.

Plants extract minerals from container media and garden soils—the process is complicated; it is mediated by the substrate/soil, water chemistry, temperature and the applied minerals (fertilizers) as well as by plants. Gardeners should apply fertilizers that can supply a constant low level nutrient charge or rely on nutrients provided in mulches. Fertilizing decisions are best guided by having a low cost soil analysis by a University lab. Supplying extra soluble calcium may be helpful in managing root rots, especially where heavy rainfall is normal and soils may be highly leached. Preventing salt build up (by leaching irrigation) in high salinity soils (low rainfall places) and that can occur when media dries out, will also help plants avoid infection by root rot organisms. It is good to remember that fertilizers never cure diseases, but there may be a role in preventing disease when plants are nutrient deficient.
References
Baker K.F. 1957.  The UC System Producing Healthy Container-Grown Plants. University of California Division of Agricultural Sciences Agricultural Experiment Station Publication #23.

Cherif M., Asselin A., Belanger R.R. 1994. Defense responses induced by soluble silicon in cucumber roots infected by Pythium spp. Phytopathology 84:236-242.

Datnoff, L.E., Elmer, W.H. and D. M. Huber eds. 2007. Mineral nutrition and plant disease. APS Press The American Phytopathological Society, St. Paul, MN. 278pp.

Downer A.J., Hodel D.R., Matthews D.M., Pittenger D.R. 2013. Effect of fertilizer nitrogen source on susceptibility of five species of field grown palms to Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. canariensis. Palms 57: 89-92.

Duvenhage J.A., Kotze J.M. 1991. The influence of calcium on saprophytic growth and pathogenicity of Phytopthora cinnamomi and on resistance of avocado to root rot. South African Avocado Growers Yearbook 14:13-14.

Faufeux F., Remus-Borei W., Menzies J.G., Belanger R.R. 2006. Silicon and plant disease resistance against pathogenic fungi. FEMS Microbiology Letters 249:1-6.

Kauss H., Seehaus K., Franke R., Gilbert S., Dietrich R.A., Kroger N.. 2003. Silica deposition by a strongly cationic proline-rich protein from systemically resistant cucumber plants. Plant J. 33:87-95.

Lee B.S., Zentmeyer GA. 1982. Influence of calcium nitrate and ammonium sulfate on Phytophthora root rot of Persea indica. Phytopathology 72:1558-1564.

Ma, J.F.  2011. Role of silicon in enhancing the resistance of plants to biotic and abiotic stresses. Soil Science and Plant Nutrition 50:11-18.

Macdonald J.D., Swiecki T.J., Blaker N.S., Shapiro J.D. 1984. Effects of salinity stress on the development of Phytophthora root rots. Cal Ag 38:23-24.

Messenger B.J., Menge J.A., Pond E. 2000. Effects of gypsum on zoospores and sporangia of Phytopthora cinnamomi. Plant Dis 84:617-621.

Powell C.W., Lindquist R.K. 1997. Ball Pest and Disease Manual (2nd ed). Ball Publishing Batavia Publishing. 426 pp.

Span T.M., Schumann A.W.  2010.  Mineral nutrition contributes to plant disease and pest resistance. University of Florida Publication #HS1181. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

Tonetto de Freitas, S., K.A. Shackel and E. J. Mitcham. 2011. Abscisic acid triggers whole-plant and fruit specific mechanisms to increase fruit calcium uptake and prevent blossom end rot development in tomato fruit. J. of Experimental Botany 62:2645-2656.

Daylor, M.D. and S. J. Locassio. 2004. Blossom-end rot: A calcium deficiency. J. of plant Nutrition 27: 123-139.

Zentmeyer G.A. 1963. Biological control of Phytophthora root rot of avocado with alfalfa meal. Phytopathology 53:1383-1387.

Trees and Turf a NO GO

It seems so simple to plant a tree.  But to grow a tree is more difficult!   In many parts of the United States there is enough water for trees and turfgrass, but it is often a bad idea to mix the two. You may have observed that sometimes young trees do not grow as well when planted in turfgrass. Certainly this is a generalized view and tree/turfgrass genetics are very different between their respective species. So it is natural to expect different outcomes when planting different species of trees in any landscape setting, turfgrass notwithstanding.  Another factor to consider is time. The day we plant a tree is not the same time reference as ten years later. In ten years, the tree if it is successful, may have modified

A basic incompatibility: Eucalyptus growing in warm season turfgrass (kikuyugrass) resulted in excess surface moisture and crown rot of the eucalyptus killing it.

its environment significantly, making turfgrass cultivation more difficult.  Most tree/turfgrass difficulties begin when the tree is young–as a newly planted tree.  If it succeeds in growing a large canopy, difficulties will ensue for the turfgrass.  Sometimes turfgrass  cultural requirements (frequent irrigation) can predispose trees to root or root-collar diseases such as Phytophthora.

Trees and turfgrass have some similar and very different requirements from their respective landscape settings. Both trees and turfgrass require sunlight to photosynthesize and grow. Both would usually prefer full sunlight without shade. As trees grow they shade the turfgrass sward beneath their canopies. Turfgrass can lose density, and become a thinner sward that is more susceptible to diseases such as powdery mildew. Trees grow roots near the soil surface and as they become larger, some trees may even proliferate roots near the mowing height of turgrass and suffer repeated injury from mowers, also increasing the risk of pest invasion into the tree. Both trees and turfgrass need water and soil minerals to grow. While soil minerals are usually abundant enough for both, water is often limiting for one or the other in this landscape combination.

String Line Trimmer’s or weed whips will injure both young and older trees in the landscape. Image: Chicago Tribune.

The maintenance practices required for turfgrass often injure trees, especially young trees. Mowing near trees can injure the bark on the lower stem especially if the mower comes to close and actually scrapes the young stem. Since grass will grow longer where the mower can’t reach right near a tree stem there is a temptation to use a string line trimmer or weed whip to maintain the grass that has shot up around the tree stem. The repeated use of string line trimmers around trees removed young bark and can “girdle” the tree stem. While trees can survive these practices their growth rates are slowed considerably.

Constant injury from mowing equipment has injured this elm killing the tissue on a major root flare. This is now an entry point for decay and other fungi.

