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Trees in bad soil - not draining good

Posted by kristie73 z5 Co Springs (vedderkris@yahoo.com) on
Thu, Jun 9, 11 at 15:03

I have a spruce tree I planted several years ago. It's still alive, but it doesn't seem to be growing (it's knee high). When I water it, the water just sits in the basin around the tree. I know I added compost and amendment to the soil prior to planting, but now it's been 4-5 years and I think it's suffering. Is there anything I can add to the soil to help? It is surrounded by river rock.

Then a few months ago, I planted a Hawthorn tree on another side of my yard. I dug extra wide and deep and added compost to the hole, but now when I water, the water is settling and staying on top with like a bubbly filmy white to it. I'm worried. But the tree looks great, its bloomed and leafed out. Again what should I put in this soil?

I live in Colorado Springs. The soil is rocky and hard, clay and sandy and definitly needs amendment which I always do when I plant.

Maybe I didn't add enough compost and mulch?


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

For future reference, plant in native soil you dug out to make the hole. Don't fix it with compost or things supposed to create drainage (they don't).

The use the compost as a surface mulch around the tree's base but not touching the trunk.


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

Could be a number of reasons why the spruce is struggling....a compromised or insufficient root system at planting may be just one.

The above advice is excellent. Amending individual planing holes, especially for wide spreading roots like trees and some shrubs, is discouraged. Even more so in clay or poorly draining soils, as the amended soil can retain water and further impede drainage. The effect is much like a bathtub or bucket.......the water puddles and sits for too long a period, drowning the roots. With a clay soil, dig a very wide but shallow planting hole and place the tree with the rootball above grade. Backfill with whatever was dug out and use your compost/amendments as a mulch, mounding up to cover the exposed portion of the rootball.

If you feel you have to amend, do so over the widest possible area, ideally to the expected distance of the root spread at maturity. Never individual planting holes.


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

What signs are there that it is "alive" - did it have new growth at the tips this spring?

Are you concerned that the height is not increasing as fast as other conifers you see?

Some spruce are dwarf and grow very, very slowly. Do you know the name of your spruce?

Yes, it sounds like you do have some issues with drainage. But I agree with Jean you should really use the native soil when planting, make sure you dig a really nice hole though for new plantings and make sure potbound roots are dealt with, etc.

That being said, I have a Fat Albert spruce that seemed to be lagging after 3 years in the ground - I got down and looked at the trunk and discovered a small strip of green plastic that was digging into the lower trunk - I think it was from when the spruce was staked as a baby in the nursery! Well, I cut it off carefully and now 6 weeks later the spruce has tons of new growth.

Maybe post a picture. And the conifer forum is a great place for spruce questions!


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

I have never heard of not adding some amendment to the soil before planting. I was told to do that from the nursery I purchased it from. It was mixed with it's own soil. At least for the Hawthorn tree.

I think the spruce is a Colorado Blue, but there's no blue to it. Maybe it is a dwarf? I had bought 3 spruce trees at the same time and it was the smallest. I have a Colorado Blue Spruce that looks blue, doing well with new growth. I also have a Baby Blue Eyes growing good.

This tree was a Home Depot or Lowes buy and it was small. I knew it would grow slow, but I couldn't spend hundreds for a taller tree. I can't find a recent picture. This one is from last Aug, but it hasn't changed much, maybe a little more yellow.

tree_Aug2010


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

Far too often the advice to amend the planting hole is used much too generally because there are times, mostly in clay soils, when doing that creates more problems then it solves. If the clay soil is amended only in the planting hole you create a soil where water moves freely until it hits the sides of the hole that were not amended and then the water cannot move freely so it stays in the planting hole, the "bathtub effect".
Today I am seeing some people that have actually learned something about this going way over the other way and telling us we should not amend any soil because of the "bathtub effect", however, that is not a problem in soils that do drain well and would be a major benefit in soils that drain too well.
What kristie needs to do is find a way to drain the bathtubs created

Here is a link that might be useful: The Bathtub Effect


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

Nurseries are in the business of selling plants and products.......like soil amendments. And they are not always current on the best or even recommended horticultural practices. Sure they are going to tell you to amend if it means increasing their sales by adding on amendments to those plant purchases.

