To mulch or not to mulch? It shouldn’t even be a question.

There’s wood chip mulch peeking out of all of our landscape beds

One of the popular arguments against mulching landscape and garden soils is that mulch delays soil warming and thus retards plant growth. Given that a well-chosen mulch will moderate temperature extremes – both hot and cold – is this an argument supported with evidence? In today’s post, I’m reporting the data I collected in visiting various parts of my home landscape and gardens and measuring soil temperatures.

My trusty soil thermometer

For measurements, I used a soil thermometer placed at the same depth in every soil tested. This required movement of mulch if mulch was present, so that thermometers were inserted completely into the soil. These thermometers read the entire length of the probe, so readings represent the average temperature in the top 5” of soil. I took close-up photos of each of the areas tested. I took 5 measurements for each location.

Our evening temperatures have been near or below freezing, but the past several days have been sunny and the air temperatures are well into the 50F range. On March 17, it was 68F at 2 pm in the sun, though it was 27F that morning. The morning after (March 18), it was 35F.

There are several interesting trends to see on the box-and-whisker graph:

The variation of soil temperatures is most extreme in unprotected soils
  • Mulched raised beds have the most consistent temperatures, with no differences seen at any time or in any location measured.
  • Unmulched soil mounds have extreme changes, mirroring air temperatures.
  • Bare soil in beds under sunny conditions have extreme changes mirroring air temperatures, but not as great as that in raised beds. They are warmest during the day and coldest during the night.
  • Bare soil in beds under shaded conditions are the coldest soils during the day and even colder at night.
  • Soil under living mulch (turf) and beds with varying depths of wood chip are cooler during the day than bare soil in sunny conditions, but warmer at night.
  • Bare soil in beds that were newly mulched are much warmer than bare soils not near mulched areas.
  • The soil temperature under turf or in beds at least partially mulched did not change at night (data not shown on graph).

Extreme temperature swings can result in the death of germinating seeds, seedlings, expanding buds, and other tissues that aren’t cold hardy. This is especially true of tissues near the soil surface, where temperature are colder than they are at increased depths. Unprotected soil mounds show huge daily vacillations; comparative raised structures under mulch are cooler during the day but warmer at night. And bare soil in the shade is colder than any mulched soils. Consistency is important for young tissues, as they have few protections against environmental extremes.

What my little experiment demonstrates is what mulch research has consistently shown: appropriate mulch materials will moderate soil temperature extremes due to air temperature fluctuations. Just because a bare soil is 55F in the daytime doesn’t mean it won’t be 35F at night.

The dirt on rock dust

One of the newer “miracle products” targeted to gardeners is rock dust. Rock dust (also called rock flour or rock mineral powder)  is exactly what it sounds like. It is a byproduct of quarry work and is generally a finely pulverized material that resembles silt. It’s heavily promoted as a way to provide macro- and micronutrients to your soils and plants. Is it worth adding to your gardens?

Rock crushing at a quarry

First, it’s worth acknowledging that repurposing an industry byproduct is always preferable to throwing it away. Fortunately, the last few years have yielded some peer-reviewed research that we can use to make informed recommendations.

What’s in rock dust?

Obviously, the mineral content of rock dust is dependent on the rocks used to make it. This means the mineral content varies considerably, but in general rock dusts contain:

  • Large amounts of silicon, aluminum, and sometimes iron
  • Lesser amounts of calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sulfur, and zinc.
  • Potentially toxic levels of aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, nickel, and sodium.

I’ve added some tables from a few research articles that analyzed their rock dust mineral content below. Note the high silcon, aluminum, and iron content. (LOI = loss on ignition, meaning some materials were burned off during analysis.)

How is rock dust used as a mineral source?

Rock dusts must be solubilized to release minerals. There are some criteria that can speed mineral release:

  • Decreasing the particle size of rock dust.
  • Blending the rock dust with nutrient-rich organic matter like manure. This provides an acidified environment for mineral solubilization.

When is it beneficial to use rock dust?

There are documented benefits to using rock dusts – but only in agricultural production systems:

  • Rock dusts can contribute minerals to nutrient depleted soils, such as agricultural soils that have been overworked for decades.
  • Organic farmers can use specific rock dusts to supply micronutrients, rather than commercial fertilizers which are not certified for organic crop production.
  • Cereal crops – members of the grass family – require silica as a micronutrient (though silica is rarely if ever deficient in field conditions).

