Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
September, 2008
Regional Report

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Tap-rooted cedar leans but doesn't topple in prevailing winds.

A Tree's Survival Depends on its Roots

Sometimes the most unlikely plants survive Nature's challenges. Look at a live oak with huge limbs extending wide, each one weighing more than your truck. Battered from every direction, it still stands. Consider longleaf pine, the lone survivor when others of its species topple right over in winds of hurricane strength. A plant's root system affects its resilience.

Fibrous or Tap Roots
Every rooted plant falls into one of two categories: those with one main root called a "tap," or those with a root system that is spread out, consisting of many smaller fibrous roots. Even tap-rooted trees such as pines and cedars have some lateral roots, of course, but the root zone area is always deeper than it is wide. Fibrous-rooted trees have some major artery roots, with many smaller roots branching out from them. Each type of root system has its advantages, mostly the result of evolution to survive in the native environment. In the garden, knowing the type and extent of your plants' roots can guide you in nurturing these all-important anchors.

Proper Fertilizing
The root zone of an oak, which has fibrous roots, extends out at least to the drip line of the tree -- the point where rainwater drips off the edges of the branches onto the ground. That is where the most active roots are growing, the place to apply fertilizer in the traditional "drill and fill" method that puts granular fertilizer into holes made with an auger. Tap-rooted trees, by contrast, benefit from fertilizer placed closer to their trunks and deeper in the ground.

Treating Compaction
Roots of established trees get compacted over time. When this happens, roots die because the soil packs too tight around them, oxygen in the soil is depleted, and trees suffer. Compaction is usually the result of pressure exerted from above, such as foot traffic and parked cars. Some occurs naturally, however, as clay soils age. You should certainly park the car somewhere else, and you can usually redirect foot traffic, but root aeration may be a wise choice for older trees, even those with exposed roots. This kind of aeration is different from lawn aeration. Professionals that offer this service may be difficult to find, but are worth seeking.

Helping Trees Straighten Up
When your best efforts still result in trees bent by the wind, do not rush to pull them back up because they may rebound. But if a tree has not recovered in a few days, take action. If the roots are exposed, gently replant them, even if you must prune the tree or shrub to return it to an upright posture. Plants without exposed roots that can be gently brought back up should be straightened, by a few inches a day. Sometimes all it takes is stepping on the soil opposite the leaning side and pulling the tree back up.

Larger trees and those more bent over will need to have a soft support looped around their trunk. Install a pipe or other strong support several feet away from the trunk, pull the looped rope towards vertical support, and secure it to the pipe. Every few days, pull it closer to upright. Be aware, though, that sometimes all your efforts are in vain once the next storm arrives!

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