Let’s be rational about roots

One of my colleagues alerted me to a blog post on tree myths currently making the rounds on social media. As a myth debunker myself I was particularly intrigued by the last myth “Root Pruning Stimulates Root Branching:”

“When planting a tree’s root ball, It is very tempting to cut back on roots that are circling the ball. It is very often thought that a dense root ball will stimulate new feeder root growth…but that is not the case.

“Don’t worry about encircling roots as they will correct that on a new site.

(Yeah right)

“Most new root growth occurs at the end of existing roots. Root pruning is often done at the nursery to accommodate packaging and to resume growth before the final sale. If you are planting the tree at its final site, it may be best that you gently break up the root ball but never prune root tips.”

Most surprising of all was the statement at the end of the post which cited an Extension publication by Dr. Ed Gilman at the University of Florida.

Let’s straighten this out (pun intended).

First of all, root pruning DOES stimulate new root growth. It’s just like the response you see when you prune the crown of a plant – the buds below the cut become active and develop into new shoots. There are growing points behind the cut ends of roots which act in the same manner.

Young root branching

Second, circling roots will NOT correct themselves after planting. If they are flexible, you can tease them out to radiate from the trunk. If they are woody, you will have the same luck straightening them as you would in straightening a dowel. If anything, it’s going to break. Not bend.

Seriously. You think this root is going to straighten out?

Finally, root elongation (growth) DOES occur at the end of existing roots – IF they are intact. If they’ve been cut, then we’re back to my first point.

This is basic plant physiology. The response of roots to pruning has been known for several decades. So how could the University of Florida publication be so wrong?

Excessively long roots can easily and safely be pruned before planting

I was able to track down the publication “Dispelling Misperceptions About Trees“. It was written in 1991 and has since been archived – meaning that it’s not considered to be a current source of information any longer. But let’s take a look at what it says, especially the underlined portion:

 Root pruning does not stimulate root branching all the way back to the trunk. Roots are often pruned before moving a tree in hopes of creating a denser root ball.However most root growth after root pruning occurs at the end of the root just behind the root pruning cut, not back toward the trunk. Therefore, dig the root ball of a recently root pruned tree several inches beyond the location of the root pruning. Root pruning should be conducted 6 to 10 weeks before moving the tree. Root pruning more than 10 weeks before moving the tree will reduce the advantages of pruning, because regenerated roots will quickly grow outside of the root ball.”

Root pruning when these trees were dug results in many new flexible roots

This says exactly what I stated in my first point: root pruning stimulates new root growth – which is root branching.

Dr. Gilman’s document goes on to say:

“Roots circling around a container do not continue to grow in a circle once the tree is planted in the landscape. Roots frequently circle within the perimeter of a container several times before the tree is planted into the landscape. The portion of the root which grew in the container does not straighten out, but new growth on this root will not continue to circle.”

So yes! You DO need to worry about those circling roots!

Circling roots turned this crape myrtle into a crap myrtle (Courtesy of Roger Duvall)

In 1991 Ed was an assistant professor at UF and went on to write hundreds of Extension publications and research articles during his career. And in 1991 he was well aware of how root pruning affects root growth.

The moral to this story: read your sources carefully and cite them accurately. And if what you read doesn’t jibe with the current state of science, ask questions!

Worst Gardening Advice – Video category

Here at the Garden Professors we try to focus on sharing the best applied plant and soil science information for gardens and landscapes. But sometimes we get sidetracked by information that is SO bad that we need to share it too. So the purpose of this occasional feature – Worst Gardening Advice – is not to poke fun, but to point out the real hazards to plants, people, and the environment by following scientifically unsound practices.

Without identifying which of my GP colleagues nominated this video, we now present how NOT to fix storm damaged trees.

 

Tree of Heck

We have about 3000 sq ft of mixed border surrounding (in multiple layers) our 1500 sq ft home.  We take care of everything ourselves, in our spare time (ha!!).  Thus, our maintenance schedule BARELY includes cutting back perennials and ornamental grasses Feb-March, plus any pruning needed for woodies…then some fits of weeding throughout the growing season.

Most of this stuff has been in the ground for five to eight years, and we have a high tolerance for nature taking its course.  We’re surrounded by deciduous forest, so of course trees pop up where they’re not supposed to, especially oaks and the occasional hickory, which I dearly love and hate to remove. But I do. Because seedling trees are about impossible to just yank out like a weed – a whip just a few feet tall will have a taproot as long.   With our stringent maintenance regime, they’re usually tall enough to poke up over the Panicum or loom over the Leucanthemum by the time I notice, so then digging becomes the only option.

