How Not to Plant Trees

How Not to Plant Trees

Part of Ep. 1901 Misteaks We Have Maid

UW-Extension Plant Pathologist Brian Hudelson fesses up to drowning his own tree and shares other common tree-planting mistakes including strangulation, creating mulch volcanoes, and the right and wrong way to water trees and shrubs.

Premiere date: Mar 05, 2011

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley Ryan:
When I first became a homeowner, we had a little apple tree in the back yard that came with the property.  During a small windstorm, it fell over.  I went out and discovered that there was a metal name tag embedded in the bark, and basically, the tree had strangled to death.  I’m continuing with our conversation on“Misteaks We have Maid.”  I’m with UW-Extension plant pathologist Brian Hudelson.  Brian, whoever had planted that tree, I’m sure didn’t want to forget what kind of tree it was, and left that nametag on. 

Brian Hudelson:
A lot of folks want to do that to keep track of those trees and shrubs.  And unfortunately, when you leave materials like wire around branches and trunks, it can girdle them.  It’s basically kind of a strangulation of the tree over time, as the diameter of those branches and trunk get larger.  We’ve got a wire on this particular shrub as well. 

Shelley Ryan:
And it’s already tight. 

Brian Hudelson:
It won’t take long for eventually the branch to grow and that wire to kind of bite into the wood. 

Shelley Ryan:
Then, the wood can’t go anywhere, and that means the food can’t go up the branch.  That’s called girdling? 

Brian Hudelson:
That’s called girdling.  That’s right.  It doesn’t have to be wire.  It can be virtually any type of material that’s around a branch.  It can be things like flagging tape. 

Shelley Ryan:
Really?  Just this little plastic thing? 

Brian Hudelson:
Plastic tape like this can be a problem.  Also, nylon cords.  I saw a great sample that came into my lab with a problem with some nylon cord that girdled the tree.  It can even be jute sorts of materials, as well. 

Shelley Ryan:
This was notated by Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery.  This is a lovely burning bush.  We’re going to be kind of mean to it, so I appreciate the donation.  You know, a lot of people think, you get something like this, balled and burlapped, and there, you’re good to go.  Leave the nametag on and you put it in the ground. 

Brian Hudelson:
Just plop it on the ground and you’re done– 

Shelley Ryan:
So first of all, take the nametag off. 

Brian Hudelson:
Take the tags.  Anything that’s around branches or trunks, take them off. 

Shelley Ryan:
Take that off. 

Brian Hudelson:
Keep the tags so you can refer to them later. 

Shelley Ryan:
Right, make a map.  So, what do we do with this? 

Brian Hudelson:
Definitely, you want to remove the cording and open it up.  You also want to remove-- 

Shelley Ryan:
Look, it’s even hard to pull with a knife, so how is a poor little root going to get through? 

Brian Hudelson:
That’s right.  Actually, can I grab your knife, Shelley?  We’re going to rip that off a little bit.  What you want to do when you’re planting trees is definitely attempt to remove all of this burlap material.  Because what researchers have found is that even though people think that this material is going to disappear, it will eventually-- It won’t really rot that well in the soil.  And you can go back five or ten years later and find trees that still have the burlap on.  That will restrict root growth.  Oftentimes, what will happen is those roots, instead of growing outward, will start growing around the base of the tree or shrub and will end up with what are called girdling roots.  So, the same thing as this wire on the branch, except it will be to the main trunk. 

Shelley Ryan:
Then it’s suicide. 

Brian Hudelson:
Basically, it’s kind of a form of suicide.  The other thing that we oftentimes find underneath the burlap bag is wire basket.  That should be removed as well.  I don’t see one here.  But definitely, that’s something that should be removed.  Because again, as the roots get larger in diameter, they’ll eventually come into contact with that wire and can girdle as well. 

Shelley Ryan:
So, new research is showing, break this all up. 

Brian Hudelson:
That’s right.  The other thing that you can do, that can sometimes be beneficial is actually try to remove some of this soil, try to almost bare root the plant before you plant it.  Because that way, if you do have roots that are already growing around, kind of girdling or the start of girdling roots, you can spread them out away from the shrub to get a better orientation of the roots. 

Shelley Ryan:
So, compacted like this, would you use a knife, even, to cut into this? 

