The Case of the Distressed Ranch Trees (or How to Buy A Tree)

29 July 2014 Idea of the day “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.”

A friend of mine recently asked me about planting a new tree.  More about that in the next blog.  But it made me realize she first needed to know something about the prior step, how to buy a good tree.   I suddenly realized she and a lot of others should know about what I had found out about buying good trees from a ranch job I had been called about.

As some of you may be aware from a previous story of mine about the palm disease TPPD, I have a customer who owns the largest ranch in a county in mid-Florida.  He was very successful in the business of selling copiers, sold the company and has a beautiful Spanish-looking home overlooking his hacienda which he shares with his wife and visiting kids and grandchildren.  It’s beautiful.

They both love trees and so about three years ago decided to plant a colorful variety of species all around the house grounds, both flowering and usual varieties.  For flowering types they planted magnolias, redbuds, crape myrtles and tabebuia (pink and yellow trumpet trees) as well as a purple glory tree.   The area around the coral-orange-stucco Spanish ranch home is especially beautiful when the flowering trees dotting the yard bloom in rotation all spring long and into the summer.   Usual native trees like rich dark green American holly, weeping yaupon holly, winged elms and live oaks line the three foot brick circumference wall. The entire design was planned to be a large, beautiful tree-filled display all around the house in 360 degrees for  the next twenty years at least.

Except for one thing.  Tom the owner called me up one day.

“Bob, I don’t like the look of my house trees.  It’s their third year after planting and they look less healthy and vigorous this year than they did last year.  Could you come out and take a look at them?”

“Of course,” I said. I knew what he really meant by that was ‘I’m counting on you to come out here and use your detective arborist skills to figure out what the heck is wrong with my trees and fix them!’   I made an appointment right then to see him my first free day which was a Thursday.

Tom lives one and a half hours outside of the city out in Florida citrus country.  In fact, although he houses horses and a donkey and the ranch includes rolling hills, a pond and wide open alfalfa fields, the largest part of the estate is made up of acres and acres of orange groves, the main business of the ranch and one he thoroughly enjoys.  I took the back gravel road to his rear gate where the alfalfa hay customers come in, passed the barns, drove up to the paver driveway at the top of the hill where the elegant house stood, parked and rang the bell at the big iron gates.  Through the black wrought iron I could glimpse the luxurious semi-tropical gardens under a large screen enclosure surrounding a natural looking pool.  It was paradise.

Soon I saw Tom heading to open the gate and come outside to join me.
“Morning Bob,” he said with his usual gentle smile.  “Did you have a smooth trip up?”
“Had to fight going through some of the city morning rush hour traffic but I found some ways around it. It was great to get out to the open road.”
“Yep, that’s why I live out here,” he said smiling coyly. Then his attention shifted outward.  “Let me show you what I’m talking about with these trees.”

He had a good eye.  The trees weren’t dead.  But the magnolia foliage was not as full as you would expect.  Fewer leaves than usual. Some leaned a little. The oaks hadn’t grown as much as you’d expect in three years and some seemed to be listing.  The hollies were ok, but they were smaller.  The almost four-year-old flowering trees looked like they were still two years old – they just weren’t growing up as fast as you’d expect, some tilted and others looked a little lifeless.

“I’m most concerned about the magnolias.  I wonder if I goofed putting them in the lower part of the driveway.  They seem to be sagging the most.”

I had to agree with him.  They had been planted in one of the lowest spots around the yard and were clearly in moist soil after a rain.  Florida sandy soil generally drains well.  But maybe the soil here had more clay in it, which tends to hold water.   We would have to check it out.

I examined the planting of all the trees.  Ninety percent of the time, people plant trees too deeply and these were no exceptions.  The top roots need to be exposed to the oxygen in the air.   They need oxygen to digest the carbohydrates sent down from the photosynthesis factories in the leaves.

Who planted the trees?” I asked.

“The landscaping company that sold them to me.”

“Hmmm,” I mused.

“What’s that mean?” he asked a little anxiously.

“When trees get planted too deeply like these did, water typically flows down into the roots, they get too moist and can develop fungi.  In a worst case scenario, the roots then start to rot.”