There are various reasons why amending planting holes is not recommended, some of which have already been described. Studies have show that trees and shrubs planted in unamended soils establish better and enjoy better long term health than do those planted in heavily amended holes.

Your little tree looks pretty healthy. Do you know what kind of spruce it is? There are many dwarf forms of most spruce species and their rate of growth may be so slow as to be almost unnoticeable. FWIW, that looks nothing like Picea pungens or Colorado blue spruce, even a dwarf form.

Here is a link that might be useful: The myth of soil amendments


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

Unfortunately, I have a similar problem with a Winchester Honeysuckle I just planted a few weeks ago. I have created the bathtub effect in the planting hole by replacing the compacted, poorly-draining, clay with a topsoil and compost mix. The inner foliage of the plant is yellowing and molting. However, the plant is not dead yet!

I would like to hear advice on kimmsr's point of needing to drain the bathtub created. Does anyone have a solution now that the problem has been identified?

So far, I have dug out some "aeration" pits around the root ball to help the standing water evaporate (after bailing most of it out with a cup) and have filled them back in with the topsoil/compost mix (already pitched the clay). But, I don't want this to be a recurring problem. Some people suggest planting the root ball half above ground level and half below, mounding soil around. Opinions? Will stealing clay from other parts of my yard to use as backfill solve the problem now and in the future? Please help!


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

Pull some of the rocks back away from the tree, perhaps you are smothering the roots?


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

Unfortunately, I have a similar problem with a Winchester Honeysuckle I just planted a few weeks ago. I have created the bathtub effect in the planting hole by replacing the compacted, poorly-draining, clay with a topsoil and compost mix. The inner foliage of the plant is yellowing and molting. However, the plant is not dead yet!

I would like to hear advice on kimmsr's point of needing to drain the bathtub created. Does anyone have a solution now that the problem has been identified?

So far, I have dug out some "aeration" pits around the root ball to help the standing water evaporate (after bailing most of it out with a cup) and have filled them back in with the topsoil/compost mix (already pitched the clay). But, I don't want this to be a recurring problem. Some people suggest planting the root ball half above ground level and half below, mounding soil around. Opinions? Will stealing clay from other parts of my yard to use as backfill solve the problem now and in the future? Please help!


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

There's nothing wrong with trying to help tree roots venture out into the wasteland of your yard, the trick is to not give it too much help.

You expressed how you dug the hole and added compost...and that was to assist the roots to take in moisture and that was alright.
Changing a soil for a tree that has to live in the natural soil surrounding it has to be looked at as a band-aid effect, stop the bleeding but don't cover the wound.

You didn't say whether you uncoiled the roots, spread them out. Many plants, not just trees, will have roots that go round and round in their pots or where they are placed in a hole. If it cant take in moisture, then naturally, it sits and the more we add, the more it gathers. Sooner or later it shows the effects on the surface.

In this respect I suggest you dig up the tree, examine the hole, examine the roots of the tree and correct if necessary. Then re-plant, giving it the soil it needs to live in--without XMAS gifts.


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

  • Posted by eureka z8 SS11 CAHiDesert (My Page) on
    Fri, Jul 1, 11 at 3:08

The planting guides from our water agency for planting anything is to add no more than 20% compost to the soil going back into the hole, that's pretty low. At least that is a better guide than just add amendment.

Dig the tree to see what the issue is. Be prepared to put it into a large enough pot if you cannot do all the work on your planting hole in a single day. You must keep your roots covered and safe from drying out.

Also, it sounds as if you do not need to put much water on this tree, nor often. I know CO can have very challenging soil. I just bought an organic product from a landscape supplier called CAL CM plus. It loosens up clay soil and unlocks the nutrients that get locked up in clay soil. The soil becomes more workable. Just put it down a few deep watering back; plants began greening, and bearded iris that should be done blooming have put out new flower shoots, interesting to watch plant changes. I expect to see the soil loosen up will take more time. I feel like I'm getting somewhere at least.


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

The last thing you want to do is dig up a conifer in Colorado in July. That will kill it to be sure. I would check the roots in late September.

tj


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

If you've made it to this post, thanks, I hope I make it worth your while. Actually this is my first post, I made an account just to respond!

