Tree first aid

I walked around my neighborhood this morning to enjoy that sunrise hour when it is still cool outside. It took quite a bit of time to go a short distance, however, because as I walked the neighborhood, I wanted to fix everyone’s landscape problems and admire the variety of landscape designs.

This tree planted at a nearby church had almost every problem. The bamboo stake was kept, a stake was butted up against the tree and not removed once the tree could stand on its own, and only one emitter was installed.

This morning, my focus was on tree problems. I know that people don’t purposely hurt their trees. Most of the time, they just trust their landscapers and don’t realize that needs change as the landscape matures. Before I learned the right ways, I also made those mistakes and I am still correcting some of them. I am not putting down the landscape professionals. I have met some great ones. I don’t think that many of them educate their clients on future needs of their yards, however, other than how to use the irrigation controller.

So, if the problems listed here are ones you recognize in your yard, please find comfort in knowing these are common mistakes and you can correct them in most cases, just as I have had to do. In fact, I have finished the corrections in my backyard, but I am still repairing drip emitter placement in my front yard. Photos with this blog reflect some of the staking and watering problems I found in my neighborhood walk.

Bamboo stake still attached to tree.
The nursery’s bamboo stake wasn’t removed at the time of transplanting. This tree was planted about a year ago, so the roots have already grown around it. It will be difficult, but not impossible, to remove.

First of all, most trees from the nursery don’t need staking if they are selected and planted properly. You want a tree with a straight and sturdy trunk. Always remove the bamboo stake that the nursery installed. This was only to keep the tree straight at the nursery and if you don’t remove it immediately, roots will grow around it, making it very difficult to remove without root damage if it stays after the tree is planted.

Sometimes, however, a tree does need a little help. The winds this year almost bent a sturdy new plum tree of mine to the ground. So now I have it staked temporarily so that the roots can settle into the ground again. If you do have to stake:

  • Use a piece of old hose with coated wire running through it. Landscapers sometimes use other soft, stretchable materials to encircle the tree trunk and attach it to the stakes. Place two stakes opposite each other and 30 inches or more away from the trunk and place the hose piece as low on the trunk as you can go to straighten the tree. The distance is important so that the roots don’t grow around the stakes that first year of growth.
  • Shake the tree gently at least once a week to strengthen it, otherwise it gets lazy and lets the stakes provide its strength. It’s the old adage that you lose what you don’t use.
  • When you stake, do so for a limited amount of time. Usually, a staked tree grows enough within a year to stand alone.
Hose is embedded into the trunk.
This tree grew so much that not only was the hose embedded into the trunk, but the trunk pulled the stake into its direction.

As I walked around a neighborhood church, several trees that were at least 6-8 years old still had stakes attached. In fact, several trunks had grown around the hoses and wires, permanently embedding them into the bark of the tree. Essentially, the wire and hose wrapped around the tree was strangling the trunk, cutting the flow of water and nutrients to the limbs. In addition, the damage opens up the trunk to pests and diseases. If the stakes were installed too close to the trunk, the roots have probably grown around the old stakes, making removal very difficult.

• Always, check the progress of your tree trunk strength several times a year so that you can remove stakes as soon as they are no longer needed.
• If you have a mature tree that is still staked, carefully remove the wire and hose then gently work the stakes out of the ground so roots aren’t damaged. If the stakes won’t come out without damaging the tree, cut them at ground level so that they won’t get in the way of tree growth above ground. If the tree has grown into or around the stake, you should call an arborist if you want to save the tree.

The classic problem with water in mature trees is that drip lines weren’t moved out as the canopy grew. Landscape installers could contribute to long-term landscape success if they walk the owners through the yard and explain how to maintain it as the landscape matures. It would be great if the landscapers  prepared for growth, gave the homeowners an approximate schedule for change and showed them simple ways to adjust to the changes. Although I liked my landscaper, he never told me where main drip lines were laid and how to help my landscape stay healthy as the plants grew. It has caused much digging, back-breaking labor and frustration, not to mention the cost of tree replacement, because I didn’t know about the simple steps both he and I could have taken to avoid the problems.

This mature tree’s roots are growing at surface level because its only water source is the shallow watering done for the lawn.

Trees should never be placed in a lawn without a berm or border to separate it and a separate drip line and emitters should be installed for it. If these two steps aren’t taken, the tree never gets the three-foot deep watering it needs for stabilization. Your lawn gets 6-8 inches of water depth and the tree roots are going to go where the water is. That’s why when trees are in the lawn and dependent upon the lawn sprinklers for water, roots will often appear above ground as the tree matures. The most dangerous result is that shallow roots produce unstable trees. A strong wind can push a large tree onto the house, a car or street. So, it’s to your benefit, beyond beautification, to make sure that the watering needs for your trees are met.

The problem that shows up with most trees is that the drip emitter rests up against the trunk. Again, this is something a landscaper should discuss with a new homeowner. Initially, the drip lines are installed close to the trunk (but never should be right against it) so that the newly planted root ball gets plenty of water as its roots are established. However, within a year, the drip emitters should be moved out to the canopy edge (called the drip line) and re-evaluated each year for possible adjustments.

As I installed new trees recently, I cut the ¼” drip line (called spaghetti) as long as I anticipated was needed for the next few years. I wrapped it in a circle, used a twist tie to hold it together, and buried most of the line where the emitter is needed right now. As the tree grows, I can release more line. With line that is close to the main drip line, I didn’t have to do anything because I could cut the line shorter as the canopy grows.

When this tree was planted, one emitter was installed close to the tree. It is a mature tree now so it needs 6-8 emitters.

The final watering issue is how many drip lines are needed for the tree. Many landscapers only install one or two emitters for the new tree. A tree that will be large upon maturity needs six to eight emitters and small mature trees will need at least four to six. Make your landscapers put in the number of emitters needed at the tree’s maturity. By using goof plugs, they can close off the emitters not needed until later. Goof plugs look like a normal drip emitter but the hole is closed so nothing comes through. As you need the additional emitter, all you do is cut off an inch to remove the goof plug and replace it with a functioning drip emitter. This is much easier than digging up the main drip line to install more spaghetti lines. Been there, did that! (Some people use emitter extenders, but I find that they can leak.)

If you need to move or add your drip emitters to solve this problem:

  • A quick fix is to get some spaghetti line extenders to lengthen the line (but see the note above). They look a lot like the emitters. You can then attach more spaghetti line. To shorten lines, simply clip off the current emitter, cut the line the length you need and attach a new emitter.
  • To add lines, you will need to dig up the main drip line. Carefully unearth one of the drip emitters at the tree and follow the spaghetti line to the main drip line. Add the number of additional lines you need and plan for future grown so you don’t have to dig up the main line again.

I learned the hard way what was needed for a healthy landscape. I hope this blog entry will make your life easier and your landscape healthier. And if you live in my neighborhood and see me staring at a tree or bush in your yard that needs some TLC, please don’t call the police. Invite me into the yard and I’ll help you repair the problem, no charge. 🙂

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I am a certified agriscape designer and Maricopa County Master Gardener. I have been gardening since I was six years old and worked in my grandfather's garden. I believe that the only way to be a responsible gardener is to garden organically. It improves our soil, is safer for us to eat, sustainable and it protects our pollinators and soil from chemical poisoning.