Being Wrong

The thing about being a horticulturist and a professor is that you’re always supposed to have the right answer.  Which is to say, when I tell people not to use beer as a fertilizer, to avoid planting trees too deeply, and to reduce pesticide use, people take it for granted that I know what I’m talking about and that, if they don’t do what I say, there could very well be problems.  But, as most of you know, growing plants is an art and a science, and sometimes plants decide to do things that are unexpected — plants are individuals after all, just like we are.  Anyway, I was reminded of this today by this image of trees being planted on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota in 1909.

How many things can you find wrong with the practices in this picture?  And yet this ended up being a successful planting.  I like to think we, as horticulturists and researchers, do a decent job of figuring out the best practices for planting and caring for plants, but the truth is that each plant is an individual and every situation is different and so often our predictions end up being wrong.  And I think that’s a good thing.  

14 thoughts on “Being Wrong”

  1. That is one huge cutting they’re sticking…hope it roots for ’em.

    Ditto John’s comments. The only beer that goes on my garden is when I accidentally knock it over (happens too frequently – I need a beer holster).

  2. Absolutely right – which is why you can root live stakes of some species but not others. Wetland species in particular could be planted upside down and still grow! Most gardeners, though, gravitate to the unusual and often finicky plants. So I think our generally cautionary approach is best, even when sturdy diehard species laugh at us and do whatever they want.

  3. Well, where do you start? Hahaha!
    There’s been a technique being employed by local plant growers, mainly those with interests in revegetation, in Australia for a few years now called long stem planting. There’s a video on it (See third video from the top, 15/08/2009) here.
    ‘You’re doing it wrong’ was my fist initial reaction too! A current pic of the tree would be great to see.

  4. Much too deep planting hole, much too narrow planting hole, straight sided hole, the evil “Princeton cut” (I thought that came out later?), competing leaders not removed, root ball certainly way to small. … I’m probably missing a lot. I’d also love to see the pic of the happy survivor.

  5. My guess is that it is an American Elm. They survived all sorts of abuse until Dutch Elm disease came along. I worked on a project where there were elms along a commercial property fenceline. The property had been filled and refilled several times with individual layers of cinders or gravel. At the top of each layer, roots had grown from the trunks of
    the elms. The original root collar was four feet underground. They had survived all that and avoided DE disease until they were cut down (not my doing.)

  6. The point I always make is that trees are dynamic organisms and often respond in ways we can’t predict. Tree often grow as much in spite of us as because of us.

  7. I watched the video from Jimbo’s link. Does anyone know what species from the Pacific NW would do well with long stem plantings? Seems to me that with our dry summers, this would be a beneficial way of establishing new plants.

  8. Frieda, in general wetland trees like willow will root from live stakes. I know that you can have pretty good luck with snowberry and red twig dogwood if you are looking for shrubby stuff. Best bet: look at the USDA’s PLANTS database for the state of interest ( It will give you a complete list of native and nonnative plants, and their wetland status. If they are marked as obligate or facultative wetland species, chances are they will root from live stakes. (This site is also good for seeing what’s invasive in your state.)

  9. For a traditional in-ground planting of a tree, my first reaction is, “EEK! Too deep!,” but before I can comment further on what looks like a bad planting, to reiterate Jim’s posting, “Is there a current photo?” I’d like to see if the tree is still alive and how it looks today.

    My second question is, what type of tree is it? Is it a tree that roots easily along the trunk? Before I can give an absolute chastisement of the tree planting method in the photo, I must say that for bonsai, the process of planting deeper than the root base can be used for shortening the trunk. For example, I have an apple tree on M111 rootstock, but the bottom part of the trunk is too long between the soil line and the first (bottom branch) therefore I will bury it deeper in a nursery pot to encourage roots to develop higher up the trunk, resulting in a new root base at a higher and more esthetically desirable part of the trunk. However, for a ground planting, like this tree, it’s not necessary. Still, I’m curious to the genus of the tree.

    Also, the bad haircut. In bonsai, when repotting, if we remove a 1/3 of the roots, we remove a 1/3 of the “top” -branches/leaves. If the tree was field grown and then a majority of the roots were removed in the process of transplanting, then it does make sense to remove and equal percentage of the top of the tree. So if there is some archives on how this tree was obtained, it would be enlightening to the methods of planting as well.

  10. Hmmm…top pruning to compensate for root pruning has been pretty much debunked, at least for transplanting landscape trees and shrubs. The effect on the plant is that it encourages new crown growth at the expense of root growth – just when root growth is most needed. It might be that with a highly managed tree, like a bonsai whose restricted root area is easily kept hydrated, you might get away with it. But it’s not a good idea in the landscape.

Leave a Reply