One approach to having trees growing with turfgrass is to remove a ring of turf away from the tree and replace it with mulch. This eliminates the need to maintain the turfgrass near the trees stem and root flare. Richard Harris and others (1977) found many years ago that a one foot circle removed around the stem of newly planted trees would increase their establishment rates compared to trees with turfgrass growing right near the stem. Whitcomb (1979) also recognized that turgrasses are competitors with newly planted shade trees. Whitcomb’s earlier research (1973) showed reduction in root density when trees were planted in a sward of Kentucky bluegrass.

A ring of mulch replacing turfgrass around this tree keeps turf maintenance equipment from injuring it.

As trees grow it is important to widen the ring around them giving more room for mulch and reducing the competing turfgrass underneath their expanding canopies. This is a general concept; some trees can live in turfgrass without problems as long as resources are not limiting. Riparian trees such as sycamore can grow well in swards of turfgrass, but other species such as Peruvian pepper (Schinus mole) tend to languish.

Trees are adapted to drop leaves, this is termed litterfall and it becomes part of their natural mulch. Litterfall tends to prevent annual plants such as grasses from developing. Fallen leaves, fruit and twigs are recycled by fungi providing nutrients back to the tree. Turfgrass cultivation interrupts this process and while trees obtain some of the nutrients supplied to turfgrass, as Whitcomb observed, turfgrasses are fierce competitors for nutrients so young trees are especially susceptible to nutrient deprivation in turfgrass swards. For the best results in your

This young tree has an expanding mulch area to help sustain it and reduce competition from turfgrass.

garden, it is best to maintain some distance between young trees and turfgrass. It is optimal if the mulched (no turf) area under a tree can expand to its dripline as it grows.

 

 

 

 

Fertilizers — a cautionary tale

Gardeners are assaulted with marketing campaigns nowhere better than in the fertilizer aisle of a garden center. There are so many choices and the labels suggest that fertilizing garden plants is a complicated process that requires specialized products.

Fertilizers can be marketed for many reasons; here one brand offers many products

Laws require that fertilizers list the proportion of the most important macronutrients on the front of the bag. Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium abbreviated N, P, K, respectively, will always be shown with the ratio of their concentrations such as 5-10-15. This indicates the bag contains 5% nitrogen, 10% phosphorus and 15% potassium. The bag will also specify the weight of fertilizer contained in it, usually in pounds here in the United States. Of course, labeling requirements vary in other countries. Since fertilizers are not drugs or pesticides the labeling requirements are relatively lax and thus are open to extensive marketing. With fertilizers, as long as the contents are labeled and the proportion of N P and K are somewhere on the bag, any other claim can seemingly be made.

Laws require that fertilizer manufacturers list the N-P-K ratio in % by weight on the bag in a prominent place

For years fertilizers have been designed specifically for certain plants. You can commonly purchase citrus food, camellia and azalea food, vegetable fertilizer, and of course turfgrass fertilizers which have been widely marketed for decades. Some fertilizer blends are based on research. Turfgrasses have a high requirement for both Nitrogen and Potassium and you often see elevated percentages of these in turfgrass fertilizers. Palms also require more potassium than Phosphorus and products have been developed that are “palm special” fertilizers. Despite all the research, manufacturers still throw in some phosphorus even though phosphorus is abundant in the United states in most soils. It is not clear to me what makes citrus food different from any other fertilizer, although claims that it is best for citrus can usually be found on the product. We grow more citrus in Ventura County, particularly lemons than anywhere in California, but none of the growers apply “citrus food”.

There is no such thing as “Citrus Food”

Some fertilizers are marketed for acid loving plants. Acid forming fertilizers have the ability to temporarily reduce pH in media or soil to which they are applied. This is because they have a high amount of ammonium or urea as the nitrogen source. Microbes in soil oxidize the nitrogen to nitrate and release hydrogen ions that make the soil more acid. Continual use of acid forming fertilizers can drop soil pH to dangerously low levels and make nutrients unavailable to many plants. This is especially the case in high rainfall climates where mineral nutrients are easily leached from soil. Another product often used to lower pH is aluminum sulfate. Often marketed as “hydrangea food” it helps to promote blue flowers in this plant. Special care should be given here as aluminum can easily be applied to toxic levels.

Technically aluminum sulfate is not a fertilizer: note the 0-0-0. It can be toxic if applied too much and can make soil too acid.

For as long as fertilizers have been sold they have been marketed as products that make plants grow better. When the importance of mycorrhizae were discovered, manufacturers found a new marketing angle that could be used to sell fertilizers. Now countless manufacturers include mycorrhizal inoculants as part of their fertilizer blend. Not only are we able to feed the plant but we can also feed the soil with beneficial micro-organisms. This all sounds great but often the inoculant, if present in the bag, is not viable. In many cases garden soils already have plenty of mycorrhizal fungi in them so they really are not needed in fertilizer products. Other fertilizers include growth stimulants such as humic acid, fulvic acid or humates. Research does not support their efficacy in horticulture.

Most gardens do not require mycorrhizal inoculants.

Fertilizer manufacturers feel that it is important that we gardeners use things that are “all natural”. I don’t know what is natural to you but for me it is natural to challenge claims that have no scientific basis. The very practice of fertilizing plants is NOT NATURAL! But the products are often purported to be. Sometimes natural is synonymous with organic. There are an amazing number of organic fertilizers, so much so that it becomes bewildering as to which one to choose. Organic fertilizers may or may not be ‘certified’ by an agency such as OMRI as meeting some standard. Generally speaking organic fertilizers are made from some carbon based source. They can be sourced as manures or as plant or animal based meals or products. The N-P-K ratios vary widely.

There are many organic fertilizers. They usually have low N-P-K values; some are good slow release sources of nitrogen.

I am always careful to avoid manure-based organic fertilizer products as they can be unnecessarily salty. While many organic fertilizers may be rather “slow release” as they need to mineralize from organic to soluble forms, this is often not the case with manure based products which can easily burn plants if over-applied. Some organic fertilizers are made from rock like substances such as leonardite which are very slow releasers of nitrogen. These products are mined and are similar to coal but have fertilizer value. In trials I have conducted on containerized plants some of these products were top performers.

