Please help me help my maple - a roots/soil/mulch question

keevalJune 28, 2013

I have a large maple (not sure what kind) that was planted when my house was built, about 14 years ago. Some years back, we put a layer of landscape fabric down under the tree, to keep the weeds down. I have recently decided that was a bad move and just removed the majority of it (very difficult to do after years of mulch have built up over it and roots have grown through it.) We are also trying to pull the dirt and mulch back from the trunk of the tree, which is also challenging with all the roots.

Once we got the soil exposed, I dug up some soil for samples and am awaiting the results. Lots of small roots have been exposed in the process of removing the fabric and clearing the trunk. For the ones that are further away from the tree, I buried them in the existing dirt, to which I had added a bit of composted manure. I covered it all with a thin layer of mulch. I don't know what to do for the ones closer to the trunk, as I don't want more dirt/mulch against the trunk (there is already too much, because it was nearly impossible to remove).

I have a couple of questions...Should I be concerned about the smaller exposed roots by the trunk? I know the larger ones, i.e., the skirt, are supposed to be exposed. But what about this network of small roots, that I assume will die off or dry out? How important are those to the health of the tree? Should they be covered, even though they are close to the trunk?

I know I already damaged others of this kind, when I removed the fabric. I'm just concerned I may hurt the tree, when I was really trying to help it by removing the fabric and adding the compost and getting the soil test. It hasn't been looking as healthy the last couple of years and I'm trying to restore it.

Hopefully, the photo below shows what I'm trying to describe.


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Not the clearest photo but it looks a little deeply planted - maybe because of the excess mulch that was piled up around it.

I would still like to see a thin layer of something over those feeder roots.....just thick enough to cover them. Otherwise, I think you are fine. As long as the majority of the exposed roots - those closer to the dripline and beyond - are protected against sunlight and drying the tree should be OK.

FWIW, those fine feeder roots are more important to the health of the tree than the larger, anchoring roots. They provide the bulk of the moisture and nutrient uptake. But the tree can still lose as much as a quarter of them without significant damage.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2013 at 6:37PM
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Thanks, gardengal.

I think you may be right that the tree was deeply planted. We've never seen a skirt of larger, exposed roots. I have tried to pull dirt and mulch away from the trunk, but it's really tight with roots and almost impossible to do. If you look closely, you can almost see the line on the trunk where the mulch used to be, a couple of inches above where it is now. I don't think I can get the dirt/mulch level any lower, really. Overall, the mulched area is probably only a few inches higher than the surrounding lawn.

On your advice, today I added a little compost and a light layer of mulch over those exposed feeder roots.

I may post again when I get the soil test results.

Thanks again!

    Bookmark   June 29, 2013 at 8:59PM
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i saw roger on this old house rescueing trees with 'mulch volcanoes' recently.... he pulled away a circle of mulch/dirt to expose the root flare....then loosened and exposed an inch or two of the finer roots that were growing on the surface....cutting many away by hand and especially those with the potential to 'girdle' the trunk( these are roots that only grew here because of the mulch volcano) ...he then added 2 inches of mulch staying clear ot the trunk by 8 inches or so.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2013 at 10:36AM
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given the resiliency of maples and the fact that the majority of the feeder roots aren't located around the trunk, I personally would wait til fall and remove some of those. When a maple is planted too deeply, it will send feeder roots up around the base of the trunk in an effort to get oxygen. I would slowly remove soil from around the base of the trunk until you see the tops of the anchor roots at the flare. To reduce the risk of shocking the tree, this might take a couple years, an inch or two at a time in the fall. As long as you aren't seeing serious dieback right now, it should pull through.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 1:23PM
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