Brian Hudelson:
Yeah, you just need to be a little careful.  You don’t want to do a lot of damage to the roots.  But that would be probably the best thing to do.  The other thing you have to be careful, is if the crown of the plant, or the root flare, where the stems of the trunk kind of widens out to form the root system, that should be with the soil line.  There are a lot of trees out there that have been planted way too deeply.  That was kind of the recommendation 20 years ago. 

Shelley Ryan:
And things have changed. 

Brian Hudelson:
Things have changed.  Research evolves and we find some things that we did a long time ago just aren’t the right way to do it. 

Shelley Ryan:
Open the roots, take the soil off, plant more shallow. 

Brian Hudelson:
That’s right.  Make sure that root flare is at the right place, right at the soil line. 

Shelley Ryan:
Take the silly tag off! 

Brian Hudelson:
Take the tags off. 

Shelley Ryan:
Let’s go look at a few other mistakes “we” have made. 

Brian Hudelson:
That’s right. 

Shelley Ryan:
Speaking of “Misteaks We Have Maid,” Brian, this is one of my pet peeves.  I see this on city streets all the time. 

Brian Hudelson:
Yeah, this is what we call the mulch volcano, where they’ve applied a lot of mulch right around the base of the tree, in kind of a little pile.  This is not the way that we recommend applying mulch.  Usually, you want to leave a gap between the trunk and the start of the mulch. 

Shelley Ryan:
What were they thinking? 

Brian Hudelson:
We see this a lot.  I would leave maybe about four inches or so between the trunk and where the mulch starts.  Then spread it out in about a two- to four-inch layer of mulch, depending on soil type. 

Shelley Ryan:
There shouldn’t be grass under there, either. 

Brian Hudelson:
There shouldn’t be grass underneath there either.  I would definitely take that out.  The only other worse thing I could think of that could possibly happen would be if you took up the grass and there was some landscape fabric underneath there.  That’s not exactly what we recommend. 

Shelley Ryan:
For many reasons.  Number one, the grass grows up, and pretty soon, you don’t even know the landscape fabric is there. 

Brian Hudelson:
Right, and from a disease standpoint, I tend to think that the fabric retains too much water, and we start to get a lot of root rot problems associated with landscape fabric. 

Shelley Ryan:
To me, the mulch volcano is kind of ignorance.  The landscape fabric, we used to be told that was a wonderful thing. 

Brian Hudelson:
Yes, indeed.  Current research indicates that that’s probably not the case. 

Shelley Ryan:
So again, Extension keeps learning, as well.  It’s not just us gardeners doing silly things. 

Brian Hudelson:
No, things do change over time, as we learn more. 

Shelley Ryan:
Speaking of silly things, can we talk about the soaker hose, Brian? 

Brian Hudelson:
Yeah, definitely a great way to water a tree or shrub, and something I recommend all the time. 

Shelley Ryan:
Two inches of water per week. 

Brian Hudelson:
For a new transplant.  About one for an established tree.  What you don’t want to do is what I did one time with a very special little shrub that I put in that I really wanted to have in my yard.  I followed my own directions. 

Shelley Ryan:
Oh, good heavens! 

Brian Hudelson:
I turned on the water, and about 18 hours later, realized that I hadn’t turned the water off.  So I had a swamp in my back yard, and that poor little shrub didn’t survive. 

Shelley Ryan:
Okay, so we’ve got to teach you to follow you’re own advice. 

Brian Hudelson:
That’s right. 

Shelley Ryan:
We won’t talk then about whose tree this belongs to.  But remember, I was following Extension advice 25 years ago. 

Brian Hudelson:
That’s right.  It was basically to plant without the root flare showing.  And now, we really recommend that you have that widening area of the trunk, as it widens out into the root system, you want to have that showing at the ground level, at the soil level.  Remove the grass.  I would go out, again, at least three feet.  I like wider, out toward the drip line, quite frankly.  Mulch it two to four inches.  Two inches on a heavier clay soil.  Four inches on a sandier soil, or up to four inches.  And good water. 

Shelley Ryan:
So, luckily, a mistake like this is fixable.  We pull the soil away till we see the root flare.  We mulch.  We can’t fix mistakes like leaving a wire around a tree until it’s dead. 

Brian Hudelson:
That’ll probably kill it. 

Shelley Ryan:
So, think ahead.  Try to follow Extension research, but realize we all make mistakes. 

Brian Hudelson:
That’s right. 

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