Article 1 of 12 from Trees: Dispelling Myths & Misinformation, prepared by the arborists of the Southwest Division of Bartlett Tree Experts as a community education initiative.
A problem for property owners in managing their trees is that what seems logical regarding their care is often incorrect and harmful. A tree’s perceived ability to well withstand substantial wounding and other mistreatments contributes to this notion. For example, a construction crew can cut a trench within five feet of the trunk and deposit fill over the tree’s base, and the tree might still “look good” in five years. Some logical assumptions are:
- tree roots grow downward and deep, so they’re not subject to harm from trenching five feet out from the trunk;
- even if you tear some roots, it doesn’t hurt the tree;
- fill material over the tree base can only help secure it, and, besides, a tree’s base is at home buried deep into the earth; and
- the test of time (the five years) proves these assumptions because the tree still looks fine.
All of this is incorrect. Using the scale of a human lifetime to evaluate the response time of a tree is short-sighted; a tree is one of the largest living organisms on earth, and its life span can be hundreds of years. Certainly, species characteristics and other factors influence how well a given tree tolerates stresses, but improperly managing a tree’s care can take years off its life. This really hits home when a high-value tree has to be removed because years of abuses to the root system, for example, have rendered it a hazard.
Another logical but misguided observation about tree care is reflected in this question: If trees in the forest thrive without human interference, why can’t we take a hands-off approach to trees in our cities? There’s a pretty big difference (and “thrive” is a relative term). Generally, urban trees do not grow in the nutrient-rich soils found in the forest; they have a different relationship with sunlight than do forest trees, often resulting in larger canopy growth; urban trees are more subject to wind forces and are more likely to harm life and property in the event of failure. More differences exist, but these provide the basic idea.
When a property owner contacts an arborist about a problem tree, it might be recently planted, ten years old, or mature. But always, the owner is deeply concerned, and sometimes shocked, that the tree is in trouble – or dead. After all, it takes some years for a newly planted tree to deliver its full benefits. Starting all over again because a tree didn’t make it means a lost investment in resources and time. Investing in proper tree care from the start is a proactive way to spare the much greater cost of problems later, and it greatly increases the likelihood that trees will provide benefits for generations to come.
In the articles that follow, our goal is to arm readers with some facts about trees that dispel myths, create more informed consumers, and promote healthier trees. We’ll start with a critical, yet often neglected, part of a tree: the root system.