Rootbound garden

madk(8)June 18, 2013

We recently bought our first home in Berkeley, CA, which came with what is to us a fairly enormous yard (about 55'x65'). The fences are edged with trees that do a wonderful job of creating a feeling of seclusion and blocking a tall, neighboring apartment building. I believe the trees to be a combination of very tall mock oranges, ash trees + a million or so suckers, a lovely apple tree, a large magnolia, and what I think is some kind of willow - plus the neighbors have two redwoods. The south-facing yard is also a weird combination of completely overgrown and bare dirt. The bare bits had me concerned, so this weekend I decided to collect some soil for testing so I know what I'm dealing with (my concerns aren't as much about pollutants as about nutrient deficiencies).

Well, I think I figured out the problem: the soil is so completely bound up with roots that I couldn't get more than about 1/2" into the dirt without a pick axe. I can only assume that the trees connected to these roots are taking all moisture and nutrients from the soil, which explains the sickly ferns and azaleas, and bare dirt. The one shrub that looks pretty healthy is a camellia, though it's yet to bloom at all (I've been in the house since February).

As you might imagine, this is a little bit concerning! I have plans to put in a small native lawn ringed with beds of shrubs and flowers, but I'm now questioning whether that's going to be possible. I've done some reading on-line, and the consensus seems to be that building up beds over roots is at best a temporary solution (the roots simply move into the new soil) and at worst a risk to the trees. I've learned similar things about cutting the roots.

So, my question is: what on earth can I do about this? I'm not going to be able to dig in any soil amendments without either breaking my back or using heavy machinery, and I have serious concerns about damaging the largest trees (I'm not so worried about the ashes, which appear to be sending suckers up all over the place). Should I dig anyway or look for plants that can compete with tree roots? Or should I consider taking down some trees? Any and all suggestions most welcome!

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I recommend that you post your question in both the Trees forum, so your trees can be identified, and the Soil Compost & Mulch forum, for help with the soil. You are correct that putting soil over roots never ends well, but maybe there is something else that can be figured out. We will need pictures!

    Bookmark   June 18, 2013 at 3:50PM
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Thanks for the suggestions, lisanti07028. I'm new to Garden Web and so had no idea where to post this question. I'll put it up on the Soils list and get some picture of the trees up on the Trees list soon.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2013 at 4:53PM
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Have you thought of planting moss, or clover? California has several species of native clover, and I often see clover growing under trees. Ferns might be an option as well.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2013 at 10:58AM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

Gardening where profuse amounts of tree seeds fall can be very challenging. I would encourage you to consider ground covers that can be mowed a few times when tree seeds are sprouting, Tradescantias, Oxalis crassipes, Liriope are a couple I use, but the climate here is totally different, so something totally different might be in order for your situation. I have a policy against starting any new garden areas in the shade of a particular oak tree that drops millions of tiny acorns. Gardening under pecan tree - no problem, either people or squirrels will pick those up.

It sounds like the first step would be to control/remove the overgrowth already there. Are the bare spots in the sun all of the time? Are you where there is a drought? The ground is hard as a rock when completely dry.

Many plants can live in the dry shade of trees. Adding smaller specimens where roots will allow digging is what I do. Digging a small hole periodically amid small roots will not hurt a tree. Altering the soil level around its' roots will. Adding a few inches of leaves can help keep the ground more moist, soft, but can also 'catch' and be more of a haven for seeds/sprouts for some kinds of tree seeds.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 12:34PM
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