Biosolids are made from treated human waste. They are an excellent source of nitrogen, but may contain unwanted metals.

Another common type of organic fertilizer are the biosolids products such as Milorganite. These are processed sewage sludge products that are de-watered and made into fertilizer. They are very effective nitrogen sources. Some biosolids fertilizers have also been sources of metals, such as zinc, lead and cadmium. Metal contents are closely monitored by manufacturers but since these products come through municipal systems, zinc, copper and other metals such as lead are often elevated. Slow release and organic fertilizers are useful if they are applied with understanding of the mineral needs of the plants they are applied to.

 

Most plants grow fine without fertilization and the main fertilizer element that plants respond to is nitrogen. So despite all the marketing claims seen on fertilizer bags, a fertilizer with an adequate source of nitrogen will likely benefit plants in need of that element. Specialized fertilizers that promote flowers or roots are not substantiated by research. Elements other than nitrogen are usually not required and ratios of N P and K are not tuned for more blooms or more roots. Adding phosphorus to your fertilizer does not promote flowering unless your soil is deficient in phosphorus (a rare condition). Gardens in high rainfall areas will likely need more potassium and nitrogen, but Phosphorus is hardly ever limiting to plant growth. Most plants do not need or require special fertilizers but will respond to fertilizers that contain an element they and soils they are growing in are lacking.

Phosphorus does not promote flowering. “Bloom maker” fertilizers are a marketing gimmick.

For gardens that have a loam soil texture, little fertilizer will be needed. Soil types often determine fertilizer needs for plants. Sandy soils likely need the most fertilizer because they do not hold nutrients well. They are also the most likely soils to lead to pollution because fertilizer elements will leach easily. Plants growing in sandy soils are also at greatest risk from injury of overfertilization. Plants growing in clay soils are least likely to require fertilization because clays hold and retain cations so well. An informed way to fertilize your garden is to obtain a soils test and base your fertilizer program on the results you obtain. For more on technical details of fertilizing see John Porter’s column in this blog archive.

 

When you think you need to fertilize garden plants follow these suggestions:

-Base your fertilizer program on a soils test
-Fertilize sandy soils more frequently than clay soils but with smaller amounts
-Most gardens require some nitrogen but not Phosphorus or Potassium so look for NPK ratios with X-0-0 as these products will only supply nitrogen.
-Some plants such as palms and turfgrass benefit from potassium so use a product with X-0-X
-Do not fertilize at planting time, wait until plants establish
-Always apply water after applying soluble fertilizers so they are dissolved
-If using Organic fertilizers chose one with a higher N content
-Never over-fertilize. Landscape fertilization can impair natural waterways resulting in algal blooms that kill fish and other aquatic life.

Soil compaction–the urban stress of death for shade trees

I was taught in horticulture school that the ideal soil is composed of 50% solids and 50% voids or spaces which are themselves composed of a variable amount of water from small amounts to as much as 25% water when the soil is at field capacity or the amount of water left in soil after gravity has pulled all the free water down in the profile. So the “ideal” soil always has 25% pore spaces or more depending on how much water is present. These conditions are vital for root growth since roots go through the chemical process of respiration which involves absorbing oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide. For gas exchange to happen in this ideal soil, spaces or voids are important, and necessary. A well-structured soil has micro aggregates (pea sized or smaller clumps of soil) in high concentrations which creates many of these spaces and is said to have high porosity.

Porosity in soil is created by the action of roots, fungi and soil fauna developing channels, micro-aggregates and incorporation of organic matter so that soil becomes highly “structured”.

Porosity – the amount and types of voids – is determined by two major factors: 1) The size and distribution of the soil particles; and 2), how those particles are arranged. Sand, silt, and clay particles can be arranged and formed into pathways that help move air and water. These paths are formed by past root channels and the movement of organisms like worms and insects. These channels are glued together by exudates from roots, bacteria and fungi. This organic, both living and dead, soil fraction also add and stabilizes porosity. All together, soil particles, plant residues and microorganisms create a fragile structure that adds more porosity than just the pores and voids created by spaces between the soil mineral particles.

Soil structure is physically crushed and destroyed by cars driving over this tree planting area. As the surface compacts, runoff increases, the soil holds less water and oxygen as a result tree roots die.

Structure and porosity can be physically destroyed or crushed. The soil can be squished by heavy equipment or constant foot traffic of animals, such as humans or horses, or others that constantly tread over the same soil. Compacted soil can be near the surface (the worst for trees since their roots are mostly near the surface), or lower down in the profile. A “plow pan” is actually a compacted zone at the depth of plow or ripping agricultural implements where soil structure is constantly destroyed at the same depth over and over. As soon as roots and worms create a new pathway and reinforce it with micro-aggregates and glues, it is destroyed again, creating a zone of loosened soil where the implement has traveled, but a zone immediately below what which has been compacted by the pressure of the implement.

Most horticulturists and many gardeners know that compacted soils are bad for plants growing in them. Shade trees frequently have restricted growth in these kinds of soils. This can happen at a young age when trees are just planted or on large specimen trees, such as in parks that have the soil compacted around them by visitors. Footpaths, picnic tables, playground equipment or any publicly attractive park feature will often have compacted soils in the area.

Deprivation of litterfall and mulch layers, either through wearing out (grinding of organic matter by foot traffic) of the mulch or by mulch/litter removal through raking will promote compaction by removing the cushioning effect of that mulch layer. Sadly, the tree itself can be the feature that attracts people to it, resulting in compacted soils all around its base that limits its health.

Tree growth is limited when soil is compacted around the trunk. Turf loss, and a dry soil are symptoms of a compacted zone around this tree

What is not so well known is why growth is slowed in compacted soils. The effects of compaction are multi-fold. Compacted soils are less porous because the compaction literally reduces the air pockets in the soil, making it more dense with lower oxygen diffusion rates. Soil with destroyed structure becomes less permeable to water infiltration and holds less water. Under these conditions tree roots may not be adequately hydrated, and cannot physically penetrate the highly compacted soil. Thus, they are not able to develop and expand and explore enough to supply the needs of the tree. Reduced soil oxygen, along with other site, soil, and tree variables such as water and nutrient uptake, are all reasons for restricted tree growth.

There is compelling evidence that different species of trees can exert greater pressure at their root tips to break through compacted soils. Different tree species also have different root architectures – finer, deeper, shallower, etc. Thus, there is a genetic factor in a tree’s ability to deal with this soil problem.

Soils are more or less compactable depending on their texture, structure and moisture status. Generally a dry soil is harder to compact that a moist one. Dry soils resist compaction (but still can be compacted) because the soil aggregates stiffen as they dry. Wet soils are easily compacted but people and machinery also easily sink in very wet soils. Waterlogged soils may or may not have structure, but the water in the pores, prevents further collapse of the soil structure. Soils that are moist (at field capacity) are just right for growing plants, and are also perfect for compacting and thus must be protected from compaction.

Soil compaction is measured by calculating what’s called bulk density (Bd). Bulk density is the weight of soil in a given volume, and is measured in grams/cubic centimeter. In order to measure bulk density a special soil sampling device called an “intact soil core sampler” is used. This device extracts a core of soil while preserving its structure. The volume of the sample is a constant. The soil sample is removed and dried to drive off all the water and then the weight of dry soil is divided by the known sample volume giving the bulk density.

Bulk densities vary depending on the soil texture (%Sand:Silt:Clay) and to a smaller extent on the organic matter content. Sands generally have very large particles, more pore spaces and lower bulk densities than silts, loams and clays which willhttps://i1.wp.com/www.deeproot.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/stories/2014/04/Soil-organic-matter-soil-texture-table1.png?resize=636%2C326

A Comparison of Root Limiting Bulk Density for Different Soil Types (NRCS 1998 in Dallas and Lewandowski, 2003)have the highest bulk densities. Thus compaction is determined by measuring both bulk density and soil texture. Generally, pure rock has a bulk density over 2.65 g/cc. Uncompacted sands may have bulk densities of 1.2-1.4, while loams and clays may have Bd from 1.5-1.8 g/cc. A sand may be compact at 1.4 but a clay may have a higher Bd of 1.5 and not be considered compacted. Organic soils can have Bd that are much lower – 0.02-.9 g/cc. Generally, soils (average of all textures) with bulk densities over 1.5 can be suspected to be compacted and will limit tree growth.

Bulk density for a given soil is not a fixed property, it can change depending on the history of what has happened to the soil. For instance, in an annual color bed or vegetable garden bed, the soil may be turned or tilled by the gardener, amended, and replanted. During this process structure is destroyed, but the organic matter, growth of the crop, and time foster a new soil structure, perhaps even more porous than the soil was previously. This can happen in one growing season. In the case of compacted soils around trees, it can take years for a mulch laid over a compacted soil to correct the compaction.

Another way of looking at this is: if you can get the sampler into the soil, its likely not compacted, but if you have to use a hammer to get it into the soil it might be compacted (or dry). Pressure required is going to depend on the soil moisture, as well as the state of compaction. Compaction can also be measured by a device called a penetrometer which quantifies resistance to penetration. We as gardeners can use a screwdriver, if you can push it into soil; it is less compacted than if you can’t. The screwdriver test is also used to test for moisture content–when soils dry out, they resist penetration. The depth of water penetration in an irrigated soil is the depth to where the screwdriver stops when pushed in. So, it is easy to confuse a compacted soil with a dry soil. Also, if a soil is compacted, water will not easily enter, so many compacted soils are also perennially dry soils since irrigation does not easily penetrate them. This can be seen as increased runoff when you try to irrigate or ponding if the compacted zone does not drain away.

How do we fix compacted soils with high bulk densities? I was always taught that chemical fixers like gypsum, soil penetrants, or other chemical means will not affect a structurally damaged and compacted soil. The only way to fix them is to physically un-compact them. So, further destroying structure by ripping, drilling, trenching, air spading, or in some other way breaking up the compacted layers is the thing to do. Basuk (1994) cites cases where soil modified to treat compaction actually re-compacts (bulk density increases) over time (2-3 years after a compaction relieving treatment is applied). Numerous studies indicate that breakdown of arborist chip mulches will lead to reduced bulk density, but little is known about actual bulk density reductions with mulch applications over time. I am confident mulches will reduce bulk density, but given the diversity of soils, textures and compaction levels, I can only imagine this is a variable response. Removing the cause of the compaction, (foot traffic, machine usage etc) is the first step. Mulching following some kind of “soil fluffing” procedure should begin the process of increasing soil porosity and reducing bulk density. It may take years to relieve compaction passively through the action of mulching. If soil can be mechanically broken up, the compaction issue is solved and soil structure will slowly be reformed in time depending on what is grown thereafter.

References:
Bassuk, N. 1994. A review of the effects of soil compaction and amelioration treatments on landscape trees. Journal of Arboriculture 20:9-17.

Is there a “Deathstar” in your garden?

If you follow national news, you may have noticed that Sudden Oak Death disease caused by Phytophthora ramorum has been found again in a new state and has escaped into retail commerce and thus into gardens. This is news because the disease is a killer of rhododendron, oak, camellia and many other ornamental plants. Yesterday I was measuring trees in a research plot here in California and I found that one of my subjects had turned brown and lost all its leaves. On checking, I discovered a Phytophthora collar rot was the cause of the symptoms. Phytophthora diseases kill woody plants, often our cherished specimen plantings. This blog post is to introduce you to Phytophthora collar rots, their diagnosis and treatment.

A Phyotophthora crown rot canker on ghost gum
This Eucalyptus suddenly collapsed from a Phytophthora basal canker. All the leaves remain on the tree and turned brown
Planting too deep is predisposing to Phytophthora infection. Note the aeration tubes could not save this tree–they serve no function in landscapes. Avoiding over-wet conditions, proper planting and irrigation timing would have prevented this Phytophthora death.

