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 scary Halloween story

Those of you that have followed the blog for a while know that poor tree planting is one of my pet peeves. It drives me crazy to watch tree installers use backhoes to gouge out gigantic holes and then drop in the intact root ball, clay, burlap, twine and all. But this dig-and-dump method (or “cost effective practice” according to installers) of installing trees often dooms them (the trees, not the installers) to a slow and ugly death. So in honor of Halloween, let me share my latest horror story.

Twice a day I drive down this street in NE Seattle. I’ve long admired the row of dead street trees left to remind us all of our own mortality. A few of these Liriodendron have somehow survived though “survival” seems a generous term. They’re more like zombies, slowly losing body parts but somehow still functioning until someone puts them out of their misery.

Dead #1 Dead #2 Dead #3

One lone tree seemed to defy all odds. Until our latest windstorm, which revealed the cause of all this arboricultural agony.

Downed tree Rootball side Rootball

That’s right, there’s the clay-covered rootball, still intact. Only one root has managed to escape into the native soil. There may be others on the opposite side, but by now (several years after installation) there should have been sufficient root establishment to prevent failure.

Several of us have written about bare-rooting trees before, and while there’s still not consensus on the practice I think we would all agree that the tree planting in this case was not acceptable. There are better ways, and yes they take more time (or “not cost effective” according to installers), but planting trees right mean fewer replacements later.

Another close shave…

Life is full of surprises. A case in point is some recent work on our Social Media Designed Tree Establishment Study (SoMe-Ded-TrEeS). One of the objectives of the project was to determine the impact of root-ball manipulations to remove circling roots on container-grown trees. When we planted the trees (‘Bloodgood plane trees in 25 gal. containers) two years ago, we ‘shaved’ the outer roots on one-third of the trees, ‘teased’ apart the circling roots on one-third, and planted the rest as-is (‘pop and drop’ in Linda’s vernacular).

Rerearch assistant Aniko Gaul shaves a root system with a pruning saw before installation 2 years ago
Rerearch assistant Aniko Gaul shaves a root system with a pruning saw before installation 2 years ago
Research Technician Dana Ellison teases apart a root-ball before installation
Research Technician Dana Ellison teases apart a root-ball before installation

Two weeks ago our campus nursery staff dug 12 of the trees for us using their tree spade – four from each of the three groups. We then borrowed an air-spade from MSU Campus Infrastructure and Planning and we excavated the root-balls to determine the amount of new root growth into the surrounding soil. (‘We’ meaning my technician Dana Ellison and Nicole Rowley, one of our new undergraduate research assistants)

Dana takes a turn with the air spade
Dana takes a turn with the air spade
Nicole excavating roots with the air spade
Nicole excavating roots with the air spade

The results of the root exam were a surprise to me. Going in to this exercise my expectation was that the roots that were ‘teased’ to remove girdling roots would fare the best – and they did have visibly fewer circling roots and more new root growth than the ‘pop and drop’. But the biggest surprise was the marked improvement in rooting of the ‘shaved’ roots.

control root systems
control root systems
'Shaved' root systems
‘Shaved’ root systems

To be honest, I had some reservations about the shaving treatment. Just based on geometry alone, shaving off the bottom and outer 1” of roots around a 25 gal. tree removes over 20% of the roots; and this proportion is even greater is you consider the proportion of fine, absorbing roots. In the sampled trees, however, shaving essentially eliminated all circling roots. Even more impressive was the amount of new root growth out of the bottom of the root-balls. NOTE: In the photos below the red-dashed lines indicate the approximate dimensions of the roots when the trees were planted two years ago.

Root system on untreated control tree
Root system on untreated control tree
Root system on 'teased' tree
Root system on ‘teased’ tree
Rot system on 'shaved' tree
Rot system on ‘shaved’ tree

We (again meaning Dana and Nicole) trimmed all the roots that extended beyond the original root-ball and separated roots based on whether they came from the side or the bottom of the root-ball. They (the roots, not Dana and Nicole) are in the process of drying in the lab and will be weighed shortly. Based on the volume of material in the bags, however, it is clear the shaved trees will be the ‘winners’. Another example of why it pays to keep an open mind when doing research.