What’s the bottom line for gardeners?

As one article states, “…there is a potential for using [rock flour]…where there is a lack of these nutrients and where conventional chemical fertilizers are either not available or not desired.”

And how do you know if you have a lack of a certain nutrient? Why, by having your soil tested, of course! There is no point in adding anything to your soil unless something is missing. It is MUCH harder to treat a nutrient toxicity than to add a deficient nutrient. Iif  a soil test reveals a lack of a particular nutrient,  a carefully chosen product could supply this mineral. But you would have to know what else was being supplied and possibly creating a mineral toxicity.

At this point, there is no evidence to suggest that rock dusts are of any value to a home garden or landscape.  And adding these products can easily contribute to aluminum and heavy metal toxicities. I would never add it to this soil, for instance, as it already has excessively high aluminum levels.

Aluminum is already at potentially toxic levels in this soil. No need to add more.

This blog is full of great ideas on how to manage your soil naturally, sustainably, and safely. Rock dusts are just the latest garden product with lots of marketing but little benefit.

Not all Extension publications are created equal

(A friendly caveat – this post does not lend itself well to images. So the pictures here are simply eye candy from my 2019 trip to London to reward you for considering this visually drab but important topic.)

The actual “whomping willow” in Kew Gardens

I’ve been involved in Extension education for 17 years and one of the most important things I’ve learned is that Extension audiences want information that’s easily understood and has obvious practical use. Most peer-reviewed research articles are written for academic audiences, so only the most persistent nonscientists will slog their way through pages of dense, technical writing.  It’s up to Extension educators to accurately translate and summarize technical scientific information for use by the public.

Epiphyte “tree” in Kew Gardens glasshouse

Extension is part of the American land-grant university system and extends traditional academic teaching to citizens statewide (hence the term “extension”). In addition to providing seminars and workshops to interest groups, Extension publishes educational materials in-house and provides them at low or no cost to their clientele.

The Bonsai Walk at RHS Wisley Gardens

But here’s the problem: the standards for Extension publications are set by each university. Unlike the peer-review system adopted by reputable journal publishers, Extension publications can vary widely in quality. Some universities have adopted a system that parallels that of scientific journals in that they require double-blind peer review. But many universities have not – and this means that looking for Extension publications on a particular topic results in a collection of materials with contradictory messages. This is incredibly frustrating to confused nonscientists and to Extension faculty who have to sift through the mess to find publications that are relevant and science-based. As a result, Extension publications are often regarded with suspicion by both nonscientists and academic faculty (who often do not have the disciplinary expertise to sort through the mess). Since I was a traditional academic before entering Extension, I have a foot in both camps.

Sunken gardens at Kensington

Nonscientists are probably not going to have the disciplinary expertise to tease out the good stuff from the dreck. But they can look for some indicators that will help them identify the most reliable publications. Here’s a checklist to start the process: the more “yes” answers you have, the better the chances are that the information is reliable.

  1. Is the author identified? Anonymous publications are not reliable.
  2. Is the author an expert? Expertise is determined by advanced degrees (at least a Master’s degree) in the subject matter.
  3. Is the publication peer reviewed? There should be a logo or a statement on the publication that says so.
  4. Is the publication relevant? High-quality Extension publications targeted towards commercial agricultural production are usually inappropriate for use in home gardens and landscapes.
  5. Is the publication current? Information relative to urban horticulture and arboriculture is rapidly changing. Publications over 10 years old likely do not contain the newest information.
  6. Are there scientific references included, either as citations or as additional readings?

As necessary as this process is for identifying reliable information, there can also be negative outcomes. Universities that do not have a rigorous process for publishing Extension materials put their Extension faculty into the uncomfortable position of having to defend their work when it’s questioned. It would benefit all parties for every land-grant university to institute a rigorous, peer-reviewed process for their Extension publications.

My favorite ad at the tube station

The complicated issue of heavy metals in residential soils. Part 3: How can we garden safely in the presence of heavy metals?

This is the last part of our discussion on gardening in soils that contain heavy metals (you can catch up on part 1 and part 2 if you need to). Today we’ll focus on the strategies you can use in your gardens and landscapes to reduce your exposure to soil-borne heavy metals.