Phytophthora means plant destroyer in Latin. It is the “deathstar” of plant destroyers and once it has infected, death is the usual outcome. All Phytophthoras are Oomycetes. These are organisms that form an Oospore. Oospores are usually produced when two strains of Phytophthora join and the sexual organs form resulting in this spore. It is thick walled and can live for years in soil without a host. Phytophthora used to be considered a fungus but this was changed some years back to put all Oomycetes in groups that are more closely allied with brown algae. Phytophthoras are not in the kingdom fungi but rather the SAR supergroup of organisms. One main difference between these microbes and fungi is that Phytophthora has cellulose in its cell walls just as plants do. There are hundreds of species of Phytophthora, most affect flowering plants especially woody plants. Very few affect grasses and monocots. There are some that affect palms and others, vegetables and herbacious plants. The late blight fungus Phytophthora infestans caused the Irish Potato famine that resulted in millions of deaths (of people and potatoes) and migration (of people not potatoes) to the United States to avoid starving further.  caused the famous Jarrah (a Eucalyptus spp.) die off in Australia, one of the largest known forest epiphytotics. Phytophthora species occur worldwide and affect plants in almost every garden.

Why are Phytophthoras so successful and how do they get into gardens? I think the answer is that they are cryptic. You can not see any of the spore stages, even with a microscope. There is no “mold-like” growth of the pathogen that you can see either in soils or on the plant. This is because the organism lives inside plant tissues and is very reduced in soils where is survives as spores. Unlike many fungi, you can’t see the mycelium of most Phytophthora species. In plants, Phytophthora usually grows in the vascular cambium of roots or stems and kills those tissues. Plants react to Phytophthora by producing phenols and other phytochemicals turning tissues brown. Brown roots or spreading brown cankers on the main stem are common. When Phytophthora kills the tissues on the main stem this often causes a basal stem canker near the soil line. Usually the plant collapses rapidly with all the leaves turning brown or falling from the plant suddenly. Sometimes basal cankers are associated with deeply planted trees and shrubs or where soil has been added over the root collar. Since basal cankers are under the bark they may not be visible while active and need to be revealed with a knife to expose the brown tissue.

Phytophthora diseases are increased by excess water in soil or on plants. Overly wet situations are predisposing to these diseases if the pathogen is present. Other conditions like reduced oxygen in the rootzone (from compaction), increased salts in soil, very dry conditions followed by very wet circumstances all promote Phytophthora. There are also some groups of plants that seem to be very susceptible—these include: rhododendron, camelia, oaks, cyclamen, most plants in the Ericaceae (madrone, manzanita, blueberry etc.), cedars, pines, and the list goes on. It is hard to avoid susceptible plants because there are so many of them.

Phytophthora species are not native everywhere but have been distributed far and wide by people. Nurseries are prime disseminators of Phytophthora infested plants. Fungicides “subdue” the pathogen but do not eradicate it. So a plant can look healthy while still being infested with Phytophthora. When the fungicide wears off, the plant may become sick if conditions are right for the Phytophthora to grow. Another reason why this type of pathogen is so successful is that a plant can have 50-75% of its roots killed before symptoms begin to show on above ground plant parts. Wilt and collapse only occur very late in the progress of the disease. Because of this, it is important to inspect plants before bringing them home. Never purchase a plant with brown feeder roots, or this could be the starting point for Phytophthora in your garden.

If you are an avid gardener who likes to try new plants all the time, then your future encounter with Phytophthora is likely inevitable. You can do things to limit its development.

Mycelium of Phytophthora exposed to cellulase (left) and healthy mycelium (right)

-Plant on berms or mounds while avoiding planting in low or poorly drained places
-Use wood chip mulches from freshly chopped tree parts
-Add gypsum to soils as part of your mulching protocol
-If you irrigate your garden allow drying out periods between irrigations
-Plant “high” so that the root crown is clearly exposed
-Do not volcano mulch or cover the root crown with anything at all
-Avoid planting woody perennials in turfgrasses or lawns

Fresh wood chips are often broken down by fungi that release cellulase, this enzyme is toxic to all Phytophthora’s, and the reason why FRESH mulches are so important to create soils with cellulytic enzymes that destroy this pathogen. As gypsum dissolves it provides a slow release source of calcium ions which are also toxic to the swimming spores of Phytophthora. While fungicides can also help limit Phytophthora development, the cultural practices listed above will be just as important in preventing and limiting root and crown rot disease in your garden.

The Dog Days are here

The dog days of summer are here and as we approach the longest day of the year (summer solstice is June 21st), we are also feeling the advance of high summer temperatures. Long days mean more evapotranspiration and water withdrawal from the soil. During these long days, plants photosynthesize more, grow more, and use the most water during the month of June.  In fact evapotranspiration looks generally looks like a bell shaped curve when plotted by month (figure 1).  Soils dry quickly and irrigation or rainfall may not keep

Figure 1. Evapotranspiration data by month. Image from US geological Survey

up with plant demands for water. This can bring some very real stress to garden plants and turfgrasses.  If you live in a place that does not receive summer rainfall you will certainly need to increase irrigation to reflect day length at this time of year.

Transpiration is water loss through leaves and is not  part of photosynthesis, but it is critical to cool the plant. As soils dry out, the level of abscisic acid produced in roots increases and translocates to leaves resulting in the closing of the pores called stomates. Closed stomata reduces transpiration, but only at a steep cost to the plant. That cost is heat build up. Since this is also the time of the hottest weather it is not long before leaf temperatures rise to lethal levels and sunburn results. Sunburn is always seen as damage in the middle of the leaf because that is the hardest spot to dissipate the heat. The edges that lose heat rapidly are usu

Figure 2. Sunburn occurs in the middle of leaves as in this Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei)

ally not burnt (Figure 2).

Short of applying water properly, what else can be done?   Mulches are a great way to avert drought stress since they reduce water loss from the soil surface. The effect is greatest where sun hits the soil. So in new gardens or gardens without a lot of shade, mulches are essential during hot weather to reduce plant stress. Wood chip mulches are particularly helpful in that wood does not reflect, hold or emit heat as much as soil, so it protects adjacent plant surfaces from heat.

How about water absorbing polymers or hydrogels? While much of the allure of these “water crystals” has worn off, it is still good to remind that polymers don’t change evapotranspiration rates of plants so even if they did all the things they claim to, they won’t get plants through a hot summer any better than if they were not present in the soil.