Bert, I’ll see your SOME-DED-TREES with POOR-DEAD-TREES

Bert’s done some nice posts on his SOcialME DesignED TREE transplant Study (or SOME DED TREES). I’m going to add to the discussion with a new addition to my Preventing Optimization Of Roots DecrEAseD TREE Survival (or POOR DEAD TREES) series.

It took a while, but the prediction I made in 2010 has come true. You’ll have to look at the link to see the whole story, but the bottom line is that this tree lasted only 7 years before succumbing to poor planting practices.

Here is the tree when it was planted in 2007. Note the lack of root flare (planted too deep) but the very obvious presence of orange nylon twine around the roots and the trunk.

Pine%202007.jpg   Orange%20twine.jpg

Here it is again in 2010. Note the dieback at the top and overall chlorosis.


And here it was yesterday.

Bush tree 2014Yes, it’s dead – dead and gone. I’m not sure exactly when it was removed, but it lasted less than 7 years. Conifers have lifespans of decades or centuries. There was no excuse for this poor installation, though I keep getting the argument from landscape installers that it costs too much to do it right (i.e., to remove the twine and burlap, if not the clay itself). Keep in mind that warranties only last for a year, so the property owner gets to eat the replacement cost caused by crappy installation practices.

We GP’s may continue to disagree about how much rootballs should be disturbed when planting, but I know that none of us would agree that planting B&B trees intact is a good idea.

It came from the blog… The return of SOME-DED-TREES

Things have been going fast and furious here since the start of the year. We still have a few days left in February and I’ve already logged 13 talks in five states. Nevertheless, I’ve manage to find a little time to crunch some data on SOME-DED-TREES. For the uninitiated, SOME-DED-TREES is the acronym for the Social Media Designed Tree Transplant Study. The project was an opportunity for Garden Professor blog readers to participate in the design of a landscape horticulture research project. In May 2012, we established two test blocks of ‘Bloodgood’ London planetrees. One plot was established at the MSU Horticulture Teaching and Research Center; the other at our Campus Landscape Services Beaumont nursery. All trees were planted from 25 gallon containers (avg. height 12’, avg. caliper 1.8”). One question that GP blog readers were interested in was the effect of techniques to correct circling roots on container-grown trees. So at each location we divided 48 trees into three groups. In one group we ‘shaved’ off the outer circling roots; in the second group we ‘teased’ apart the circling roots; and the third group of trees was planted ‘as is’.


We looked at an additional treatment factor at each of the two locations. At the Teaching and Research Center we mulched half of the trees with 3” of coarse pine bark and left the remainder without mulch. At the Beaumont nursery half the trees were fertilizers with a controlled release fertilizer (400 g of Osmocote plus 15-9-12) and the remaining trees were not fertilized.


Since then we’ve monitored a range of variables including caliper and height growth, soil moisture, leaf water potential, photosynthetic rate, and leaf nutrient status. Two growing seasons after transplanting here are some key findings.

Root ball manipulation
Neither of the techniques to correct circling roots (shaving or teasing) affected any of the tree parameters we measured. There was no difference among root treatments in caliper growth (Fig. 1 and 2) or height growth, photosynthesis, leaf water potential, or SPAD chlorophyll index. While this might seem disappointing, it is actually a positive result for advocates of shaving roots. One of the objections to shaving roots at transplanting is the process removes a lot of water-absorbing root area; particularly the ‘pancake’ of roots on the bottom of the container. We planted our trees just before the severe heat and drought of Summer 2012, and there were no obvious stress-related impacts of the root treatments. Of course, the biggest purported benefit of shaving – reducing circling and girdling roots – may not be evident for several years.

Fertilization had no effect on caliper growth over the two years after transplanting (Fig.1). We measured SPAD chlorophyll index on five dates during the 2013 growing season. Fertilization increase chlorophyll index from 34.0 for the control trees to 35.5. What does this mean? Probably not much. Proportionately this is a very small increase. Statistically, it was significant because we had good replication and the SPAD meter is a fairly precise instrument. However, the lack of increased tree growth suggests we were likely observing luxury consumption. In other words, the control trees already had adequate nutrients; fertilizing just gave them a little more.

Fig. 1 Two-year mean stem caliper growth of London planetrees subjected to root-ball treatments and fertilization.
Fig. 1 Two-year mean stem caliper growth of London planetrees subjected to root-ball treatments and fertilization.