Raised beds can be an easy solution for gardeners with contaminated soils

Test your soil!

First – and this should really go without saying – you must test your soil to determine if it contains heavy metals of concern. The COVID19 pandemic provides the perfect comparison: you can’t assume you don’t have the virus just because you don’t have symptoms, and you can’t assume your soil doesn’t have toxic heavy metals just because you don’t think it does. The only way to know for sure, in either case, is through testing.

This eyesore did more than spoil the view.

Most soil tests routinely report aluminum, lead, zinc, and aluminum. Other metals, such as arsenic, cadmium, and chromium, may not be part of a basic soil test and you will need to request additional tests if these metals are likely to be present. Often, county health offices will provide free soil testing if you live in a region where there are known contaminants. For example, I live in the Tacoma area where large amounts of arsenic were deposited for decades downwind of an aluminum smelter. Residents of Pierce County can get free soil testing because of the potential danger.

The aluminum is higher than we would like to see, though everything else looks fine.

Even if you don’t live in an area where industrial or agricultural activity may have added toxic heavy metals to your soils, your soil may naturally contain high levels of some metal of concern. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, our soils have high levels of aluminum. Because we are not downwind of the smelter site mentioned above, I would not have assumed we had any metals of concern, given the rural location of our land, but knowing this informs my choice of vegetables to plant.

The demolition of the Tacoma smelter. Finally.

Avoid adding more heavy metals

Fortunately, many of the consumer products that contained heavy metals are now gone and no longer will add to existing levels of soil metals. But there are still sources out there that gardeners are well-advised to avoid.

  • Older treated timbers. As mentioned in my first post, landscape timbers were once treated with a chemical preservative containing arsenic and chromium. Even though gardeners love reusing materials (we are a thrifty bunch!), these older timbers should be removed if they are still on your property. New timbers are treated with a copper-based solution, which is a more environmentally friendly preservative.
  • Kelp-based fertilizers and amendments. While these products are wildly popular with gardeners, they aren’t very effective fertilizers. Moreover, some kelp species accumulate heavy metals, like arsenic, in seawater and these metals will become a permanent part of your soils. Take a look at this fact sheet for more information.
  • Recycled rubber mulch. This product should be avoided for many reasons (you can read more about the problems in this fact sheet). As it disintegrates it releases high levels of zinc into the soil. And while zinc is an essential micronutrient in plants (and people!), high levels are toxic.
  • Unregulated composts and organic products. Certified composts and other organic products have been tested for pesticide residues and heavy metals: unregulated products have not. Unless you are making your own compost from materials you know to be free from contamination, your safest bet is to purchase certified products.

If you have materials like old timbers, you should never burn them or throw them away. They need to be disposed of as a hazardous waste, much like old cans of paint, mercury-containing thermometers, etc. Eventually, we may be able to use these hazardous discards for biofuel production through pyrolysis, or extract the heavy metals from them for reuse. For now, just dispose of them in a legal and environmentally responsible way.

Cedar is naturally decay-resistant and can be a good choice for rasied beds

Suggestions for safe gardening

If soil testing reveals high levels of metals of concern, there are work-arounds to allow you to still enjoy growing vegetables safely. If your soil tests reveal that your soil is safe for growing edibles, congratulations! You may still benefit from some of the suggestions below.

  • Cover exposed soil with ground covers and mulches (coarse organic or inorganic materials) to eliminate metal-laden dust.
  • Create raised beds for edibles using untreated wood or other metal-free materials. Line the bottom of the bed with an impermeable membrane to prevent movement of soil-borne metals into the beds.
  • If raised beds are not possible, use large containers to grow edibles.
  • Avoid using galvanized tubs, as they will leach zinc (and sometimes chromium) into the soil.
  • Fill beds and containers with clean (i.e., tested) soils or potting media.
  • Don’t plant vegetables near roadways, which are a source of airborne lead.

The complicated issue of heavy metals in residential soils, part 2: How plant species and environmental variables complicate the issue

Last month we discussed the various heavy metals that might end up in your garden and landscape soils. Today we’ll consider how different factors can alter heavy metal uptake by plants.