It seems like most responses have the right idea regarding the bath tub effect. I found Eurekas the most interesting, I'll look into that product- it's new to me.

Bad drainage, what to do? help it drain! how? take a core sample down to 5 feet and see if clay is present throughout. haha, no one would go to the trouble and it probably is all clay anyway. but if it wasn't, just punch a few holes to let it drain to the better soil.
option 2: mounding up a bit doesn't sound too bad. If you go this route you might as well just do the raised bed. The resulting tree would be susceptible to windfall.

but lets talk about roots for a bit. Roots in a pot are kinda like drug addicts. They can't quit the good pot soil cold turkey and if the transition between pot soil and 'yard' soil is too abrupt, for instance, if it's much more dense or depleted of nutrients then it is less likely it will venture out and develop it's root system properly. Ideally you'd ween the roots off the good stuff. Blend the existing soil with the pot soil in somewhat of a lazy gradient. Someone said fertilize across the entire expected root system area. That's legit advice, that'll coax the roots to where they should be, carrot style.
back to the problem
option 3: Water slowly
watering with a drip won't fill the 'bucket' if the rate of respiration and evaporation is in balance with the drip rate.
option 3: wacky drain method
I just thought of this method. Do you recall how children and some adults draw the sun? its a circle with lines heading straight away, right? The issue with clay is that there is so little space between the particles, because of this water can't pass through, can't pass through well! It will pass eventually. In situations like this it's better to have more surface area for drainage. So this is my proposal; cut 6 or 8 wedges like the rays of the sun down to the same depth of the bottom of the original hole. Each ray appox. 10 inches. then backfill with some very thoughtful mixture(remember the gradient?). You'll encourage good root direction and dramatically increase the surface area for drainage. This idea also seems like a whole lot of work. :-/
maybe don't remove the wedge but flex the soil away and toss some organic matter in 1/2 inch of space that you get on the backside of the shovel. In this way the clay can't "re-seal" and you'll get a similar effect with less work.
option 4: sump pump. jk.

Does this help at all? I can explain further if needed.


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

  • Posted by RpR_ 3-4 (My Page) on
    Mon, Jul 9, 12 at 23:47

Some ever greens are very slow to get going, my brother planted an unknown species long needle pine at my mother's house about eight years ago.
It was a twig about ten inches high

For about five years the tree was less to not much bigger than yours only as pines are, many fewer branches.
My brother regularly often fertilized it with nitrogen heavy fertilizer and now, in the past three years it has reached about eight feet tall.

Once the roots got going so did the tree.

Pull the rocks away at least two feet around the tree, they do it absolutely no good and actually are hard on it.
How deeply did you prepare the soil for drainage?
Feet or inches?


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

Steve, I love your star-shaped trenching idea, don't know why I haven't thought of that. It seems like it would get the roots to move out more quickly. A stroke of genius? I may try it on my next clay-soil tree. :-]

And welcome to the Forum.


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

  • Posted by RpR_ 3-4 (My Page) on
    Tue, Jul 10, 12 at 11:56

ON the drainage again.

Two years ago I planted two maple trees for a landscaper I was working with.
These were larger trees, I could not pick-up the trees but could drag them.
I dug two holes as far down as one can with a sand shovel, including digging down further by digging while on my knees. The holes were about three plus feet wide by the depth of a sand shovels handle.

First tree I broke threw the yellow clay to what ever was below as the water drained out of the hole in minutes.
The other, with the more expensive and beautiful tree I did not.
I told my boss and he said put sand in the bottom of the hole, which was stupid because it was sand bags left over for blocking water from running off I got off of the contractor junk pile and I wanted it for landscaping at home. (beautiful sugar sand).
Well as I expected the hole with the more expensive tree did not drain and the tree died.
Had he done as I suggested and gotten a power post hole digger on skid steer he could have made a dry well four to five feet deep beyond what I dug out and filled that with sand or gravel or more likely, it would have broken through the clay to the original soil.
The first tree lived and did very well.
SO?

If you plant more trees get smaller hand held post hole diggers with augers apprx. ten to twelve inches wide and dig the holes down as far as you can. Fill the bottom with pea gravel or coarse sand.
This will give the water a place to go to.
If you still have water problems after this-- punt.