Tom protested.
“But they are a landscaping company.  Don’t they know how to plant trees?”

“You’d be surprised.  Were they from the city or local.”

“Local.  I don’t even know if they’re still in business.  Why?”  he asked.

“Small country companies can be less knowledgeable about technical details than a company that has to routinely meet large city client standards.

But here’s what I see.  Our last two years have been normal precipitation years, no drought and no floods particularly, and I wouldn’t expect excessively wet soil on top of a hill like here where the house is.  Structurally the trees look fine  above ground which means they were probably Florida Grade #1, but this is a designation which only rates their above ground quality. I don’t see any signs of insects or leaf fungus.  You have nice mulch beds around all the trees so they’ve been protected against mower and weed wacker damage and are less likely to be sprayed by a harmful pesticide for weeds.    In addition the mulch helps keep competing weeds and grasses down, so I don’t suspect nutrient competition from those in your case.

“Besides,” he added “I’ve had all the trees fertilized once a year.”

“Yep, that should be more than satisfactory for young trees,” I assured him. I didn’t really see any signs of the obvious damage one would see from pesticides,  but I had to check all possibilities. “Do your lawn people use spray or liquid pesticides?”

“No, I’ve told them to stay away from the house with pesticides and herbicides.  I have them pull weeds.”

“Good for you,” I said nodding. “Well  we have a bit of a mystery at this point.  But here’s what we need to do.  I want to check out the soil, see if a foot down it’s full of clay and water and what the roots look like.  I’m going to have one of my men come up in a few days with an air spade.”

“What’s that?” he inquired.

“It’s a wand driven by an air compressor that “digs” up the dirt around a tree with air pressure without hurting the roots.  It will let us see if it’s all wet a foot down or what.  We’ll see whether the soil is sandy, which would mean good drainage, or  intermediate loamy which would be all right, or full of clay and holding water. And we’ll get to see if we have rotten roots.”

“Ok, let’s do it,” he said.  I wrote up the Work Order estimate, he signed it and we made plans for the air spade work the following Monday.

That Monday afternoon I was in my office when I got a call from the air spade guy.  Of course I was  curious.
“Well, is it soaking wet clay and water down there with rotting roots?”

“Nope,” he said.  “Pretty sandy soil. Pretty dry. The roots aren’t rotting. But you wouldn’t believe what I’m finding with the roots.”

“What?” I asked pointedly.

“It’s hard to describe.  I’m just going to send you some photos by my cell phone,” he said.

“Can you do it right away?”  I urged.

“Sure. I’ve air spaded about fifteen trees.  They all have the same look.  You’ll be amazed.”

Tapping my fingers on my desk, I waited until the photos finally arrived. One, two, three popped up.  Every one was from a viewpoint above the roots looking down.  Every one showed twisted, girdled roots wrapped around and choking each other. Instead of a nice open star-shaped spreading root pattern like you would see in nature, the roots looked like a mass of knotted rope!

I called Tom right away.

“I just got the photo results from the air spading.  I found your problem. I’ll come up tomorrow to show you and explain it all.  It’s tougher without a tree in front of us.”

“Sure, I’ll see you tomorrow morning!”

*          *           *
I arrived the next morning and Tom was already out in the yard.
“I’ve been looking at the excavating that your man did. But I don’t quite see the problem,” he said.

I took him over to one of the magnolias he was most concerned about.

“See those convoluted, twisted roots?” I asked.

“Yeah, isn’t that normal?”

“It might be “normal” when you buy trees from the nursery the landscapers use.  But it’s not normal or natural in nature,” I told him.  “Tree roots not only need unrestricted flow to transfer water and nutrients but they need to spread out like a star to create good support for the tree.  You see all those trees that are leaning?  That’s because they don’t have adequate root support.  The ball of roots is rocking in the soil.  And these trees aren’t getting the nutrients and water they need because the girdling, twisted roots are acting like tourniquets and cutting off their ability to flow!”

“But how did they get like this?” Tom asked intently.

