July 21, 2017 - 9:25am -- smith.263@osu.edu

At first glance, it appears this young tree simply blew over during a storm. While it did, as we investigate more closely we'll find it was much more than the storm that caused this tree to go over. In fact, this tree's problems began before it was even planted!


The 'old rule' is that when dug up carefully, we should find about the same amount of total root mass as we find top growth. While certainly some of the roots were torn as this young tree went over, it's also apparent there's simply not nearly the root mass we'd expect.


That root has grown laterally and has never penetrated any deeper into the soil.


That root in the middle that's growing laterally simply couldn't penetrate the soil beneath it. How can this be?

If we speculate for a moment on what the likely history of this particular area is, the reason this tree had so few roots and went down in what may not have been all that extreme of a wind becomes easy to understand.

In all likelihood when construction was begun for the building the topsoil was not removed first and saved to be replaced on top later. Once construction was complete, it's likely a bulldozer simply leveled the area without regard to returning the subsoil first, that then should have been followed by the topsoil being replaced back on top.

Depending on the time of year and the intensity of the construction schedule, further complicating this bad situation is soil conditions are seldom considered before backfilling and leveling a construction site. Unfortunately while this is common practice for many new constructions, it also leaves a soil environment that is not conducive for the type of root growth required to sustain large, deep rooted plants for long periods of time.

At the time this tree was planted into this poorly drained subsoil backfill, it's easy to speculate that the soil conditions were wetter than they should have been. When a hole is dug into heavy, wet clay, the sides of that hole become easily smeared. When a tree is quickly placed into that hole and backfilled with wet soil, often times the soil environment is never restored into conditions that can properly support plant growth.

The result is a root bound plant - a tree in this case - that can never fully reach it's potential. As the tree continues to grow, a plant with enlarging top growth but not equally growing root structure eventually begins to suffer from lack of soil nutrients. During times of dry weather that plant quickly suffers from drought stress, and during times of wetter than normal weather the water logged "clay bowl" it was planted into prevents the roots from being exposed to air space in the soil that's necessary for healthy growth.

Eventually - often times perhaps 5 to 15 years after it was planted - a tree planted into these conditions dies from decline due to lack of proper moisture and soil nutrients, or it simply falls over as this one did. Either way it results from inadequate soil conditions and root structure that was caused by mistakes made long before the tree was even planted. A few simple steps can prevent this:

  • Never work in wet soils
  • When a construction project is begun, remove and stockpile the topsoil first in order that it can be replaced on the surface at the conclusion of construction.
  • Never backfill a construction site in wet conditions.
  • Never dig a hole for a tree in wet soil conditions. If wet weather is expected before the tree can be planted, dig the hole in dry conditions and cover the hole and the soil intended for backfill until the tree can be planted later.
  • Overdig the size of the hole - both in depth and width - by at least double the size of the tree's root ball.
  • Never backfill a planted tree with wet soil.

If you're planting a tree with the expectations it will live throughout your lifetime, and perhaps also that of your children, practice the patience it takes to plant it into soil conditions that won't cause it to die prematurely.

Poor planting conditions are not the only thing that is causing decline of many of our trees around Fairfield County. For more information about the tree decline we've seen in recent years, read the post from 2015 on Tree Decline that's linked here.

- Stan Smith, OSU Extension PA, Fairfield County