A website from UGA Cooperative Extension

Agriculture & Natural Resources Updates for Fannin & Gilmer Counties

Even if trees could hear and understand us, what would we say?  “If you bloom for me this spring, then I will water you this summer, I promise!” “Come on, tree, when you sway in the wind like that around my house I get nervous.” 

While literally talking to our trees will not do much for us, it is a great idea to listen to them. Besides, your large woody friend may be telling you something you need to hear!

Now, how do you listen to trees anyways?  Trees are big, but they are not loud.  Generally, they whisper.  They only shout when the situation is very serious and by then it is often too late. To learn ‘tree talk’ you need to go outside and stand under the limbs of your favorite tree.  Look up at the tree and listen.  No, don’t put your ear to the trunk!  Trees are not verbal – they use body language.  Learning to talk tree means looking your trees over to hear them communicate their needs.

For example, are the smaller limbs leafy throughout most of their length?  Are there plenty of full-sized leaves? If not, or if there are a lot of small dead branches, then the tree may be trying to say, “I’m hurt!” Some trees will even develop more small branches further down the trunk to replace ones at the top.  Injured trees may allow lots of light through the branches.

When we see a tree’s canopy thinning, the tree is often saying that there is a root problem. Planting depth, drought, digging or driving around the tree, piling soil up next to it, and other factors can kill roots. Once the roots are damaged, the top responds and begins to decline.  Listen to your tree.  The roots are the most important part.  Keep them healthy and the tree will usually flourish.

But, don’t believe everything you hear!  Some tree owners get excited when they see lichens growing on weak trees.  They say, “These things are killing my trees!”  Lichens are grey-green, and often flat or ruffled, and stuck on the limbs.  They can be peeled off.  Ball mosses are similar, but grey-green and moss-like.

Any good tree can tell you, lichens do not damage plants.  They just know good real estate when they see it, thus they grow on plants weakened by other factors.  Investigate and correct the real problems that are causing your tree to decline and the tree may recover.

Another way trees warn us they are in trouble is by losing bark.  This is a serious problem!  Just ask any tree.  A tree’s vascular system (like our arteries and veins) is just right under the bark.  Once the bark dies and falls off this system is destroyed or disturbed in this area.  The way I understand this is that if a tree loses bark from 50% of its diameter, it is like a person with a 50% heart blockage.

We cannot do much if your tree is in serious decline.  It may take years to recover, if ever.  Extension agents are generally called to the scene at this stage because too often we do not hear what our trees are saying until they finally shout at us by losing their limbs, leaves, etc.  By then it is probably too late for meaningful intervention.

So, check on your friend before it is too late.  Improve tree health by watering during drought with one inch of water once a week (not every day!).  Do not drive over or dig around their roots.  Do not run into them with weed eaters or mowers.

Raising the grade (soil level) over a tree’s existing roots can have also a tremendously negative impact on the health and long-term survival of existing trees. When soil or any type of fill or mulch material is placed over a tree’s root system, the oxygen supply to the tree roots becomes impaired. Ultimately, this slows down the rate of gas exchange between the roots and the air in the soil pore space, and results in a long, slow death for the tree.

Planting too deeply leads to the same result.  A telltale way to determine if a tree’s grade has been raised or if it was planted too deeply is whether or not you can see the tree’s root flare. A tree planted too deeply looks like a telephone pole coming out of the ground, whereas a properly planted and established tree flares at the base of the trunk at the soil line where it joins the root system.

Tree species, depth and type of fill, drainage, soil structure below the fill and the general vigor of the existing tree all influence the time it takes for the above-ground symptoms to appear. Thus, it might take anywhere from several months to as much as 5 years before significant symptoms of decline may be observed.

Additionally, while a layer of organic mulch can enhance a landscape’s aesthetic value and provide benefits, such as weed control and moisture retention, excessive mulch is detrimental to tree health. So if you have what horticulturalists call “mulch volcanoes” around your trees, you know what you need to do this weekend.

If you believe you have a tree or shrub that is planted too deeply in your landscape, if it was recently planted it can be lifted and replanted this fall or winter. To avoid excessive settling in future plantings, do not loosen the soil at the bottom of the planting hole. Root collar excavation, which is the removal of excess soil and mulch around the root collar (base of the tree), can sometimes be helpful.

Carefully remove the excess mulch or soil from the circumference of the trunk to the point where the trunk flares out into root growth. Arborists can perform root collar excavation by using an air spade, a special tool powered by an air compressor, which causes minimal root disturbance. The procedure is recommended for valuable or specimen trees.

For more information on conversing with trees and other plants, contact the Fannin County Extension office.

Image-Mulch around tree
Proper mulching technique where the root flare is completely visible and not buried by the mulch layer. As mulch decomposes, more mulch can be added to maintain a 2-3 inch depth.
Image-Tree with mulch
Improper mulching (example of a “mulch volcano”) results in excessive mulch being mounded around the base of the tree. Under no circumstances should mulch be piled against the trunk itself.
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