With the longest days come warming soil temperatures.  Hot soil can affect plants especially perennials.  Ground that is not mulched will radiate infrared onto plant surfaces, this can increase stress. This is yet another reason to employ wood chip mulches around perennials.

Figure 3. Impact sprinklers raise humidity on very hot days relieving plant stress

So when it is particularly hot and dry how can we get plants through this stressful time? Running sprinklers (where practical) will increase humidity and if soils are dry reduce stress (Figure 3).  For annual plants, some shade is often helpful. Applying shade cloth to sensitive or newly planted/emerged plants can cut stress dramatically.  As plants establish, the shade can be gradually removed.  Keep irrigation even so moisture is always there to maintain transpiration — this  is essential during warm weather and long days. For perennial plants there is not much to be done. While pruning will reduce the amount of surfaces that lose water, pruning (thinning) will also lead to temperature increases in the plant canopy since the evaporative surface area of the plant is decreased. So while soil water is saved, canopy temperatures may rise, this may be a poor trade off in the hottest months of the year.  Over-pruning opens plants up for sunburn on stems which can lead to fungal canker infections by pathogens like Botryosphaeria. This is very common in Apples.

Another treatment you may have heard claims for are anti-transpirants. These are products that are sprayed on plants to create a film that will cut water loss from leaves. Taken from a recent Amazon search I found the following product description recently… “Product is a water-based, semi-permeable polymer coating that can minimize the damages from climate related stresses, such as frost and freeze, heat stress and sunburn, drying winds, and transplant shock. Applied as a foliar spray, Product provides a unique non-toxic, biodegradable, elastic membrane over the plant surface to reduce moisture loss and insulate the plant.” While there may be an application (such as freeze protection) that makes sense for this kind of product somewhere, I don’t see it in your garden during hot weather. Cutting transpiration (“reducing moisture loss”) will increase the heat on leaves, so one of the common side effects of using these products is hot weather is damage or phytotoxicity.  Like polymers the fad is faded.

Sometimes the dog days of summer bring insurmountable challenges. In early summer of 2018 in California, temperatures reached record levels of 115-120. Even in irrigated situations plants were damaged, short of providing immediate shade, there was nothing to be done and many plants were injured, even native plants are not adapted to such high temperatures. If these conditions occur in your garden, you may not be able to limit damage, but there are considerations for after care when this kind of blitz occurs. Don’t prune anything immediately, let the leaves fall and buds form because stems may be intact. Prune away injured plant parts after regrowth begins. If injury is severe, cut back on irrigation. Injured plants don’t require as much water because there is less functional  leaf area. This is why root root rot often follows this sort of severe injury. The summer solstice is here—I can already feel the shortening days of fall some distance away.

Reference

Costello, L.R., E.J. Perry, N. P. Matheny, M.J. Henry, and P.M. Geisel.  2014.  Abiotic disorders of Landscape Plants.  University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Publication #3420.

Amending Soils—Why??

I think the blog and garden professors web page is pretty full of research and benefit descriptions of mulching, particularly with arborist chips. A little less clear is the role of amendments in garden soils. I always like to ask the “why” questions for gardening practices. Like “why” prune trees? Why fertilize, etc? Ideally gardening practices should be founded on a basis of science and inquiry as to their necessity. Poor structure early structural training or a damaged canopy may prompt tree pruning, mineral nutrient deficiency symptoms may suggest

When amending, organic materials are often tilled in 50% by volume (3 inch layer tilled six inches deep)

fertilization. So why amend your garden soil? For me as a gardener you do this because your soil is not providing something you think your garden or plants growing in that soil need. This could be nutrients, or water. Amending as a soil or garden practice is best done in garden beds that host annual plants: vegetable gardens, color beds with annual plants etc. Obviously we are not going to lift all the perennials just to add some amendment under their root systems. We can also make arguments that amending soils that you are going to plant perennials in is unlikely to be helpful. So why amend?

 

Research on providing amendments in the holes of perennial plants has most often shown no significant differences compared to plants installed with just native backfill. There are lots of reasons for this and I can imagine some soils where amendments would give a slight boost, but these were not the soils most studies used (extreme sands). Mostly, perennial roots do not reside in the planting hole for long, so the time that amendments would be effective is very short. Since amending can also harm some plants if done incorrectly, University of California does not recommend the practice, neither did Harris for trees, shrubs and vines. Nor did we find any effect in palms (Hodel and others). For this blog we will assume that amending is restricted to annual plant beds. So why amend? The usual reason I hear is: “My soil is crap!” I think it would be interesting to survey people about their soil and see what they think about it as compared to how it actually grows. Most people seem to disparage their poor soil….So many gardeners believe that if they add something to their crap soil it will get better. Maybe, or no. Amending has potential benefits and detriments depending on what and how much you amend with.

snaps growing in soil amended with high quality yardwaste compost
Snaps growing in soil with uncomposted yardwaste used as an amendment. Nitrogen is immobilized

So the potential benefits of amending are:
• rapid (immediate) modification of the planting bed
• potential increase of moisture holding capacity in the soil
• potential increase of nutrients and nutrient holding capacity (cation exchange capacity of the soil
• change in the soil texture, porosity
• rapid increase in soil organic matter
• suppression of soil borne pathogens

Potential detriments include:
• nutrient draw from the soil (nitrogen immobilization: see images above)
• toxicity from residual phytochemicals
• adding pests (weeds or root pathogens)
• soil structure is destroyed
• soil food web is challenged and harmed
• may increase soil salinity
• contaminants can be transferred to gardens

One of the incontrovertible facts about amending is that you have to disturb the soil to do it. Amending involves digging in, roto-tilling, soil turning with a spade, or some kind of incorporation process. Usually the more the better. This destroys soil structure and a good part of the soil food web. Beneficial nematodes are highly sensitive to tillage and many are killed by tillage, often perturbing the entire soil food web in a disturbed soil (See research by Howard Ferris). The beauty of mulching is that the soil structure is not initially influenced only assisted in its further development. The downside is that mulches take months or years to have their effect. While amending can give immediate physical, chemical and biological assistance to soil, it also may bring pathogens, salts, toxic phytochemicals or weeds to your garden depending on what you choose to use as an amendment. Soil tends to be very resilient, so structure destroyed by amending is usually back in place at the end of the cropping cycle in many cases. The need for further amending should be considered carefully after each rotation.

