The Trees “root” for us….

When J. Sterling Morton moved from Detroit to the Nebraska territory in 1854 he found he was missing something. No not his car keys or cell phone considering it was the mid-1800’s….he was missing trees. Oh how we take for granted something that is all around us until it’s gone. I was talking to a veteran of the war in Iraq and he shared with me how much you miss green grass while serving our country in the desert. In the case of Mr. Morton the tree planting campaign was also one of need with trees planted as windbreaks, for erosion control, fuel, building materials and shade. The first Arbor day was April 10, 1874. Schools picked up on the event in 1882 and eventually all states picked up the healthy habit with their Arbor Day dates coinciding with best planting dates for their part of the country.

There is no doubt that trees “root” for us providing many benefits including oxygen, shade, timber and beauty to name a few. The question in my mind is do we “tree-t” our trees right in the home landscape? As I drive through neighborhoods I see a lot of mistakes made. In addition you will find many trees and turf battling it out for survival in the suburbs causing frustration for homeowners attempting to maintain the home landscape.

Let’s attempt to provide some “lawn and order” by saying that trees and turf are just not compatible. We like to think they get along but in many cases their relationship is irreconcilable. When you call in the experts they too can become testy on the topic. I’ve watched arborists argue with landscapers that their tree is being weakened by the turf and the landscaper arguing with the arborist that their tree is ruining the turf. Well they’re both right and I’m here to mediate through maintenance tactics. Tree roots do not go to China, they spread out to the drip line of the tree and beyond acting as guy wires to support the tree (and please let’s save the argument if it’s “guy” or “guide” wires for another time, we have enough conflict here to deal with). As the roots fan out they compete with the turf for moisture and nutrients. It’s very evident in the picture to the right I took where you can see the dense canopy of the tree in combination with the root competition is having the better of the turf in this battle. These trees need some maintenance pruning to thin the canopy, best done in the dead of winter. Supplemental irrigation and feeding for both the tree and the turf is necessary. One great time to feed deciduous trees is in late fall when the leaves are falling off the tree. Of course fall is an important time to feed turf also. Mark your calendars now for this activity. Finally and most importantly I recommend the owner abandon the effort to grow turf to the trunk of the tree. It is far more healthy for the tree, the turf and home owner if turf was moved as far as possible from the base of the tree and a 1 to 2 inch layer of mulch or maybe ground cover were used instead of trying to grow grass. I made that suggestion to the Parks agents at the gate when I visited the White House a few years ago. You can see that at least they did provide some mulch cover along the base of the tree, just not enough. I think they just wanted me to get off their lawn and it’s just as well. Their problem was probably caused by the trample of journalists using the White House as background for their news segment. If your turf and tree problems are caused by the trample of news crews on your front lawn you have bigger problems to deal with than your turf and tree incompatibility.

In regards to the mistakes being made with trees grown in the home landscape first remember that trees do need some maintenance. Pruning from time to time is necessary taking out weak or crossing branches. At times the tree’s canopy needs some thinning to improve light and air penetration. Home landscape trees don’t have the benefit of the natural woodland floor their friends have in wooded areas. For that reason it is necessary to feed trees at least once a year. I like to feed in the fall as the tree is shutting down and the foliage is dropping. The ground is still warm and roots will absorb the nutrients for a healthier tree the following season. For summertime feeding a root injecting device like a Ross Root Feeder is easy to use. Attached to a garden hose it puts water and nutrients in the root zone of the tree. Don’t forget that tree roots will benefit from a feeding from the trunk out to and just beyond the drip line of the tree. Don’t just feed the tree along the drip line.

At the time of planting a big mistake made by homeowners is to plant the tree too deep. This can result in a weakened unhealthy tree. An ideal and healthy tree shows some of the root flare at the base of the tree and doesn’t look like a straight telephone pole from the ground up. You can see with the soil blasted away from the roots of the tree at the right we have the healthy “anchor” roots and flare along with smaller healthy roots that work for the tree from near the trunk area out to the drip line. In the picture to the left you can see some healthy trees in a wooded area as a good example of trees with appropriate root flare. When planting a tree don’t dig the hole any deeper than the existing root ball or pot. Dig out soil well beyond the roots on every side and mix in compost or organic materials 50/50 with the parent soil. In clay soils don’t just dig a hole and put “good” soil in it. You’ve created a bathtub and the tree is not going to like it. In addition roots will work out away from the tree and when they hit the compacted clay soil they will turn around and girdle and weaken or in some cases eventually choke the tree to death. Uncover excess soil from the base of your trees and find the root flare. Finally, do NOT mulch the tree with a “volcano” of mulch. It’s a great way to kill or weaken your tree! Find the root flare and then taper 1 to 2 inches deep of shredded mulch out to the drip line if possible. Piled mulch will cause tissue accustomed to being dry to be perpetually wet. Girdling roots around the base of the tree may develop and the healthy roots you’re trying to sustain will be too deep and weak. If you have over-mulched trees or grass growing to the trunk of a tree or you’re going to be planting a tree….do it right so the tree can celebrate many more Arbor days to come!