Or, wait, maybe just cut it back really hard, like below the soil line.  That’ll kill it, right? Nope?  Back again? Chop, chop, hack, hack.  Most saplings will give up after a few years. Except this one:

Ailanthus altissima a.k.a. “Tree of Heaven.”

Most of you know this is a totally invasive doody-head of a tree.  Google for details if not familiar.  I thankfully have not had much experience with it, until the past few years – there must be a mature one in the area.  It would pop up here and there in our borders and blueberry field, but I didn’t think much of it. Grab the loppers, cut it back.  BIG mistake.

Behold, the most ridiculous root:shoot ratio ever:

ailanthusrootBunny, our pensive 40 lb whippet, for scale. 

I had lopped this individual back three years in a row. All I could see were the pale, unbranched shoots, not very imposing at all, so chop, chop.   But finally, after a heroic effort last evening, it was successfully ripped from the heart of our main perennial border. Joel had to use our John Deere 950 tractor with a brush grabber chain to get this out of the ground, even after 20 minutes of his digging around the root to get the chain attached.

Like some kind of sea monster, my repeated attempts to kill it apparently just made it angry.  And stronger.

It’s still out there, on our burn pile.
A dog barks in the night.
0_o.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little ball of horrors

One of the great things about doing a multi-author science blog is that there will be topics about which colleagues will disagree. One of those topics revolves around the best way to prepare woody rooted plants (trees and shrubs) before planting them. This is an area in arboricultural science that is evolving. A search through our blog archives will find many of these posts and for convenience’s sake I’ve linked one from each of us here.

From Jeff (2009)
From Bert (2014)
From Linda (2013)

Rather than belabor the points that Jeff, Bert and I have already made in our posts, I think I can sum up our major difference here: I like to bare-root trees and shrubs completely before planting (so I can correctively prune all flawed roots) while Bert and Jeff prefer a less invasive approach. What we do agree upon, however, is the deplorable condition of the roots of many trees and shrubs that end up in the nursery. Because I do practice bare-rooting trees, I thought I’d use today’s post as a rogue’s gallery of trees that should never have made it to the retail nursery. (All of these trees were ones that I bare-rooted and root-pruned myself before planting – and all are thriving.)

Ginkgo "knee" root
Ginkgo “knee” root
Interlocking redbud roots
Interlocking redbud roots
Junky Japanese maple
Junky Japanese maple
The duct tape around the trunk is where the burlap bag began. While the roots are in pretty good shape, only root-washing could find the root crown of this tree.
The duct tape around the trunk is where the burlap bag began. While the roots are in pretty good shape, root-washing revealed the root crown of this tree (which the “at grade” part of the tree) 10″ below the top of the bag

Another unnecessary tree failure

The end of August brought an unseasonable rain- and windstorm to the Puget Sound region. We had some spectacular tree failures which I missed seeing as I was out of town. But one of our Facebook group members, Grace Hensley, was on the ball and took some great photos of a fallen purple-leafed plum. The first thing you see is the complete lack of a stabilizing root system.

"Rootless" purple leafed plum
“Rootless” purple leafed plum

Now look at the base of the trunk, which is actually a massive circling root that has girdled the trunk over time.

A big wooden donut
A big wooden doughnut

By now you must be able to see the orange twine extending from the base of the tree to the soil. Yes, those are the remains of the balled-and-burlapped clay root ball that was planted many years ago. Commercial landscapers will assure you that tree roots can grow through the burlap and establish. And this is sometimes true, as in this case.

But what doesn’t happen when the whole B&B mass is plopped into the ground is that circling woody roots aren’t discovered and corrected. Over the decades what started as a small circling root grew bigger and bigger, slowly squeezing the trunk and preventing it from developing girth at that point. It’s kind of like a blood pressure cuff being pressurized but never released.

Trunk growth was prevented by the girdling root
Trunk growth was prevented by the girdling root. The broken part here used to be in middle of the wooden doughnut.

In time, the constricted point becomes so unstable that the tree breaks. Look are how small the trunk that’s still in the ground is compared to the trunk of the tree itself. Windstorms are often the final push these failing trees need.

How long before this neighboring tree fails, too?
How long before this neighboring tree fails, too?

Commercial landscapers say it’s too costly to remove the twine and burlap and clay surrounding the roots, not to mention doing any of the corrective root pruning that might be needed. It’s easier to just plant the whole thing and cross your fingers that the tree lives past the warranty date. This is what happens when you consider a tree as just another design element rather than a living organism.

