What’s wrong with my tree? You won’t find the answer in a book.

This tree suffers chronic drought stress every summer. Why?

It’s the middle of summer, and maybe you’re wondering what’s wrong with your landscape tree (or shrub) that just doesn’t seem to be putting on the growth that you’d expect this time of year. Before you take any “corrective” action, let’s figure out what the problem might be. Here’s a short checklist that we will start with. (NOTE: This is just a start. You can go so many different directions once you have some specific concerns to explore.)

Do you have one of these? If not, you can’t adequately diagnose problems.
  1. Soil information. Have you had a soil test done in the last few years? If so, are there any nutrient toxicities indicated? Has the soil been significantly disturbed or modified in the last several years? Have you recently added any chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides, organic or otherwise) or amendments?
  2. Plant information. When was the plant installed? Was it in a container or in a burlapped rootball? If so, were all materials removed from the roots by root washing before planting?
  3. Planting information. Did you amend the soil (i.e., add anything to the backfill) prior to planting? If so, what did you add? Did you mulch it afterwards? If so, what is your mulch material? Did you ensure that your plant was set at grade in the landscape? (“Grade” means that the root flare is at the soil surface.) Did you water it in well and avoid compacting the soil? Are new plantings adequately irrigated during their first year in the landscape?
  4. Environmental information. Have there been unusual weather events between time of planting and now? Is there sufficient irrigation and drainage?
  5. Symptoms. What are you seeing that concerns you?
Intact clay rootball after 28 years (and yes, the tree died long before this photo was taken).

At least 95% of the landscape failure cases I’ve diagnosed over the last 20 years can be traced back to improper planting methods. You simply cannot pull a woody plant out of a pot and stick it in a hole. There are three major factors at play here to consider when rootballs are planted intact:

Think that this root system can straighten itself out? Think again.
  1. The textural and structural differences between the soilless media around containerized roots (or the clay in a B&B rootball) and the soil in the landscape are significant enough that they will impair water, air, and root movement across the interface. This means roots have a difficult time establishing outside the planting hole.
  2. Any structural flaws in the root system created during improper potting-up at the production nursery, such as circling or J-hooked roots, are undetected and uncorrected. And these woody roots will stay in a death spiral after planting.
  3. If you cannot see the root flare of your plant, then you cannot plant at grade. Most trees and shrubs that are buried too deeply will generally fail to thrive and eventually will die.
If you can’t see the root flare, you’ve got a problem. See the next photo.

If you’re like the majority of people who are seeing problems this time of year, you know that improper planting or severe soil disturbance is to blame. But now is not the time to fix it! You’ll need to wait until the fall, when the crown has gone dormant, to dig the plant up and take corrective action. (The “corrective action” has been discussed in this blog before; you can explore the archives or wait for an upcoming post).

These are the roots of the tree at the top of the post. No root flareNo surprise that it’s chronically water stressed in the summer, given this pathetic root system.

What you want to do right now is keep your plant as healthy as possible by mulching with coarse wood chips (not bark) and supplying them with adequate water. You DO NOT want to prune them, because that just uses up stored resources as the plant then replaces pruned material with new shoots and leaves. You DO NOT want to add fertilizer, unless you know that you have a nutrient deficiency (which you can’t know unless you’ve had a soil test. And no, those cute little diagrams of what nutrient deficiencies look like in corn leaves are worthless. You’re not growing corn here.) And DO NOT add any pesticide of any sort, even if you see signs of insect or disease damage on the foliage. With few exceptions, pesticides are broad-spectrum and you will kill beneficial species as well as any possible pests. Opportunistic pests and disease attack stressed plants, and that’s why you are seeing them.

Crown pruning just results in more crown growth. Don’t do this if you are planning to move a woody plant during the current year.

In the upcoming months, I’ll do some follow up case studies that can help you learn how to diagnosis problems. If you’re interesting in having your tree or shrub problem diagnosed and can supply sufficient information (as outlined above) and clear photos, leave a comment on this post and I’ll contact you.

Arbor Day of Horrors

Happy Arbor Day!  What, you aren’t celebrating?  As a recent transplant to the state of Nebraska, I was amazed to learn that the Cornhusker State is the birthplace of the day we set aside to celebrate trees.  (Since most people associate the state with corn, football fanatics, and steak).  And since Arbor Day is near and dear to Nebraska, it is the only state that celebrates it as a civic holiday (most state offices were closed – no drivers license for you!).

The holiday got its start in 1872 when J. Sterling Morton of Nebraska City, Nebraska (just 40 miles south of Omaha) organized the planting of one million trees in the state of Nebraska on April 10.  Morton had been a newspaper editor, acting governor of the state, and after he founded Arbor Day was the 3rd US Secretary of Agriculture, having been appointed by President Grover Cleveland.

He built a mansion in Nebraska City that was later remodeled by his son Joy Morton (who had lots of money since he founded a little company called Morton Salt – maybe that’s where the anecdotal info of using salt to kill tree stumps/weeds started!).  These days the mansion is part of the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park.  The Arbor Day Farm is also part of the park, where locals and tourists alike stop for apple orchards, a tree playground, and wine tasting.

The modest Arbor Lodge, as captured when we were being tourists in our new state.

But if you haven’t planned a trip to Nebraska City for Arbor Day and you want to celebrate it at home by planting your own tree….well, there are some definite right and wrong ways to do things.  So I thought we’d invite people to share their tree horror stories.

What have you seen that just makes you go huh?  Do you have stories or pictures that are worthy of the carnage over at Crimes Against Horticulture?

Like the always frightening Mount Treesuvius?  (down with Tree Volcanoes!)

A tree volcano (source: extension.msstate.edu)
Mt. Treesuvius Erupts (source: bygl.osu.edu)

Or how about the girdling root stanglehold of slow death?

Image result for tree girdling roots

Have you seen poorly planted, improperly pruned, damaged, or scary trees? Share your stories, pictures, and laments with us.