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

RpR, it sounds like the one hole broke through into a sandy layer. I will guess that this provided a way for water to drain OUT during wet weather, AND a source for water that the roots could easily penetrate as the tree grew. It seems ideal. Of course this situation won't occur everywhere.

For example, I have 15-20 ft. of increasingly dense clay all the way to bedrock. I fear that a deep hole in the clay, full of sand, will simply fill up with water and sit there. I don't know.

The most effective thing I've done when planting in this clay is to elevate the root ball and mound up soil around it to promote drainage.


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

FYI, it is never recommended to dig a planting hole deeper than the existing rootball of the tree nor is it ever recommended to fill the bottom of a planting hole with sand or gravel. Rather than improving drainage, it tends to impede good drainage. Research soil interface issues and perched water tables.

If you have heavy or poorly draining soils and are concerned drainage will be a factor limiting proper establishment, then dig shallow and plant high. A very widely dished planting hole and the rootball above grade can eliminate any drainage issues. Just mound soil up to the top of the rootball to create a mini berm.


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

  • Posted by RpR_ 3-4 (My Page) on
    Tue, Jul 10, 12 at 17:00

Let's see-- destroy an existing lawn, whether sodded or seeded.
Yeah, homeowners love that.
I have heard more than one complain the tree is not low enough when the boy digging the hole was too damn lazy to get it deep enough so it could be put in properly.
We have even had to pull trees out with a skid steer to dig it deeper when the home owner was extremely unhappy.
That does the tree no good, especially now that they quit using wire cages-- which is actuall a very,very good thing.

That is easy to say where experts say it should be except when the house owner wants it level and prefers his tree to not be dead.
He was VERY unhappy with the dead one.

Those who recommnd that should get their lazy buttocks out from behind a desk and deal with the real world.

People I have worked for have planted dozens of trees in the method I mentioned, using post hole diggers, very successfully.
Small trees similar to hers.

Putting sand or gravel in does nothing unless it is in a deep dry well that will drain out before t he tree drowns.

If one knows the heavy clay just keeps on going, then it is foolish to dig a deep hole.
If one thinks the clay has a bottom it is silly to not penetrate it.


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

I would hate to be a contractor planting trees and having the homeowner insist on planting techniques that doom the tree! Yikes.

I killed a few trees in my deep clay soil at the beginning. I had much better luck later on with the wider shallower hole and mounded root ball.

Definitely pays to understand your local conditions.


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

  • Posted by RpR_ 3-4 (My Page) on
    Tue, Jul 10, 12 at 23:55

Tox:
One thing we did also, was to dig a larger and slightly deeper hole and surround the tree ball with good soil where the roots would have foot or so of healthy soil before they would have to deal with the loosened edge of clay or other nasty soil.

These obviously were not small trees.

One tree we did raise, put in by another landscaper, was planted low enough to be partly below the water line.
It was a Birch and the landscaper told the owner Birch Trees like water.
Not that much water.


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

I would mix compost in with the native soil when planting as deeply as you can, but also plant a tree that likes clay to begin with. The compost will provide nutrition to the tree and will not be a bad thing.

Here is a link that might be useful: list of trees that like clay


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

Funny you should mention birch. As newbie homeowners we planted a River Birch on top of our hill of clay instead of in wetter soil at a lower elevation in the back yard. Every summer when it gets hot the thing starts to drop leaves and I end up pouring hundreds of gallons of water around it to keep it going. It's a nice tree but what was I thinking? :-p


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RE: Trees in bad soil - not draining good

GardenGal43 you've got some good thoughts. I endorse them. :) if there were any differences in method I'm sure it would be as a result of the different climates we're from. For instance, in our (Minnesota) winters we rely on root balls to be entirely underground or they'll suffer freeze damage. Perhaps a spring planted tree or one that was insulated with straw could survive a few years in the shallow planting method and become established and hardened to not require any further care. I wonder.

One last thing, root flares(the widening of the trunk near the soil) should never be covered. Sadly perhaps for some, this is also true for roots that have been exposed and have formed a bark. Covering either of these will invite rot and disease. Try a shade tolerant perenial ground cover.

Okay I've said too much again.


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