Problems With a Newly Planted Tree? Get to the Root of the Matter

Written by Eric Eckard
Updated February 25, 2015
new trees
Many tree problems are caused by caring homeowners, like watering trees too much or letting weed killer drift on to the tree leaves. (Photo courtesy of Angi member Kathleen E. of Tempe, Arizona)

We know you mean well, but heed this advice to make sure you're caring for a new tree properly.

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When trees are in distress, they tend to give us clues to their unhappiness. We notice the obvious signs, like dead branches, increased debris on the lawn, peeling bark, blotchy or dropping leaves and more. But don't overlook another important factor in good tree health: I call it "The Root Zone."

Many of the outward signs of visible tree decline are directly related to issues in the roots. The roots have vital functions for healthy trees, such as stability and structure, moisture uptake and energy storage.

Planting a tree the right way

Let's start at the beginning. Often, trees are installed wrong. They are planted too deep or too high, or the root ball is not treated properly. A common problem is that nurseries use a synthetic burlap to ball the trees up for transplanting. This synthetic burlap needs to be removed or sliced open at the time of planting to ensure that roots can grow freely into the outer soil area, producing healthy root structure. Trees where the plastic burlap is left on often fall over when the tree grows larger but the root ball remains small and contained.

When the roots aren't happy the tree is not happy. Many common problems with tree roots are caused by caring homeowners trying to help their trees, but they aren't aware of proper cultural practices. Start by protecting the trees roots by keeping vehicles and equipment away from the trunk and roots of the tree. This can prevent injury and future rotting or insect damage by keeping the tree healthy and whole.

More Tree Information

Thinking of planting a tree or need more advice on caring for yours? Check out these articles:

Angi Guide to Tree Care and Services

When is the best time to plant a tree?

Arborists discuss benefits of planting trees

Easy on the mulch

Mulching your trees looks nice and can retain moisture, but often excessive mulching leads to girdled roots, insect infestations and rotting of the trunk flare. Keep the mulch about 8 inches away from the base of your trees to ensure that the base is dry and free from excessive moisture against the bark. A light coating of an inch and a half is plenty to aid in weed control and moisture retention.

Water wisely

Too little water can be bad, but too much can be as bad or worse. Excessive watering can drown the roots, starving the tree of oxygen and showing decline in the leaves of the tree. Fill a 5-gallon bucket with a few small holes in the bottom with water and set at the base of the tree. It's a good way to get a deep and thorough watering while monitoring the amount of water the tree is getting.

Maintaining your landscaping

When tackling weeds, be careful not to allow drifting weed killer to get onto tree leaves. Curled leaves are a sign of herbicide damage. 

When fertilizing your trees, spread a slow-release fertilizer around the tree under the drip line of the canopy, which is typically the area the roots will cover.

Dig a little deeper

Sometimes the problems in the root area aren't obvious — a base excavation may be needed to unearth the problem. Carefully remove soil and mulch away from the base of the tree and look for rot, girdled roots, insect damage, excessive moisture and overall condition of the root flare.

If a larger tree has excessive root girdling, use an air spade to safely remove soil from the roots and an air wand to expose the root structure without cutting the roots. Then, pruning of the roots can be done.

So, while there are many real problems facing the trees above our heads — like emerald ash bore, beetles and other insects, fungus and mildew, etc. — don't get too distracted with the symptoms and get to the root of the problem.

As of February 25, 2015, this service provider was highly rated on Angi. Ratings are subject to change based on consumer feedback, so check Angi for the most up-to-date reviews. The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angi.

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