The lone voice of horticultural reason

Don’t assume the tree you plant was properly dug at the nursery.

Question: Why did this crabapple tree die?

Answer: Look closely at the picture.

This was a 2” balled-and-burlap tree planted this spring by yours truly. Even though properly watered and cared for after planting, it never leafed out, never developed new root growth, and never overcame transplant shock. Two months later, the tree was dead as dead can be.

When I yanked it out, I immediately saw the problem—the tree had been mechanically dug so that the root ball, wrapped beneath the burlap and twine, contained six inches of excess soil on top of the shoulder roots.

Haste makes waste! And makes the Renegade Gardener admit that even I realize gardeners should do as I say, not always as I do. I warned readers three years ago on this site that they should always check for excess soil in container trees and BB. I thought I saw a little flair where the trunk emerged from the ball, but was mistaken. The shoulder roots—which should have been planted just barely below grade—were another six inches down.

With all that excess soil covering the roots, the roots didn’t get enough oxygen or warmth to spur immediate secondary and tertiary root growth, essential to the tree’s success. A few straggly roots emerged (see photo) above the shoulder roots, in a doomed attempt at hanging onto life, but those came from spots on the trunk that normally, in a year or two, would have produced above-ground suckers.

Always scrape the nursery soil from around trees before you plant, and don’t stop until you find the shoulder roots!

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener