Monday, April 14, 2008

Living With the Roots of an Oak Tree

I laugh (and cry) at the little orange fences they put around oaks during construction. They are nearly worthless. While it keeps vehicles for hitting and scaring the bark, it in no way protects the feeding roots.

As a maintenance gardener I’ve had to dig up a few oaks. And just below the ground the roots have a covering much like bark. Bark absorbs very few nutrients. In a study of 25-year-old apple tree in the UK found that the first four feet from the trunk accounted for less than 10% of all the water and nutrients absorbed.

The wobbly-orange fences are, at best placed at the edge of the foliage. A good start as it may help to keep water off the trunk’s base. But this is a far cry from protecting the majority of the root system’s feeding roots.

In the photograph to the left, the construction company dutifully surrounded the oak’s dripline. But all the machinery and the house itself cover what used to be the leaf litter, duff, and organic mater (humus) that once both fed and protected the young feeding roots.

The tiny root hairs, that live for just a day or so, tend to grow up into the fertile strata of the humus and duff zone. They, like all plants, want to be the first to capture liberated nutrients as they become avaiable. As one researcher put it—“roots grow up not down”. While a bit overstated, they fact is the youngest rootlets and their root hairs reside well beyond the canopy of the tree, where all the construction is taking place. (Learn more in my book Roots Demystified,)

(See my Blog of March 31st to see diagrams of the extent of a roots wanderings.)

At one-half to thee times, or more of the width of the dripline roots gather nutrients and moisture far from the trunk or even the canopy.

The photo (on the above right) of the chairs face south along the Big Sur coastline are a good attempt to protect to crown of the young California live oak from moisture in the summer. The gravel does allow rain in the winter to percolate down along with oxygen and harmful gases escape. The compacted gravel is a bit hard on the feeding roots, but the tree seemed health. Perhaps this is one solution to living among oak woodlands.

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NOTE: The comments section at the bottom of the post has disappeared. Click on the "___ Comments" button or the title under the "Blog Archives". Thanks, Robert

1 comment:

Julia Foree said...

Thanks! We had to put a water line in about 30 feet from the base of our 40 foot Cottonwood. We cut a major feed root, so the cut off part of the root had no place to send all its it just sent up a new tree of its own. I think trees may tend to send roots as far out as the tree goes up. You just don't know where they are going to be around the tree. thanks for the info on the root hairs. We now know to water a circle a bit away from the trunk for best results for our big post oak.
Julia in Austin