Sunday, October 19, 2014

Tree Autopsy. 10.19.14

Roots of dead dogwood.  10.19.14

Roots of dead dogwood.  10.19.14
 This year I had 3 dead trees.  Two, a Satsuma plum and a Kousa dogwood, were planted summer 2012, did well in 2013, and died mid summer 2014.  The first summer I watered frequently, the second summer I watered rarely.

The 3rd, a Madrone, died without any growth at all.  From what I read, madrones transplant so poorly and die so quickly after planting, I should not have bothered.

I did an autopsy on the plum and dogwood.  It looks like the roots did not grow beyond the original root ball. 

I don't remember if I planted these without cutting away the surrounding roots.  Now I do.  From the book, The Informed Gardener by Linda Chalker-Scott - paraphrased -

The gardener should disturb the root ball, aggressively.  Nursery-grown trees, especially those bought in containers, often have roots that wind around the pot, creating a "root pot" that new roots can't escape.  Roots cross each other and strangle each other.  The roots don't grow into surrounding soil. 

The result is a tree basically growing in a pot, even though there is no pot and it's in the ground. 

The author washes away all soil with a hose, bare-roots the tree, and prunes all winding roots, then replants entirely in native soil, carefully spreading the roots. 

It looks like these trees were victims of my own poor planting technique.   As far as I can see, the roots never extended beyond were the original root ball had been.
Roots of dead plum.  10.19.14

The trees are now replaced with home-started trees.  No issues with recovering from nursery abuse, although there's still the forces of nature, and my own learning process.

Gardening is not about what you have, it's about what you create, and grow, and do.

It's not about what you know, it's about what you learn.


  1. I can see what bad things can happen to store bough trees. I have a lemon tree that I killed no matter what amendment, water or care I give doesn't improve an inch. After I dug it up, I can see the roots all shrivel up. The stuff in the pot was hard like cement. Basically the soil was very clay and the roots never escape the bad soils. I don't understand how can any plant can survive such poor soil or grow up from it. I suspect the tree was field grown with good loamy soil and pot up with poor soil for sale. Once it leaves the store its future was doomed. Now I always change the soil after I get it home and also inspect the roots to see if there's any dead roots. Lots of time, the soil mix from store bough plants was not good, smaller plants have lots of fertilizer pellets that was burning the plants, too much peat, only good for greenhouse commercial growing environment. I've saved many plants that was declining by changing the soil that it came with the pot. yes, you learn everyday from experience.

  2. I'm a big proponent of growing starts yourself / myself, from one's own yard, or neighbor, friend, coworker, family member. That's often not possible of course.

    Sounds like you have a lot of experience and expertise with saving plants and getting them on the right foot!

    In the future, I think I will follow the reference author's advice, and bare-root the tree or shrub whenever possible. The original soil can be hosed off if needed. Then it needs a lot of TLC. This extensive treatment is probably not needed for most self-started plants unless I left them in container too long.

  3. Commercial grower has only 1 thing on their mind is to make a profit and in the shortest amount of time. I have come across some commercial greenhouse literature as to how to push plants out the door. Needless to say nothing good for the customer in the long run. In general the plants been push to the limit to perform in a very artificial environment. Most of the time, it needs to be slowly "ween" back to natural environment. Its been spray with "what-nots" like a person on antibiotics/drugs.
    The soil part is the kicker. Good compost cost money so when they ship off plants they don't use compost they use a lot of fillers/garbage sub-soils/soil less peat mix to cut corners and the plant is not hurt in the shot terms but will definitely die suffocate in those mix.