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The root cause of tree problems

By Staff | Mar 16, 2018

Whether it be insect pests, fungal diseases or simple decline, many tree problems can be traced to the tree’s root zone, to what’s happening beneath the soil surface.

We tend to overlook this fact, first because the root zone is hidden and it’s only natural to focus on what we can see and, second, trees can be delayed or subtle in showing signs of stress or decline due to root impacts. As a result, by the time we notice a problem, it’s often too late and we begin treating the symptoms we can see while ignoring the root cause.

Dare I say that we end up barking up the wrong tree?

With this in mind, I’ve listed below the most common human-induced tree ‘stressors’ that I encounter in my work. I’ve also mentioned general approaches to addressing these stressors, just to get you thinking; for details on what you can do or what you may need professional help for, please contact your local extension agent, Division of Forestry office, or certified arborist listed by location at www.goodtreecare.com. I’ve listed other online resources at the end.

Compaction: A ubiquitous slow killer of trees. Much of a tree’s critical root functions occur within the top 6 to 12 inches of the soil surface. Roots require an equal mix of air and moisture for those functions to take place, and it doesn’t take much to crush and smother that critical zone. Avoid driving or parking vehicles under trees this should be a ‘no-go zone’ for anything heavy, ever.

Mechanical damage: Trenching through a tree’s root system or any excavation that leads to change in soil grade can dramatically impact root health. There are amendments and other treatments to mitigate these impacts, but the best thing is to avoid the damage in the first place.

Poor soils/wrong tree: We rarely have control over the soil environment in which we plant our trees, but if we know the limitations, we can choose a tree more suited for the existing conditions. Before planting, get your soil tested and make educated decisions on tree species based on the results. And if you have an existing tree under duress, a soil analysis can suggest an underground approach to improving the tree’s health. Often, this requires patience, expertise and specialized equipment.

Planting too deep: If there’s no trunk flare at the base and the tree looks like a telephone pole coming out of the ground, this could suggest stunted and malformed root development, including ‘girdling roots’ that can strangle one another or the trunk itself. This is difficult to correct, as it may require excavation, so proper planting is key. And never pile mulch or soil on the trunk (see image of ‘volcano mulching’) that’s basically the same as planting too deep and can encourage problems from insects, rot and disease.

No mulch or organic matter: While improper mulching can be harmful, including a layer of organic matter at the base of trees provides numerous benefits, both immediate and long-term. If nothing else, with mulch you will avoid the age-old conflict with turf grass that outcompetes for nutrients and moisture and encourages ‘lawnmower’ disease, a pernicious killer of trees on a massive scale.

Improper watering: Slow and deep irrigation is key. This will prevent the water from scattering laterally along the soil surface and ensure that more roots develop deeper in the soil, building the capacity to withstand periods of drought. To prevent the establishment or spread of disease, avoid sprinklers or anything that splashes or might wet the tree’s bark. Finally, be sure you have a watering plan before you plant any trees, and don’t forget that even large, established trees may need some water if they show signs of decline.

Roots are a tree’s life source. Even if you see a problem high up in the crown, remember that you might be standing on the solution.

Online resources:

Urban Tree Foundation urbantree.org

Casey Trees How-To Guide – caseytrees.org/resources/howto/

US Forest Service Tree Owner’s Manual (downloadable copy) – na.fs.fed.us/urban/treeownersmanual/

Shawn Walker is a consulting arborist and owner of Trees 101, based in Shepherdstown. Feel free to contact him with any questions at shawn@trees101.net or visit his website at www.trees101.net.