“I did some study last night.  Five years ago, to answer that kind of question that was coming as a complaint more often, the University of Florida started research of nursery practices.  They found that nurseries are creating poor root structure in their new trees.   Most critically they are damaging roots by keeping them in closed pots too long.  The roots hit the side of the pot, start circling or girdling the other roots and get all twisted up. The nursery finally switches to a larger pot.  They grow again and six months or a year later the roots hit the sides of this new closed pot and the same girdling occurs further out.  This can happen three or four times before the tree ends up in the pot that it gets sold in. With all the soil around it, you can’t see what the roots are like inside the root ball, even if you take it out of the pot.

Unfortunately today 95% of nurseries do nothing special to ensure natural star-shaped root growth and so have this problem unless they are sold fast.  If you buy from a usual nursery, you have about a 50/50 chance of getting a tree with bad root structure that will leave you with a wilting tree in three years.  You can shave (and should) the worst of the circling roots on the outside of the ball to somewhat improve the structure but apparently your landscaper didn’t even do that.  But this recommended practice doesn’t do anything to change the previous girdled roots at the previous smaller pot sizes.  So when you plant the tree, it might look fine for the first two years as the tree uses the nutrients in the root ball and before the roots are too big to start choking each other.  It’s common to see this type of problem about the third year, just as you are seeing now.”

“You mean I paid about $100,000 to buy these trees and have them all planted and you’re telling me they were defective from the start and not even planted right – too deep and not root-shaved?!” Tom asked astonished.

“I’m afraid so,” I said morosely.  “I guess you could sue the landscaper.  But they’ll say it was the nursery’s fault, that they didn’t know they were being sold trees with defectivce root systems. The nursery will say they just do what everybody else does. Sadly they’re almost right.

Because of problems like this, in the last few years a handful of tree farms who have followed the research science closely are doing what you have to do to develop great root systems in tree nurseries.

The procedures required include  (1) introducing special root fungi at initial seed start up to maximize the roots’ ability to absorb water and nutrients, (2) using special containers called “air pots” with lattice spaces throughout so the roots don’t hit walls and girdle but instead self-prune when they go through a hole and hit the air which encourages root branching back to the stem (3) shaving outer roots at every pot size transfer and (4) taking the soil off the top lateral roots to expose the top support roots to the oxygen they need  instead of getting smothered.

The bottom line, Tom, is unless you buy your trees from one of these ACT or RPG associated farms that is known to really follow all the above procedures, you run a high chance of buying a tree that may look pretty and structurally sound above the ground to earn even a Florida Grade #1 designation, but whose root system is headed for failure about the third year after planting.  I wish we had known you then. But truthfully, this science was barely known back then, so even if we had known you we may not have been able to prevent this.”

Tom stared into space digesting this costly shock.  Fortunately he could probably absorb it financially – but it was still a huge loss.  And how much more was it going to take to fix the bad trees?

“So do I need to remove all these trees?” he asked.

“I talked your situation over with a few colleagues last night and here is what we concluded.  First of all, not every one of the new trees has a bad root system, even if a majority do.  Secondly, we will prune the worst of the choking roots now when we have them exposed which will give them a little better chance. Third, let us apply liquid organic compost and liquid minerals to help their vigor. Fourth, we’re going to air-spade remove the smothering “volcanic mulching” they shoved against the trunks keeping the roots from getting oxygen.   But the cost to replace the trees is so expensive that we’d recommend you just watch them closely and only replace the ones that get very distressed or start to lean too weakly.  The strongest ones might just find a way to recover.”

“I guess that’s what I’ll do.  Sounds the most reasonable.  Well thanks for all your detective work,” Tom said shaking my hand and simultaneously still shaking his head in disbelief.  What a lesson.

I hope you, the tree-buying public, can use this knowledge to improve your chances of getting not only a structurally Grade #1 tree above-ground but also an excellent root system below-ground so your tree will survive strong and vigorously for years. Find out from an experience, informed organic arborist who knows who the best root farms are in your area where to buy your trees from – or take your chances.  If you can’t find such a farm nearby, your next best option is to study online what a good root system looks like and then knock off some dirt from the root ball of a tree you want to buy to see what the root structure looks like.

 

 

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