Parking strips can contain high levels of lead after decades of car exhaust

First of all, let’s consider plant uptake. Plant roots can either accumulate a particular metal or exclude it. If they exclude it, that’s the end of the story, (though it’s still a soil contaminant). If plants take it up, they can either store it in their roots, or they can transport it to some other part of the plant – stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits are possible destinations for metals in accumulator plants. Accumulation varies with plant species and life stage; in other words, seedlings may have different uptake abilities than later life stages. And of course, whether a plant accumulates or excludes a particular heavy metal does not mean the same uptake pattern holds for other heavy metals.

Clay soil will bind heavy metals tightly

Secondly, soil conditions will influence heavy metal mobility. Heavy metals are positively charged, so anything in the soil that carries a negative charge – like clay particles and organic matter – will tend to hold heavy metals in place. That can either be good or bad, depending on your use of the landscape. If you are growing edibles, metals that are tightly bound to the soil are less likely to be taken up. But this also means that they are pretty much there to stay. Sandy soils don’t hold metals well, since sand particles carry no charge, so heavy metals are free to move elsewhere – into the air, into bodies of water, or into plant roots.

How soil variables affect heavy metal uptake

Additions of fertilizers, like those that contain phosphate or that chelate metals, will also increase the ability of plants to take up heavy metals. Likewise, earthworms ingest metals and bind them to other compounds that can be taken up by plant roots. And microbes associated with the roots (and the roots themselves) can acidify the rhizosphere, solubilizing metals and making them easy to incorporate.

Earthworms make all kinds of things available to plants – including heavy metals

It’s apparent that many factors are at play in determining whether plants will take up heavy metals, thus making it impossible to come up with lists of “safe” plants. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies on heavy metal uptake of vegetable and other crop plants worldwide, and the variability among their results is a direct reflection of the complexity of soil environments and plant physiology. Nevertheless, there are some very general observations about accumulator species that can be gleaned from the research:

  1. Roots are the most likely tissue to contain heavy metals, since they are the point of uptake; arsenic can accumulate in carrots and lead has been found in carrots and potatoes;
  2. Stems are much less likely to accumulate heavy metals, as they are basically just a straw connecting roots to leaves and other terminal tissues;
  3. Leaves, including basil, lettuce, and spinach, can accumulate heavy metals. Moreover, it appears that red leafed cultivars may accumulate more than those that are green leafed;
  4. Flowers and fruits, including vegetable tissues that produce seeds, are less likely to accumulate heavy metals. For plants that depend on animals to spread their seeds by ingesting the surrounding fruits and then excreting their seeds, it would be an evolutionary disadvantage to have those tissues carrying toxic heavy metals. That being said, there are vegetables, like beans, broccoli, and zucchini, that can accumulate heavy metals such as lead and arsenic.
Red leaves may contain more heavy metals than green ones.

By this point, I think we can agree there will never be a “one size fits all” approach to gardening safely when heavy metals are part of the soil, water, or air environment. Next month I’ll provide suggestions on how to navigate the confusion and design your own approach to creating gardens and landscapes that work around heavy metal contamination.

The complicated issue of heavy metals in residential soils, part 1: What are toxic heavy metals, and where do they come from?

The popularity of home gardens is exploding as we wait out the COVID pandemic

So many of us are growing our own vegetables – either as experienced home gardeners or as COVID19-isolated novices. There is a lot of effort in figuring out garden beds, vegetable choices, and growing medium – but one of the issues rarely considered is whether there are heavy metals present in the local soil and/or growing medium. We can’t see heavy metals, or smell them, so we need to have a way of assessing their presence before we plant edibles.

In the next few months, I’ll tackle the complicated science behind this invisible threat. Today, let’s look at the heavy metals that are commonly found in garden soils and where they might come from.

What heavy metals do gardeners need to monitor in their soils?

Heavy metals are exactly that – they are dense elements that have certain chemical properties that define them as metals. In fact, most known elements are considered to be heavy metals. Fortunately, there are only a handful of heavy metals that are commonly found in residential soils. Some of these heavy metals are necessary for life – iron, manganese, and zinc, for example – but others have no known biological function. Arsenic and lead, for instance, can interfere with enzymatic activity and effectively poison biochemical pathways. There is no “safe” level of heavy metals that are not essential nutrients.

Here’s a table of the most common toxic heavy metals that might be found in your soil, and possible anthropogenic sources:

Heavy metal Sources of contamination
Aluminum* Smelting
Arsenic Pesticides, smelting, treated timbers (old)
Cadmium Paint
Chromium Fly ash, metals industry, paint, leather tanning, treated timbers (old)
Lead Gasoline (leaded), paint, pesticides, plumbing, smelting, solder
Nickel Plumbing, smelting

*Aluminum is a light metal, not a heavy metal, but has similar biochemical poisoning activity as toxic heavy metals

Some of these sources of contamination are not relevant to where I live – why do I need to test my soil?

Gardeners may be tempted to look at the chart above and feel relieved, because pesticides and paint no longer contain heavy metals, they don’t use old treated timbers, and they know that leaded gasoline is a thing of the past. What many don’t consider, however, is that heavy metals are elemental – they don’t break down, though they may change their chemical form. They are a permanent part of soil chemistry unless they are removed by physical or biological means.

The underlying soil in housing developments built on old agricultural land often contains high levels of arsenic – because that was the active ingredient in pesticides many decades ago. If the topsoil was removed during construction, it may have been taken to a commercial soil facility where it would have been used to create landscape fill mixes for new landscapes elsewhere. The same is true for land near older roadways where lead from gasoline was released from vehicles over many decades. Not only are lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals in the soil, they also end up in the air when soil is disturbed by erosion or tilling.

Nearly all soils contain some level of some heavy metals. They are naturally occurring, after all, so their presence is not necessarily from anthropogenic activities. Regardless of the source, it’s important to know whether any of these harmful elements are in your garden soils, especially if you are growing edibles. A soil test is the only way to find out.

Here is a soil test of my own raised bed system. While my nutrient levels are optimum, and lead is very low, the aluminum level is quite high. What should I do?

Why aren’t there guidelines on heavy metal uptake in vegetable gardens?

It would be ideal if there was a list of “safe” and “dangerous” vegetables to plant when heavy metals are present. Unfortunately, real life rarely fits into lists and there are numerous sources of variability. Next month I’ll discuss the complications that arise when we consider plant species, heavy metals, and environmental variables.

When littering is a good thing

Dried leaves shred easily (photo from needpix.com)

I’ll be the first to admit it: I am a neat freak. I work best on desks with little clutter and feel calm and relaxed in spaces that are well-organized. But outdoors, it’s a different story. Dynamism is in charge and it’s refreshing and exhilarating to be surrounded in nature’s chaos. So this time of year can bother me when I see gardeners putting their neatness imprint on their gardens – especially onto their soils.

It may look neat, but it’s not really soil (photo from freeimageslive.com)

If you Google the word “soil” and look at the images that pop up, nearly all of them look the same. Nice, dark brown, granular stuff, often lovingly cradled in a pair of hands, that really looks more like coffee grounds than soil. In fact, the only realistic picture in the first page of images comes from the Soil Science Society of America. THAT’S actual soil.

One of these things is not like the others….
This one.

So gardeners must discard the “tidiness ethic” that seeps out of the house and into the soil. Soils are living ecosystems, and living ecosystems are messy. A living soil will have some sort of organic topdressing (mulch) resulting from dead plant and animal material that accumulates naturally. In temperate parts of the world, this happens every autumn, when leaf fall blankets the soil with a protective and nutrient-rich, organic litter. And what do we do? Why, we rake it or blow it and bag it and toss it. Then we turn around and buy some artificial mix of organic material and spread it on top – because it looks nice and tidy.

Keep the leaves out of the landfill!

Let’s stop this nonsensical cycle. Stop buying plastic bags for leaf disposal. Stop buying organic matter for mulch. Instead, use what nature provides to protect and replenish your soils. This doesn’t mean you have to leave messy piles of leaves that blow around rather than staying put. Instead, shred them! They look nicer, they stay in place better, and they break down faster. The easiest way to do this is to either run a lawnmower over them, or to put them into a large plastic garbage can and plunge a string trimmer into them. (Bonus – if you use a battery-operated mower or string trimmer you reduce your fossil fuel use.)

Likewise, if you have twigs, prunings, and other woody material, save these too. A chipper is a useful, though expensive, purchase. But those woody chips are the best mulch you can use over your landscape and garden beds. Most plants rely on mycorrhizal fungi, and these fungi require a source of decaying wood to function optimally. The chips can go right on top of your leaves to keep them in place and add a slow feed of nutrients.

