Ask a Question forum: How to know if shrubs and trees were planted too deep - and what to do about it

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PLoni
Feb 7, 2015 8:17 AM CST
I hired a landscape company to do some fall planting for me and I'm afraid the shrubs are too deep. I am not sure how to know or what to do to correct. While I can plant most things myself, if they're relatively small, I wanted to put in some larger shrubs and small trees that I cannot manage alone. I also needed pros because the best nurseries around don't sell to retail customers. I think part of the problem is that the soil was very loose - having been recently sifted to remove rocks and break up compaction from construction. Within a month or so, especially after fall rains and now winter snow, the crowns of the shrubs appear to be below grade. In fact, several are now sitting in puddles (frozen) at the base of the trunk. I can't do anything until the spring, but I'd like to know what I should do - or have them come back and do - to correct this. Also, I didn't amend the soil during planting and need to do something about improving what is basically sub-soil (not organic top soil). I did have them apply sweet peat but that's just on the surface - nothing worked in. I welcome all advice as I am trying hard to learn. Thanks.
Name: Greene
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greene
Feb 7, 2015 8:42 AM CST
PLoni -
It could be that the soil was too lose and the plants have settled. Here is a link with words and graphics that has tons of information.
http://westonnurseries.com/commercial-sales/planting-guideli...

I don't know what other folks may advise, but in my opinion you will have to raise up the plants a bit or you risk losing them to rot. Talk with the people who did the work. Hopefully, they are a reputable company and will want to what's right to correct the problem.
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hawkarica
Feb 8, 2015 3:30 PM CST
Generally speaking, shrubs and trees that are planted too deeply will suffer from stunted growth. Here in Florida it is common to seek identical palms for each side of the driveway. If the landscape company has two of differing heights, they may plant the taller one deeper to compensate. Five years later, the properly planted one is much taller and more robust than the other. Your plants should be planted at the same depth as they were in the container or slightly higher. I have some expensive plants on top of slight mounds to guard against settling. It is worth the time and money to raise those you suspect of having this problem as it will not get better, only worse.

Jim
Name: Michele Roth
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chelle
Feb 9, 2015 8:56 AM CST
They definitely shouldn't be sitting in pools of wet. Do contact the company now and appraise them of the situation so that they have the info on file. Take pictures as proof of the problem areas and keep a set for yourself if they originally offered guaranteed work. When the ground thaws, if they still won't correct the problem, you can on all but the biggest trees perhaps, lever the root balls up one side at a time and insert a few good-sized rocks underneath. If the root ball is still fairly loose and moveable, repeat on the other side, replace any lost soil and water it in well.
We've done this many times here, so if you think you'll be doing the work yourself and wish to have more levering advice, just holler out. Smiling
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dyzzypyxxy
Feb 9, 2015 10:18 AM CST
If the landscape company won't do it for you, (they really should!) try to get someone or do it yourself before the shrubs break dormancy in springtime. Probably there's a fairly short window between when the ground thaws and the shrubs start to grow.

Disturb the root ball as little as possible, and Chelle's method of 'levering' up one side then the other is great, but I'd put as much soil and amendment under those shrubs as you can, as well as rocks if what you originally planted in was that awful subsoil you describe. By all means get them mounded up if you can because they will certainly settle deeper as they grow, too.

Going forward, keep on amending that bad soil, a top dressing of compost around the 'drip line' each spring and fall will put good organic matter into the growing area for each plant. Cellulose fibers (anything that was a plant) will work their way down into the soil, and there they do their thing - expand with moisture to retain nutrients, and then contract when they dry to leave air spaces in the soil. You do need to continue to add because compost does break down with time and disappear. The hotter and wetter your climate, the faster this happens.
Elaine

"Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." โ€“Winston Churchill

PLoni
Feb 9, 2015 11:04 AM CST
Thanks for all your replies - you have confirmed my suspicions. I don't think the company that did the work will re-do it, at least not for free. But I have asked and am awaiting their reply. We are under 3 feet of snow right now (in NY) so it will be a few months before anything can be done. I suspect that the root balls of these plants haven't changed much since they were planted in the late fall but I am concerned about disturbing them too much. I will follow your good instructions and hope I don't inflict more harm than good. I think my husband and I will be able to use that levering approach. When you say to put a few good sized rocks in, do you mean to leave the rocks in place or just to hold the root ball temporarily while backfilling with soil? Also, as far as soil and compost go, I don't really know how to identify good soil. I ordered some "top soil" from a local nursery and what was delivered was more like screened dirt. I couldn't really see much organic material and it was loaded with small pebbles. Is there a good way to know what is good top soil? Is the stuff in bags at nurseries good? And if I need to amend, do I mix compost in with the back fill or just on the surface? Do I work it in from the surface? As far as compost goes, I don't produce much from kitchen scraps but I do have a lot of mulched leaves but they're not really composted yet, so I will be buying. I have seen compost with manure at the nurseries. Is this good for amending soil? A landscaper who once did some other plantings for me used peat moss when he planted. Is this advisable? Finally, when I am putting whatever amendments around the drip line do I work it in or just let it sit on the surface? I apologize for what may seem like dumb questions but this is a new house/garden and my gardening experience has been limited. Thanks very much - your answers are great.
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purpleinopp
Feb 9, 2015 11:32 AM CST
Your questions are great! The partially composted leaves would make a perfect dressing around any plants, just like the forest floor. If I was going to buy anything, it would be mulch, finely shredded hardwood.

IMVHO, you don't buy good soil, you make it, over time, by adding organic matter to the surface. It's not hard at all, just use what you have, when you have it, the more variety the better, but not so much added at any one time/spot that it raises the ground level around trunks/stems. Mowing before grass makes seeds is another great source of organic matter, powerful nitrogen. Spread on the surface, grass clippings turn brown in a couple days, and decompose quickly. Kitchen scraps are another source, can be composted first, used "as mulch," slightly buried if icky. Whatever way you can use them is great.

You don't need to be a scientist to understand this lady talk about soil.
http://permaculturenews.org/2013/09/20/soil-not-dirt-dr-elai...

I'll leave the answering of the root ball raising questions to those who have done that before.
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Name: Elaine
South Sarasota, Florida (Zone 9b)
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dyzzypyxxy
Feb 9, 2015 12:43 PM CST
That's a great video link, Tiffany, Thanks!

PLoni, the rocks are added under the shrubs to be sure they don't just subside again before their roots develop and fill the area under the plant. If you add too much organic amendment under there, it will break down and also compact as the plant gets heavier, and may subside again. IF you don't have or want rocks, shovel straight soil from the surrounding area under the plant to raise it, then do mix some amendment with the native soil around the plant. Just 'build' soil by keeping on adding organic stuff around the shrubs as they grow.

It depends upon the plant whether it's ok to dig the stuff in around it, some plants have feeder roots very near the surface so it's not a great practice to till the soil surface around them. Safer to just top dress with a generous amount of organic stuff, which acts as mulch to quell weeds for a while, then breaks down to work its way down into the soil. Don't put it too near the plant's base or trunk(s).

I use a lot of bagged compost/manure in my garden, just because it's so hard for me to make compost here in the summer months when there's lots of materials. It's just too hot to be turning a compost pile, and I don't have any grass clippings to make it really 'work' well.

"Topsoil" should not have rocks or pebbles in it, in my opinion. If you buy from that nursery again, buy what they call "compost". But the stuff in bags will probably have more dependable proportions of good stuff in it. Of course it will cost more, too, but my experience with buying bulk topsoil, compost or mulch is that you get a lot of air for what you pay, because both when they load it for you, either by shovel or a front-end loader, and when it is unloaded, it gets fluffed up.

Check with your local landfill! Here, our landfill makes excellent compost that is 100% organic stuff and well composted. It is free for the taking, so if you have a friend with a pickup truck and a couple of teenagers . . . strong backs to shovel it into your truck . . . buy them lunch or pay them $10 for a half hour's hard work! It's a bargain! (use a cheap plastic tarp to line the truck bed, and it helps with the unloading process, too) In Salt Lake City where my kids live, they charge $25 for a pickup truck load of good compost, and they load it for you with a front-end loader.
Elaine

"Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." โ€“Winston Churchill
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chelle
Feb 9, 2015 1:25 PM CST
Yes. Like Elaine said above, the rocks can and should be left in place if all you have in that spot is loose, friable or "good" soil. If the planting area hadn't been disturbed and then fixed with loose fill your crowns most likely would have stayed above the soil line. Here, we've learned (the hard way Rolling my eyes. ) to plant the root ball in and on top of a mound of native soil (preferably soil that hasn't been disturbed) , return chunks of native soil to the hole, up against the root ball, and then add a mix of native soil and compost to fill the outer edges of the hole. You want those roots to travel out toward the goodies, not just sit where they are.

What happens, and you see this all the time in subdivisions around here, is that once the planting hole is filled with "goodies" the tree/shrub won't be as tempted to send out those long and lovely structural tap roots to hold it up. First storm that comes along after any cables are removed, and that tree is down and done.

