Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
July, 2008
Regional Report

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It almost hurts to see this much damage done by a lawn mower.

Diagnosing Tree Problems

It seems every time I go to a social event, someone corners me to ask what is wrong with one of their trees. Trees are long-lived investments and everyone feels a bit of angst when a tree is ailing. It's impossible to diagnose a problem without seeing the tree, but I'll share some guidelines that can give you a place to start. If your tree does have some type of disease or injury, it's best to call a professional arborist for a definitive answer and methods for treatment.

There are a few general problems that I see frequently on trees, especially those planted in new subdivisions by contractors instead of landscape professionals.

"Equipment" Disease
One of the most prominent problems, especially with young trees, is physical damage caused by lawn equipment. When a tree is planted without a circle of mulch around its rootball, it is quite vulnerable to injury from a lawn mower, not to mention the whip of a string trimmer.

The damage shows up as peeling and curling bark, and if the injury continues to occur on all sides of the trunk, the tree is at risk for dying. This is easily prevented by encircling the trunk with a ring of mulch, as large as you can manage.

Buried Root Flare
Another prominent problem is improper planting. If a tree is languishing, look at the point where the trunk enters the ground. There should be a slight flare at the soil level. If the trunk goes straight into the ground, this flare is buried and the feeder roots of the tree are being smothered. You can correct this by digging out the soil around the trunk to expose the root flare. Do this carefully and slope the soil to keep the flare exposed. If the flare is more than a few inches below soil level, you might need to consider digging up and replanting the tree.

Planting Too High
A related issue is leaving part of the rootball exposed by planting too high. I see this quite often with trees planted by subdivision contractors. A tree that is planted high may grow well in a wet area, but in dry soil it will slowly die. Remember that the feeder roots of a tree are only in the top 12 inches, starting at the root flare. The only way to correct this is to replant the tree.

String and Burlap "Disease"
Another planting issue is leaving on the string and burlap that protected the rootball during transport. These are not meant to be left on after the tree is planted, and they can cause considerable damage. The string can girdle the tree, cutting off water and food supplies, and the burlap acts as a wick, drawing water away from the roots.

Each of these issues is a physiological trauma that's usually preventable with a little care.

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