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Can Trees that were Planted Balled and Burlaped With Their Roots all Wrapped up be Rescued

Q. Mike, the 'proper tree planting' portion of your recent conversation with plant scientist Linda Chalker-Scott scared the heck out of me. About three years ago, we bought a fringe tree, a crabapple, and an evergreen from a local nursery and paid them to plant all three. The crew dug the holes wide but not deep, as you always instruct; but they left the burlap and wire cages around the root balls. I ran outside yelling, "no, no, no!", fought with them for a while, and then called the owner. I told him I wanted the wrapping off and the roots spread out, citing my previous success planting trees that way. He refused, saying it would harm the roots to unwrap them, that he always planted trees this way, and that they would be fine…

    ---Lisa in Jenkintown, PA

A. I'm going to interrupt Lisa here to vent: This absolute refusal by so-called professionals to do things correctly happens all the time, and is really frustrating. What good is it for a homeowner to know the right way to do things if the landscaper insists on doing it wrong?

Yes, it's tough to put your foot down when this happens—especially when you weren't expecting a confrontation that day. But the only real answer is to say, "then put them back on the truck, issue me a refund and I'll take my business somewhere else."

But I understand that this can be really difficult to do in real life—especially when you're dealing with someone who sounds like a bully. I hope Lisa has at least warned others about this business on review sites, like Yelp. (Don't get mad; get even!)

And I'm pretty sure that she would feel a lot better if she had stood up to him that day because she continues: "After a lot of back and forth, and against my better judgment, I allowed the work to be finished his way. But after the men left, I excavated the top third of the root balls and cut away as much of the burlap and wire as I could reach, then replaced the earth. All three trees seem OK, but none of them are as robust as I think they should be—although when I tried 'the wiggle test', none of them seemed to move much if at all."

That's a good sign. Our guest on the show that day, Linda Chalker-Scott, author of a great new book called "How Plants Work" (Timber Press), explained that you can 'test' a tree that doesn't seem to be thriving by grabbing the trunk and trying to wiggle it. If the roots are trapped inside a burlap bag, the tree will often move around easily—a sign that the tree is almost certainly going to have a short and unhappy life.

Lisa with the bagged trees concludes: "I would hate to lose these trees. Do you think we should dig them up and remove whatever wrapping and wire we find? Or just leave them alone and hope for the best?"

That kind of question is almost impossible to answer! Why on earth would I choose it for this week's feature?! I have two reasons:

  1. I can't pick low hanging fruit every week. And
  2. I have a secret weapon for 'tough questions': My Magic 8-Ball!

Time to 'call the question'! "Oh Magic 8-ball, knower of all things horticultural and otherwise, should Lisa dig up her trees?" Shake the Magic 8-Ball, turn it over, look in the little window on the bottom, and it says….

"It is certain."

Yikes! I wish I could ask this little black ball exactly how to do this, but I can't, so I'll just have to take my best shot. (I think that means all of you are now officially behind the 8-Ball!)

First, I would not do anything in the heat of summer—this is the worst time of year to stress a plant. The first good chance at checking out the situation safely is going to be this Fall, after all the leaves have dropped off the deciduous trees and the evergreen is safely dormant—sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

(Yes, the dead of winter would be technically perfect, but you have to presume the soil will be frozen then. And early Spring would also be technically perfect, but it's generally a wet time in the Northeast, and you can do a lot of harm working in wet soil. If the dirt does turn out to be dry next Spring, that would be fine. But if it isn't, you'd have to wait through another season of those roots maybe being professionally strangled; so I'm going with the first dry spell late this fall.)

Now: The ideal tool to use would be an air spade—a device that professionals often use to uncover the root flare of trees that were planted too deeply. (At least this landscaper avoided that common mistake.) It's an amazing piece of equipment--blowing away soil and mulch without harming the roots of the trees. If she (or you, if you're in a similar quandary) can't rent one (or hire a professional who has one), a physical uncovering is called for--but it needs to be very slow and gentle. Don't push a shovel into the soil and maybe slice through roots that are/were fine!

Instead, put on a good pair of tight gloves—baseball batting gloves are ideal for this kind of work—and dig away as much soil around the root flare as possible. If you encounter big lateral roots, stop and put the soil back; you have discovered that everything is fine—the roots have escaped their original confinement.

But if you reach a layer of burlap instead, you can now move up to digging with a trowel because the roots are "safe" inside the bag. Expose the bag and cut the burlap away from the sides. You can leave the burlap on the very bottom; it's the lateral root growth you want to insure. (As our guest explained that day, the most important tree roots go out sideways like a wide-brimmed hat, not straight down.)

Finally, what about the wire cages? If these were one-year-old trees, I would dig them up completely, remove everything and replant them, but at three years in the ground I want to minimize the stress. Yes, cut away any metal you can remove safely, but concentrate on the burlap. The roots should be able to find their way through the big holes in the cages once most of the burlap is gone.

And then no matter what, give all three trees a nice one to two inch mulch of compost, beginning six inches to a foot away from the trunks and going out as far as you possibly can. The compost will naturally nourish and help heal any roots you nicked while on your life saving mission.

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