How to Kill a Tree

Correcting tree problems can be time consuming and expensive. Photo: Lise Jenkins


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

These are good days to plant trees. You can do it right or you can lay a trap for future generations.

Last week Kit shared some of her misadventures with trees; my experience, however, rests on other peoples’ choices. I’m left wondering, were they unwitting assassins or did they intend to kill their victims? Either way, I dislike these people.

Twice a month I help with our neighborhood’s landscape committee. When we aren’t removing dead trees, we are trying to salvage trees whose lives are being unnecessarily cut short. Over the years we’ve worked on hundreds of trees and I’ve learned that killing a tree is easy: just start with the wrong one and do a poor job of putting it in the ground.

Our cooler temperatures and shorter days will slow trees’ top growth, but their roots will continue to grow until the ground freezes. Planting now will produce a tree that, come spring, benefits from an established root system. Fall, not spring, is a good time to plant a tree.

The tree you plant may outlast you. You are forewarned: this is not a good impulse purchase, so do your homework and select the species that is right for your location. My well-worn copy of “Essential Native Trees and Shrubs for the Eastern United States” by Dove and Woolridge helps guide my choices. Throughout the year I add notes and tuck clippings between its pages to help me identify candidates to investigate.

When you’ve identified the ideal species, it’s time to go shopping. As with any long-term relationship, it helps to know how your prospective companion was raised. Find out if the tree was grown in a container or out in a field. Both methods can result in problems that could shorten a tree’s lifespan.

Trees left too long in small containers could have roots growing in tight circles. Once planted out, these roots may fail to spread, producing an unstable tree that will struggle to draw moisture and nourishment from its surroundings.

Alternatively, field-grown trees are typically dug up each fall. Their roots are trimmed to keep them compact, and when they are ready for sale they are placed into containers. Compared to container-grown trees, there’s less danger of their roots girdling; however, heavy pruning done incorrectly can fatally damage their roots.

If the scaffold roots, the ones branching off the tree’s base, are cut or damaged, the tree can be very slow to recover. Without them, it will likely develop an uneven root system, lack stability and potentially suffer from uneven top growth. Worse yet, if the tree isn’t able to quickly generate new roots it may lose its ability to take up nutrients, water and ultimately succumb to its fate.

While younger trees don’t provide instant impact, their smaller sizes make them easier to inspect and handle. If possible, remove your potential candidate from its container and thoroughly inspect its roots. Pass by any trees with roots that have been severed, folded back over themselves or push densely against the sides of its container.

Selecting your ideal candidate based on the health of its root system, while a bit tedious, produces better results than making your choice based on eye-catching top growth alone.

Good nurseries invest time and hard work raising healthy trees so be sure to purchase your tree from a quality vendor. They take pride in their trees and will help you make a good choice.

Once you have selected a healthy, undamaged tree that is suitable for your location your next task is to properly install it. Despite what many assume, there’s more to planting a tree than just popping it in the ground. We will dig into the topic further next week and I’ll ask Watauga County Extension Agent Paige Patterson to share her expert advice on tree installation.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email:

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