In my opinion, additional compost/goodies really shouldn't be added to the base of trees for a year or two, or at least not much if any nitrogen, and don't water when it doesn't need it. A regular watering routine will cause short-rooted plants as well. You want the roots of these very large and potentially dangerous plants to root well, and they do that best by having to hunt a bit for what they want. Smiling Shrubs are easier...just keep those crowns a bit on the high side and mulch/compost around them from about 6" or so from the stem outward in a circle the size of the plant's circumference or just a bit more.
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Opp, AL (Zone 8b)
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purpleinopp
Feb 9, 2015 2:02 PM CST
Elaine, I refuse to spend any more time getting sweaty and mosquito bite-y over compost piles too. Kind of fun & fascinating in central OH, but no novelty value left in that at all in south AL, (and even hotter in FL.) Now I just put compostables somewhere where I won't have to move them again. It's going great & takes even less time.

Chelle, well said. Organic matter mixed under the surface can create problems with unnatural growth, settling, nitrogen robbing, etc... and is why amended planting holes are no longer recommended. Any kind of disturbance to the soil wrecks the structure, drainage, and damages the microbes. Necessary to add a plant to the ground, but that's the only reason I do that, aside from slightly burying kitchen matter sometimes between plants. The sooner one can put/replace OM on the surface, as mother nature does, the sooner the benefits of it can start to be realized, repair to the soil structure can happen more quickly. This will also help immediately start to moderate moisture levels in the soil, and prevent the sun from baking it so harshly. The microbes and other soil dwellers break the material down and distribute the bits to the proper levels in the soil to be utilized by plant roots. Huge difference between such tiny words, in and on.

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RickCorey
Feb 9, 2015 5:02 PM CST
PLoni said:... Within a month or so, especially after fall rains and now winter snow, the crowns of the shrubs appear to be below grade. In fact, several are now sitting in puddles (frozen) at the base of the trunk.


I don't know anything about how to raise up plants that were planted too deep, but you can lower the "water table" once the ground thaws ... if the slope allows it, and you're willing to do some digging.

(This idea assumes that the puddle is there because of bad drainage, not just because the soil is too frozen to allow water to flow away from the plants. A trench won't help frozen ground very much.)

Do you have a "low spot" or a downhill slope fairly near the drowning plants? Or even some spot where you know the drainage is good and fast? if you can lead the excess depth of water from the plantings to the low spot or good drain, your plants' crowns will no longer be below water.

(They would still be below grade, but if you needed to, maybe you could hoe soil away from the crowns instead of jacking up the plants. In other words, lower the water level and the soil level to meet the plants, instead of raising the plants to meet the soil.)

"Fairly near" means close enough that you could dig a slit trench from your plantings to the lower spot in your yard.

The bottom of the trench near the plantings needs to be deeper than you want the "high water line" to be . The trench also needs to slope uniformly down deeper until it reaches the low spot or downhill slope or drain (e.g. a French Drain).

That might be too far and too deep to dig easily, but remember that the trench can be just a slit as wide as a mattock blade, or hoe, or a sideways steel rake. Loosen the soil with a pick, mattock or shovel, then remove the soil with anything near the width of the slit trench.

Maybe this needs heavy clay soil to work well. My trenches have vertical walls and they stay sharp and un-crumbled for years. Like concrete drains.

Water will drain down from the crowns of the plants and into the trench near the plantings. Then it will run down the trench and away from the plantings.

If you only have a low spot, not a slope, the water will fill that low spot and only drain as fast as it can "perk" straight down.

Fancy people, or those who don't want a twisted ankle, might half-fill the trench with drainage gravel or small perforated pipe, then some filter cloth or landscape cloth, and lay some sod on top. I leave my narrow trenches open and fill the larger ones with large rocks. The narrow trenches quickly sprout grass which hides them and I "just know" to keep my ankles out of them. Of course, they do function as "wheelbarrow catchers". But no one will ever drive a car bomb across my yard!

There are fancy ways to make the floor of the trench dead level and steadily sloping. Instead of getting fancy, I wait for a heavy rain, and watch where the water backs up behind a high spot in the trench. Then I use a hoe or mattock or "Sharpshooter" spade to break the "dam" that was holding back water. That water rushes downhill and helps even out the floor of the trench or pinpoint the next-highest spot.

Wait for more rainwater to back up behind another high spot ... and remove that high spot also. Soon you have no more high spots, and silt has filled in any low spots.

For once, I use the easy and practical method in preference to Rube Goldberg methods like tight strings, levels, lasers or walking dividers.



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