So you still want to amend? What do you amend with? In the case of mulching we (Garden Professors) make a strong argument for freshly prepared (not composted) arborist chips. Nothing could be worse for amending (at least in the short term). Un-decomposed substrates such as wood chips are high in carbon and low in nitrogen. They will cause the microbial community of soil to attack the carbon and utilize all the free nitrogen in the soil, screened or fine materials after composting have greater surface area and will enhance the water absorbing and nutrient holding properties they give to soil. Furthermore, well composted substrates or feedstocks will be free of pathogens and other pests so they should be “safe” for your garden. Composts that are made from plant feedstocks tend have concentrations of plant required minerals. Since composts lose about 2/3 of their carbon and moisture during the decomposition process they have a much higher mineral content than their feedstock. Manures have already been partially composted by the animals that made them. Additional composting increases their salt levels sometimes to plant damaging levels. Manures should be used with care, or in lower quantities as they can damage sensitive plants. Some manures and composts can be contaminated, since some long term soil-residual herbicides such as clopyralid are not broken down in the composting or animal eating process.

soil amended with peat moss
Soil amended with composted coffee grounds

Gardeners are inventive in their use of compost and amendments, so there are many ways to amend soil. Peat moss has been the gold standard amendment for many gardens. However due to environmental damage, sustainability of peat moss use is questionable. Coco fiber or coir is a good amendment, but it can bring high salts with it depending on how it was processed. Biosolids are phenomenal amendments and often produce growth responses, but there can be issues with metals and other biological contaminants in biosolids. Home-made compost is a good amendment because you know what is in your compost, as long as it is properly prepared and cured, it can function very well. Greenwaste or yardwaste compost is a possibility, but from my experience, most of these if commercially produced are not well prepared, and are not mature (they still heat up if piled). Many gardeners like coffee grounds, and with the advent of large coffee companies, grounds may be available in bulk quantities. Be careful though as some sources of coffee are toxic to many plants and their use should be limited in any amending situation.

What about rate? In my research I have always tried to amend soils 50% by volume. So a three inch layer of amendment tilled six inches deep has been my goal. Most annual plants have their roots in the upper six inches and this strategy works well. Also, most rototillers are only good for about a six inch depth. If you intend to dig deep with a spade and incorporate to depths beyond six inches, increase the amounts accordingly.

What kind of soil needs amending? Another way to view this is, “have you tried growing without amending? Many soils grow very well with just added nutrients. Typically sands will most benefit from added amendment due to increased water and nutrient holding capacity. I also like to amend clays because they become easier to plant in over time, however the initial go round may be difficult. Clays are very nutritive so amendments may make you feel better gardening in them, but often plants grow very well without amending clay soils. Plant responses to amendments are best in sands.

How often should I amend? This is up to you, but organic matter is “burned up” by the soil microbial community rapidly because 1) you are tilling and this accelerates microbial activity; and 2) you are likely amending during the growing season when warm soil temperatures favor organic matter breakdown. Most gardeners amend prior to replanting the bed.

References

Ferris, H., and M.M. Matute. 2003. Structural and functional succession in the nematode fauna of a soil food web. Applied Soil Ecology 23:93-110

Harris, R.W. Arboriculture: Integrated management of landscape trees, shrubs and vines. 1992. Ed. 2 Prentice-Hall International, New Jersey. 674pp.

Hodel, D.R., Downer, A.J., Pittenger, D.R. and P.J. Beaudoin. 2006. The effect of amended backfill soils when planting five species of palms. HortTechnology 16:457-460.

Problems with Planting Trees

 

Ok. I admit this blog is going to turn into a rant pretty quick because there seems to be a lot of ways to screw up a fairly simple horticultural practice—tree planting.  Since Arbor days are happening/happened everywhere around now, its a good time to talk about how to plant trees.   First let me state some simple and useful guidelines for a successful tree planting.

-When at all possible, plant trees bare-root. Even washing the container media away. This allows for inspection and removal of root defects.
-Select trees carefully that are free of defect and disease and that are adapted to your climate and soils
-Plant the youngest tree you can
-Take care in choosing the planting site.
-Avoid Root Barriers
-Plant trees so that the root flare is above ground slightly
-Plant trees in a hole only deep enough to contain the root system, no double digging.
-Plant trees in a hole wide enough to contain the root system, no wide holes (unless there is a reason for using one)
-Fill the hole with soil removed to make it. Do not amend the backfill around newly planted trees—Do not put rocks in the bottom of a planting hole!
-Plant trees without staking unless there is a reason to stake them
-Plant trees away from turfgrass or other groundcovers.
-Plant trees under the cover of a fresh layer of arborist chips.

-Irrigate newly planted trees from the surface—Do not install U tubes or tree snorkels to irrigate deeply.

An old planting detail from “a book of trees” . Several myths here: rocks at the bottom of the hole, amended hole, nursery stake still there when it does not need to be, etc.

I guess this rant comes from the variety of tree planting specifications I have seen over the years used by municipalities, landscape architects, nurseries and others. There seems to be a need to use the latest product, method or modification to site soils in order to make a fancy planting detail. Simpler is better and research by Universities has not verified most of the “innovative” approaches seen in planting details.

The first step in planting a tree is to chose the tree you want to plant. While this seems simple there is a lot that goes into tree selection. Setting aside personal choices, it comes down to selecting a tree that is healthy and free of defect. The potential candidate tree should have no signs or symptoms of disease, a naturally developed canopy unfettered by nursery pruning (especially heading cuts), and has few or no root defects. Initial superficial examination of the root collar in the nursery can eliminate some trees with circling or girdling roots. However, when the tree is planted root washing will reveal the entire root system and as Dr. Linda Chalker Scott has shown in this forum, root washing allows for rapid establishment in site soil. When at all possible chose the youngest tree you can for the new site. Young trees have fewer root defects, and we have the advantage of training them (structural pruning) from an early age. Young trees establish rapidly and will often outgrow older, boxed trees. The larger the specimen that you plant, the more chance for establishment problems such as settling, drying out, root rot or just slow growth. Planting trees from seed is ideal but most gardeners don’t have the patience to wait and seedlings, and seedlings do not give the option of using cultivated varieties that impart horticultural value, such as predetermined flower color, disease resistance, and known form (canopy shape and size).

