Garden Advice: Don’t Prune that Crown!

Quercus_Oak_COS-CO_LAH_1854It’s a common question. You’ve just planted a new tree. In the process, the plant has lost a significant portion of its roots—sometimes up to 95 per cent! Should you prune back the crown to compensate?

The intuitive answer would be yes. We assume that with fewer roots, there’s no way the plant will be able to sustain all that foliage on top—and that’s the advice I see on website after website. But if you do decide to prune, you’ll be doing the tree a disservice. You might even kill it! How can this be?

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Watering Trees

dead tree_COS_PLH_3The tree had clearly expired. What leaves remained had turned a sickly yellow-brown, and hung limply on the branches—in mid-August! Yet, when our neighbors planted it last year it had been perfectly healthy. Something was obviously wrong, and I had a hunch I knew what. (I’ve often said that master gardeners kill just as many plants, we just know why they died.)

Surreptitiously moving the cobblestone mulch aside (and wondering if the homeowner was watching through the closed curtains), I looked at the drip irrigation set-up. There was only one emitter, and it was directing water right to the base of the trunk. No wonder the tree was dead! (That and the fact that it was planted too deeply; there’s no sign of the root flare.)

close-up tree irrigation wrong_COS_PLH_1

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Getting Established

Catmint established_COS-CO_LAH_1542You’ve read the instructions; I’ve used them frequently here in my posts. “Drought resistant once established.” Sounds good—we’re always trying to save water—but how should you water these plants to start with? And what does “established” mean?

There are a lot of misconceptions about xeric plants. Our landscaper (who was much better at dealing with hardscapes than with living plants) thought that our xeric shrubs and trees needed to be sopping wet for the first few years, until they were “established.” Dead, more likely. (I’m already having to replace some fernbushes that were growing in muck, and we lost the top half of our oak tree in the first few months.)

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Planting a Tree

Improper staking_LAH_5226How do you plant a new tree? Most people know to dig a hole “twice as wide and deep as the root ball” (according to the label I found hanging from the branches), then stick in the tree, making sure the roots are well buried. Amend the backfill with plenty of compost, pile it over the roots and tamp it down firmly. Finally, securely stake the thin trunk so it won’t wiggle in the wind. Right?

Wrong!

This advice was being questioned as far back as 1980, but it is still widely practiced, much to the detriment of the poor plants.

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Getting to the Root of the Matter

Phalenopsis orchid roots_DBG_LAH_6672We all know what roots are—they’re the part of the plant that’s usually underground. If we have a mental image, it’s probably a mass of wiggly, white strings poking their way through the soil. We should pay more attention to roots. After all, they’re an essential part of a plant (as well as the only part remaining after some hail storms!). Knowing a little about how roots work will make us more successful gardeners.

Before I get any further, I should point out that I’ll be talking about your average, every day root. Life is an amazing phenomena, so diverse that there are always exceptions. So let’s skip the orchids (left) and other epiphytes, and the mangroves and other plants with roots growing in water, and focus on our garden flowers, shrubs, and trees.

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