Here’s where things get interesting. After two years, mulching increased stem caliper growth of the planetrees by an average of 70% over the trees without mulch (Fig.2). For stats junkies scoring at home, that corresponds to a p-value of 0.001. What’s going on? Well, we know that mulch provides many benefits for trees. The biggest in terms of tree growth is conserving soil moisture. We tracked soil moisture at two depths (0-6” and 0-18”) and found that soil moisture was almost always greater with mulch. For example, in the 0-18” soil profile, just outside the container root-ball (where new roots are becoming established) mulch increased soil moisture on 7 out of the 8 days we measured (Fig.3). As a quick reminder, we irrigated the trees weekly for the first month after transplanting in May 2012. After that, they were not irrigated.

Fig. 2 Two-year caliper growth of London planetrees subjected to rootball treatments and mulch. * indicates mean between mulched and non-mulched trees is significant at 0.001.
Fig. 2 Two-year caliper growth of London planetrees subjected to rootball treatments and mulch. * indicates mean between mulched and non-mulched trees is significant at 0.001.
Fig. 3 Mean soil moisture at 0-18" depth for London planetrees with and without mulch. * indicates means for a given date are different at 0.05.
Fig. 3 Mean soil moisture at 0-18″ depth for London planetrees with and without mulch. * indicates means for a given date are different at 0.05.

What’s next?
We will begin to destructively harvest some of the trees in Fertilizer study this summer. We will dig the trees with a backhoe or spade and then use an airspade to excavate the roots. Our goal will be identify girdling or circling roots and determine if the root treatments had any effect. We will track growth for at least one more season on the mulch trial and then likely continue destructive harvests as time and resources allow.

Five little lavenders…four years later

If you’ve been following us for a while, you might remember a post from August 2009 when I got cranky about a pot of lavenders with horrendous root systems.  I intervened with my Felcos and planted out the patients, hoping for the best.
Lavender #2 before root pruning

In July of 2010, I gave an update on their progress.  At that point, one of the lavenders had died but the other four were perking along. And now it’s time to show them in their floral glory:

Root washing is still controversial, as is corrective root pruning.  However, all five of these plants would have died had I not corrected the spiraling root systems.  Published and ongoing research at several places around the country continues to support the practice of bare-rooting and correcting root flaws of woody plants.

Is this a practice that the landscape industry will adopt?  Probably not on a large scale: it is time intensive and requires careful work.  But home gardeners can do this themselves and have done so successfully.

If you’re interested in more information on how to do this, you can download this fact sheet.  Until production nurseries change their practices to avoid these fatal root flaws, it will be up to home gardeners and a handful of landscapers to repair the damage.

Thomas Knight and the Water Wheel

Classes have begun, and this semester (and every spring semester) I have the opportunity to teach our introduction to horticulture class, otherwise known as Plant Propagation (Hort 1001).  We usually have about 120 students, and I don’t want to brag or anything, but it is just about the best class out there.  Watching the students learn about seeds, cuttings, and grafting in the labs is one of the most motivating things about my job (and it doesn’t hurt that the greenhouses are about 70 degrees while it’s 0 outside).  But, as you might expect, there is a lecture too.  Believe it or not, the lecture isn’t half bad.  In fact, students actually ask questions in class.  This past Tuesday during a lecture on seeds one of the students asked how the roots know how to grow down when they exit the seed.  The answer is geotropism.  Geotropism is a response by a plant to gravity.  Some parts of a plant grow towards a gravitational pull (roots), and some grow away from it (shoots).  One of the coolest experiments ever was a study done by a gentleman named Thomas Knight in the very early 1800s where he set up a water wheel which had seeds planted along the edges.  As the wheel spun and the plants grew they responded both to the Earth’s gravity and to the force created by the spinning wheel.  You can see the results below.

Knight also did some very interesting work showing that buds from older plants retained their physiological age when grafted onto younger plants.  Basically that means that if you graft a bud from a mature ‘Honeycrisp’ apple onto a young seedling, that bud will produce a new shoot which produces ‘Honeycrisp’ apples before the rest of the tree produces apples.

Usually when we think of horticulture we think of L. H. Bailey – and we should – but let’s never forget Thomas Knight either.