Once the tree is selected, purchased and root washed, it is time for setting it in the ground. The first step is choosing a good planting site. A good site for a tree is somewhere that provides adequate soil volume for its roots to expand and for its canopy to expand. Many trees in urban settings fail to achieve their potential because they have restricted spaces to grow in. Chose a location in full sun. Unless you are planting a species that grows well in shade or needs protection from the environment, most trees will grow best in a sunny location. While trees are forgiving of most soil conditions, they will not grow well in compacted soils. If this is all that is available, break up compacted soils before planting. Consider the ultimate size of the tree you are planting, and imagine it attaining that size in your planting site. Avoid sites that have close proximity to buildings or hardscape. One of the most frequent problems with trees is that as they attain mature size they conflict with the infrastructure at the site.

Dig the hole for your tree so that the roots are very slightly above the grade. Do not double dig! While double digging has its proponents, there is no research-based reason for destroying soil structure– it is a disaster for tree planting. When a hole is dug too deeply soil will always settle after planting and irrigation resulting in the tree being planted too low in the ground. The root collar is buried and this is a predisposing factor for disease. The hole should have undisturbed soil under the roots. The hole only needs to be as wide as the root system. While many planting details show wide holes these are not necessary in most garden sites. If the site is compacted, wide holes can give temporary advantage to a newly planted tree, but the width of the hole will be the size of the “pot” the tree will have to grow in. So it is better to modify the site first to take care of compaction and then you will not need a wide hole.

Root barriers do not function well in most landscapes and lead to the development of landscape trash. They can also create root defects

Root barriers were very popular and are still specified today.  They actually do not usually achieve thier goal of preventing surface roots and protecting infrastructure.  Trees outgrow root barriers and they result in increases of landscape trash/pollution.  Root barriers can also create root defects such as circling and girdling roots.  Do not install root barriers, if you are tempted to do so you are likely not choosing a good site to plant a tree.

Cover the roots with backfill from the hole. Do not modify the backfill. Research does not support adding amendments to planting holes for trees. The native soil is what the tree will be growing in ultimately, and there is no reason to modify it. If the soil at your site is so bad that it needs to be changed, this should be a site-wide soil modification that will cover all the area the tree roots will explore up to its maturity. Most gardeners are not able to do this. Roots rapidly expand beyond the planting hole within months, so the time and benefit derived from an amended planting pit is minimal. Adding amendment, especially organic amendments to backfill can also be disastrous for trees. The organic material may utilize nitrogen in the soil and lead to a deficiency in the newly planted tree, worse, it may break down and cause anaerobic conditions in the bottom of the planting pit. Avoid amending planting holes! Never place rocks in the bottom of the hole—this does not create drainage, but creates an interface that prevents it.

A “lollipop” Tree.  Note the very skinny un-tapered stem, lack of temporary lateral branches and retention of the nursery stake–all bad…. Also note the tree snorkel lurking to the left. Kudos for keeping turf away but not far enough away.

If you have selected a good tree, it will stand without staking. There are three reasons for staking: support; anchorage; and protection. Support is sometimes necessary when a tree is cultivated with a long un-tapered trunk and a lollipop crown. Lollipop trees are often sold in nurseries as they resemble small trees. Trees trained in this manner, will not stand without staking. Loose staking allowing trunk movement will foster development of caliper so the tree can eventually stand without supportive staking. Anchor staking is used for trees that experience high winds and “staked out” with guy wires and a non-constrictive collar. Protective staking is analogous to placing bollards around a tree prevent impact from machinery or cars. Always remove the nursery stake at the time of planting and provide any additional support the tree may need. Many Cooperative Extension services have publications on how to stake a shade tree.

Providing a No Turf Zone around trees will aid in their establishment

Avoid planting trees in lawns. Turfgrass and trees conflict with each other. Trees shade turfgrass which results in a thinning sward and increased disease prevalence. Turfgrass slows the growth of trees in an attempt to limit their shading effects. Turfgrass is a very competitive water user and trees will be deprived of moisture and nutrients if turfgrass is present.  If trees must be planted in lawns, maintain at least a 1 yard radius around them with no turfgrass.

Aeration/Irrigation snorkel tubes do not help trees and result in landscape pollution. Note the original nursery stake still in place and the supportive stakes should have been removed long ago. Mulch needs to be replenished.

It has become a common practice to add irrigation or aeration devices to tree plantings. Sometimes called a tree snorkel these plastic 4 inch U tubes are buried below the root zone. Kits can be purchased from Box stores, and architectural details have been drawn specifying their use. Work by UC researchers showed that oxygen does not diffuse far from aeration tubes. So utilizing tree tubes to increase air flow is suspicious. Some planting details specify adding irrigation to the tubes to force a deep rooted condition in the tree. This places water below the root system, which can dry out and compromise establishment—not a good idea… Worse of all tree snorkels are sometimes installed with no purpose at all other than that was what the planting plan indicated. This is a needless practice and results in landscape pollution. Long term, tree snorkels are ugly, easily broken and provide no useful function to an establishing landscape tree. It is not in the nature of trees to proliferate absorbing roots deep in soil and snorkels will not change a tree’s genetics.

After the tree is set in its hole, and backfill settled in with water, apply a 4 inch layer of arborist chips as far out from the trunk as feasible—at least several feet. The chips will modify the soil improving, chemical, physical and biological properties while conserving moisture from evaporation, preventing runoff, and germination of annual weeds. Generally trees thrive under mulch as it simulates litterfall, or accumulation of organic matter under their canopies. Replenish the mulch as it deteriorates. Finally apply irrigation as needed through the mulch from the surface of the soil. This will help establishing roots, leach salts, and move mulch nutrients into the soil profile.  Avoid companion plantings near the main stem of the tree and avoid piling mulch around the tree stem. Following these guidelines will lead to a healthy and useful shade tree that provides its many services for decades.