Q. We have a dying maple tree that has been diagnosed with a "girdling root." We were told to have the tree removed and plan to do so. This was the first tree we planted when we moved into our home 20 years ago. We love the maple and hate to lose it, so I would like to know if there is anything we can do to prevent this problem the next time we plant a tree. We intend to replace it with another maple.
A. Girdling roots are those that wind up growing around the trunk of a tree rather than out into the surrounding soil. As the girdling root and the trunk of the tree grow in diameter, the girdling root slowly chokes off the flow of water and nutrients to the tree. Girdling roots may be clearly visible above the soil line, but they are often found below ground.
Symptoms include reduced growth, smaller-than-normal leaves, fewer-than-normal leaves, lighter green leaf color, branch dieback and the eventual death of affected trees. These symptoms are frequently seen just on the side of the tree where the offending root is growing. The trunk may look 'flattened' on that side, too. Girdling roots do not become obvious until five to 20 years after a tree is planted, and it happens so gradually that people often do not realize there is a problem until it is too late.
Certain species of trees are more susceptible than others, including maple (Acer spp., except silver maple), sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), magnolia, pine and linden (Tilia spp.). This susceptibility can be compounded by poor site conditions and poor planting practices. Street trees grown in tree pits that are too small or trees growing in severely compacted soil are more likely to have a problem with girdling roots. Trees that have been planted too deeply or mulched too deeply are also good candidates.
Container-grown trees and shrubs that are planted directly from the container, without breaking their circling roots before planting, are very likely to develop girdling roots too.
On container plants, score the rootball by cutting an inch deep into it from top to bottom on at least four sides. You should also make two diagonal cuts across the bottom of the rootball in an inch-deep "X" pattern. Untangle badly circling roots by hand, and prune off those roots that are circling so deeply back into the rootball that you cannot untangle them. Some arborists recommend removing all artificial soil from the roots of container-grown plants so you can clearly see the circling roots and eliminate them.
Trees should always be planted so that the root flare -- where the trunk flares out to meet the roots -- is just at ground level. If your tree goes straight into the ground like a telephone pole, it is planted too deeply. If you are planting a balled-in-burlap tree, do not dig the hole until you find the root flare so you know how deep to dig it. Untie the twine that holds the burlap around the trunk and pull the burlap back so you can clearly see the top of the rootball (do not remove the burlap completely until you have the tree situated in the hole).
If you cannot see the root flare, remove soil around the trunk until you can see it. You can use your hands, a hand cultivator or the curved part of a wire coat hanger. The root flare can be several inches deep, so be patient and work gently until you find it. You will break some fine roots as you do this. They are known as adventitious roots and can become girdling roots in the future unless the tree is re-planted at the proper depth.
Once you find the root flare, dig the hole so that it will be at ground level once the tree is planted. The hole should be two or three times as wide as the rootball. Backfill with the soil you dug out of the hole. Amending the backfill with a lot of organic matter is no longer recommended.
The above planting directions apply to container-grown plants, too. The main difference is that you can build a cone of soil in the bottom of the hole and splay the slashed rootball over it as additional insurance against girdling roots. If you do not remove the artificial soil, be sure it is completely covered with a thin layer of native soil. Otherwise, that artificial mix will dry out much faster than the surrounding soil. Thoroughly soak the rootball close to the plant and the surrounding soil when you water to prevent drought stress.
An inch or two of mulch is sufficient to maintain soil moisture, moderate soil temperature and help keep weeds down. Mulch should be placed close to but never touching the trunk and extend out to the drip line (the ends of the branches). Applying more mulch than that is like planting a tree too deeply, encouraging adventitious roots that can become girdling roots. Mulch also becomes water repellent once it dries out completely as has happened during our recent dry spell, causing more drought stress. If the mulch is piled up around the trunk, it can hold too much moisture around the bark during wet weather, possibly causing it to rot. A deep layer of mulch also provides a favorable environment for voles and other rodents to take up residence. Trees can survive girdling roots if they are caught early on and removed while they are still small. It is best to have this done by a certified arborist who has the training to determine if removing the root would create an unstable tree hazard. Never attempt to remove very large girdling roots.
Some arborists also offer root crown excavations to uncover the root systems of trees that have been planted too deeply or have had additional soil moved over their roots systems during construction. Some trees may be too far gone to be worth the investment, but I have seen trees recover miraculously once their root crowns are uncovered.
To avoid problems with your new maple, evaluate the planting site for very compacted soil. Plant the new tree at the proper depth, no deeper. And remember that more is not better when it comes to mulch.