As a homeowner, however, you can insist that your trees are planted correctly (if you have someone else do the work). Or you can do it yourself. The bare-root method (sometimes called root washing) is an emerging science and it requires thoughtfulness, but it’s certainly better than the conventional approach in terms of long term tree health.

A new excuse for bad pruning

I spent last week in Orlando at the ISA annual meeting (that’s the International Society for Arboriculture). It’s a great venue for networking with colleagues and hearing about the latest tree research. And once in a while I’ll have a WTF moment. (That stands for Why Trees Fail in case you’re wondering.)

My WTF experience this year revolved around some new terminology and techniques. I learned there are now “environmental arborists” who practice “retrenchment pruning.” In the last few days I’ve tried mightily to find some standard definitions from reputable sources. I don’t know what an environmental arborist is, since it’s not a certification (like an ISA certified arborist) nor is it a university degree program (like urban forestry or environmental horticulture). It seems to be a self-anointed title.

This is what a mature oak should look like.
This is what a mature urban oak should look like.

But the real WTF issue is retrenchment pruning. I looked in vain for published research through my usual data bases and found nothing – other than two articles in Arboricultural Journal (which is not the same as ISA’s journal – Arboriculture and Urban Forestry). Neither of the articles presented experimental evidence to justify this radical approach to pruning trees. Instead, they are more philosophical in nature, with a smattering of ecological theory.

Fortunately, retrenchment pruning methods are easily found on the internet, along with horrific pictures illustrating the results. As described on various websites, retrenchment pruning imitates the natural process of aging. Practitioners remove live branches or partial trunks to reduce the size of the tree and prevent future failure. These aren’t clean cuts, either: they’re “coronet cuts” or “natural fractures.” The rationale described in one of the Arboricultural Journal articles is that these jagged broken branches and trunks “promote specialist habitats and enhance colonisation rates of niche species.” In other words, this technique creates large wounds that are easily colonized by various insects and microbes.

An example of natural fracture pruning (http://www.countytreesurgeons.co.uk/veteran.html)
An example of natural fracture pruning (http://www.countytreesurgeons.co.uk/veteran.html)

So apparently we’re expected to ignore the well-established field of woody plant physiology (which happens to be my specialty) and related practical bodies of knowledge (e.g., formal and informal pruning techniques of said woody plants) and start hacking away at mature trees. In doing so, we’re removing live tissue and creating large wounds. This has the effect of both reducing photosynthetic potential of the tree as well as opening it up to possible pest or disease invasion. But nowhere are these possibilities discussed as part of the “natural aging process.” Nor was there mention about how to manage the epicormics shoots that result from improper pruning. And they do need to be managed.

These are epicormic shoots resulting from topping this tree.
These are epicormic shoots resulting from topping this tree.

I saw some very angry arborists at the ISA meeting who were incensed at the idea that we should deliberately malprune trees. But others seemed quite excited with this new philosophy. To paraphrase one of my plant physiology colleagues, “Give a bad arboricultural practice a catchy name and it magically becomes legitimate.”

Dogwood rescue – an update

Long-time readers of this blog might remember a Friday quiz I gave back in 2010. It involved the slow but inexplicable decline of our dogwood (Cornus kousa). On the following Monday I revealed the reason for the decline and reported that we were moving this nearly dead tree to another location without the offending perched water table.

In 2011 I posted my first update along with photos of the new leaves and flowers. And today I reveal its obvious recovery to a fully functional if somewhat still spindly tree (several of its multiple leaders died as a result of the rotted root system).

The Lazarus dogwood
The Lazarus dogwood
A "grateful to be alive" floral display
A “grateful to be alive” floral display

There are several take-home lessons from this example:

1) Don’t assume that tree decline is due to a nutrient deficiency or pest/disease problems. The last thing a stressed tree needs is unnecessary additions of fertilizers or pesticides.

2) Explore soil conditions to find possible water movement disruptions. Our perched water table was discovered serendipitously with our pond installation. You can do the same with a good-sized soil auger. (I bought one of these bad boys, but haven’t had a need to use it yet. Some day…)

www.soil-net.com
www.soil-net.com

3) If a tree or shrub is failing, by all means move the poor thing to another location. In doing so, you may discover that the roots are still stuck in a clay ball and have not established into the native soil. Clean off all the burlap, twine and clay before replanting.

4) Be patient. If it took a while for your tree to reach its current sorry state, it will take a while for it to recover.