By Lucy Harrell T.C.N.P.
A Specialist On Demanding Environments
When we bought our new home in Magnolia I realized that several of our large trees had girdling roots that looked like the picture above. Many properties have trees that look like this –and most of us know that this is a problem– but tackling it can be kind of intimidating to most home owners . Don’t be afraid to do it—be afraid that if you don’t do it –it will be very damaging to the tree. Ignoring the problem will cause several symptoms suchas branch die back and eventually the death of the tree.

All you need for the job is either a hand saw or large loppers- or both- and a trowel to expose the roots to the point that you can get in and cut them out—oh yesssss—- and a bit of courage!!!!!

I love my tools—I used a Friskers fold out hand saw and my Tiger Jaw ratchet clippers and some hand pruners to get down and cut out smaller roots.

Now here is a step by step how to do it–
saw or lop the girdler in the middle if you can get to it. Now you can grab the root from both sides—pull them up and out as far as you can- one side will come up and away from the soil. Grab the side that is still attached to the tree underground and cut it back as far as possible down into the soil. Cutting the girdling root in the middle makes it easier to grab them and get them out and away from the tree—use your trowel to help you follow them into the soil.

Sometimes as you pull up there will be several small roots the size of your finger that will need to be cut to allow the larger root that you are trying to remove to be pulled all the way up and out. Don’t be worried if there is a quite a large impression on the flare once the girdling root is removed—this is better for it then being severed by the girdling root-which is what would happen if you left it alone. >>>>>>>>>>

^ Large indentions on the root flare caused by a girdling root—not a problem. You can see how I only left the exposed roots that are traveling out away from the tree. Now all is well and it is ready for a nice deep watering- If you have trees that have this problem don’t put off doing it too long—the sooner you take care of the problem the better –for the tree. Do it now!!!

Next we will talk about what causes this problem–how not to have this problem—and how to plant a tree.

To avoid this problem there are several things that you can do when planting a tree or shrub ( this can happen to shrubs too).

How To Plant A Tree

First of all everything you plant should be well watered. The hole that you dig (in soil that is not a well prepared planting bed) should be 3 times as wide as the tree that you are planting needs to be– to hold the roots -and as close to possible to the depth that it requires to be planted at the correct soil level—(not dug too deep). If I amend trees at all– I usually only use a little compost mixed 50/50 with hardwood mulch –(no more then 20 % of this mix )worked into the dirt that I dug out of the hole—and a little lava sand is good too ( about 10%)—if you use expanded shale you need enough to cover the surface size of the hole 3 inches deep and work that amount evenly into the soil that you will be putting back into the hole—see the general planting guide to help you decide. Don’t over amend trees—it isn’t good for them.

Make sure that the hole will drain well –(you can figure that out) Dig an ugly hole in clay soil- not a hole with slick sides-rough it up with your shovel.
Always loosen the roots of a container grown tree or shrub by grabbing the circling roots and pulling them out so that you plant them in a flare away from the trunk. If you can’t manage this—then cut any roots that are circling around and pull them out. If this causes a lot of the soil to be lost– then make a nice hill shape in the new hole ( out of what you dug up to make the hole and spread the roots out over it to grow out away from the tree.

Always be sure to plant the tree high enough to show a flare ( slight curve from the trunk to the roots) above ground. It should not look straight like a telephone pole. Don’t think that you should automatically plant a tree at the same soil level that it was planted in the container—this is often too deep—due to the fact that many growers bump plants up by just shoving them into a larger container and throwing more soil on top. Planting a tree too deep can lead to girdling roots too.
If you are planting a balled & burlaped tree – cut the burlap and remove the wire after the tree is in the hole and pull the wire out —at this point check for any circling roots and remove them—if you have dug the hole 3 times as wide as the root ball then you should be able to get in and tackle this—if it is really muddy in the hole- throw around some mulch –just enough to make working in the hole possible. I have no problem with leaving the burlap on — if it has been cut and pulled away—it will rot eventually.

I do use Maxicrop seaweed to water the roots in ( like I plant everything else). I also stake every tree that I plant I understand why many people say that it is best not to stake a tree—it helps the tree grow anchor roots quicker  it is allowed to gently sway back & forth. That is true— however it is pretty hard to move “gently” in the high winds that occur here—and a tree that is just planted is usually pretty top heavy. I do not want to take a chance that a newly planted tree would lay out (roots up) in the sun for any amount of time that it took for someone to notice the problem and replant it—so I stake every tree that I plant. It is important that it is staked correctly and checked often for at least 6 months before removing the stakes.

I have no personal pictures of a properly planted at this time-and can’t find any on the web — but I believe that I can explain how to stake the tree right . I use fence stakes with little hooks ( hardware store) up and down the stakes to hold the canvas straps in place. I make sure that I have tall ones- about 8 feet tall to start with if I’m staking a tree that is about 10’-12’. Place the stakes about 2 feet in the soil in the stable ground outside the hole you dug for the tree.

Use canvas straps- and tie them tightly around the stakes between the hooks so that the cloth doesn’t slip up and down—pick a spot on the stake that is as tall or slightly taller as the area where you want to wrap the cloth loosely around the tree trunk. Buy rolls of canvas strap – at hardware stores—about 2 inches wide

Cut off more length of the strip of cloth then you need to reach around the tree and back to the stake ( about 18” longer). The excess length will hang off of the stake. Be sure that the canvas strap is loose on the tree—it should be secured well to the stake and held up by the hooks on the stake—this way the tree can sway a bit back & forth but if the wind gets strong-it can’t be blown over because the loose strap will catch it. Check the ties every month at least to be sure that they are not causing impressions in the trunk and loosen them as needed. ( this is the reason for the excess canvas). You should be able to remove the stakes and ties in 6 months. If the tree is till unstable after that –you may be overwatering. ( watering too often)

After planting & staking the tree—be sure to mulch around it with about 3 “- 4” of hardwood mulch to help the soil that is covering its roots to conserve water. Do not place the mulch up on the trunk of the tree-keep it about an inch away.

Water your newly planted tree deeply and slowly—every other day for one week—then every 3 days for a while –every 4 days-for a while —by the end of the first month it should be fine watered well every 5-7 days with the rest of the landscape . Monitor the watering schedule closely if you have planted the tree in very hot weather. The best time to plant trees is fall—the second best time is winter or early spring.

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