Lovingly cradled fresh wood chips

So this fall, see how much of your garden’s refuse can stay on site. Compost soft materials; shred dead leaves; chip woody material. You’ll reduce your contribution to the landfill, and improve the health of your soils and plants alike.

Making your landscape fire resistant during wildfire season

Wildfires are increasingly threatening urban areas. Photo from Wikimedia.

This topic may have no relevance to where you live – but it’s very much front and center here in western Washington this summer. Our naturally droughty summers have gotten longer, hotter, and drier thanks to climate change. Wildfires are ravaging all of the west coast, on both sides of the Cascade mountains. And one of the recommendations I see for fire-proofing your landscape is to remove all wood-based mulch. While this might seem logical, it’s not. And here’s why.

Not all wood mulches are equal. Wood chip mulches, which readily absorb water, are different than bark mulches, which can be quite impervious to water based on the type of bark and how fresh it is. The waxy components of bark not only make it resistant to water movement, they also more likely to burn. Likewise, pine needles, cones, straw, and other coarse organic mulches absorb little water and easily ignite. They should be avoided in fire-prone areas.

Pine needles and pinecones are a natural mulch layer in pine forests – but they burn readily. Photo by Pxfuel.

Wood chips are one of the least flammable mulches, and if landscape plants are properly irrigated, the wood chip layer is going to be increasingly moist as you work your way down to the soil. This reduces flammability, while maintaining plant health. And healthy plants are more likely to survive fires than water-stressed plants – because they are full of water. (Oh, and those “flammability lists” of plants you might see? Dr. Jim Downer has already debunked that approach.)

Rubber mulches are the very worst choice you can make for a wildfire-resistant landscape. They burn readily and they burn hot.

The best way to reduce wildfire damage to your planted landscape is to keep it irrigated. Bare soil is a no-no in planted landscapes, regardless of what you might see recommended elsewhere. A well-hydrated landscape with green lawns and healthy trees and shrubs is not going to catch fire from a spark or ember. And it might even survive a fast-moving wildfire.

Yes, it takes water to protect a planted landscape from fire. If consistent irrigation isn’t feasible, you might want to rethink your plantings.

We saw this in eastern Washington this week, where the small town of Malden was 80% destroyed by a fast-moving fire. But some homes were spared – why? Whitman County Sheriff Brett Meyers pointed out “those people that had some green and some buffer around their home were able to maintain their homes.”  

Did these houses survive because of a green buffer?

So while it may seem counterintuitive to keep woody debris on your soil, look at the whole system – not just a piece of it. If you don’t have plants anywhere near your house, then bare soil is the way to go. But for planted landscapes, wood chip mulch is part of the solution – not the problem.

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.

California “Big Trees” under threat

It’s not my week to post on the blog, but this is a PSA for California residents. Having visited the Capitol grounds in Sacramento, I find it important to make others aware of the plans to remove a number of large and historically important trees for the purpose of building a parking garage and expanding the Capitol building space.

I’m not a California resident, so in a sense it’s none of my business. But I am an urban horticulturist, and an arborist, and committed to preserving trees especially in urban environments. These trees are irreplaceable unless you want to wait a few hundred years. The plans to “relocate” some of these large trees are probably not realistic given the size of the specimens.

More importantly, this is public space and the public should be actively involved in discussions. But the process has been secretive and under the radar of a public more concerned, and rightly so, about COVID-19 and all the associated fallout from the pandemic. But it’s not too late.

Please share this post with California residents who have should have a say in how their land should be managed.

For those Californians interested in supporting the effort to save the trees at Capitol Park and call for the development of a Park and Tree Management Plan, you can sign the petition at https://www.change.org/p/california-state-legislature-save-california-state-capitol-park.

More importantly, you should call AND write to your own California legistator at this website findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov, as well as the two Legislative leaders who can really pause the project and guide its re-planning:
Senator Toni Atkins, President pro-Tempore of the Senate, 916 651 4039 and senator.atkins@senate.ca.gov. UPDATE: This email does not appear to work. Try using this form.
Assembly Member Anthony Rendon, Speaker of the Assembly, 916 319 2063 and speaker.rendon@assembly.ca.gov