Tree health starts with planting

Once again, I've come across a warning that the most common cause of tree loss in home landscapes is planting too deep.

A fairly recent phenomenon beyond our control is affecting not only ornamental flowering and shade trees but also backyard fruit trees.

The problem has arisen from a surprising source -- commercial growers with field plantings -- even before trees go into nursery cans and are shipped to retailers and garden centers.

This very convenient system has a weak link.

During the first 2 or more years growers nurture trees in the ground, repetitive plowing between rows pushes soil to the side. As it accumulates over roots and around the lower tree stem or trunk, thin adventitious rootlets sprout. When trees are eventually dug up and set in cans, this excess soil goes along and these rootlets look like the real thing.

In too many cases, the soil rises 1 to 2 inches above the crown -- that sensitive point where roots differentiate from stem tissue. Thin rootlets in this topped-off soil are not true roots, but most home gardeners don't recognize this and add even more soil over them when planting. In time, fungal activity rots the crown area and trees die.

If you've planted trees in the past -- any type of tree of any age -- it pays to examine the base of the trunk. If you don't observe even a slight flare at the base, remove enough soil until you do.

Without damaging bark, remove soil around the trunk until you reach roots at least the thickness of a pencil. Then, leave this area exposed -- where the trunk begins to flare out, only slightly on very young trees, more dramatically on older ones.

When planting a new tree, locate the true roots and dig a hole no deeper than the true depth of the root ball so that it sits on solid ground and will not settle.

The hole should be twice as wide as deep, then filled with native soil and no amendments.

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