Large Evergreen Trees planted but not growing

Asked June 20, 2015, 1:39 PM EDT

I planted large (7-10ft) sized firs, spruce, and pine trees in my backyard for natural borders. They were in big heavy burlap root tied with metal mesh holding it together. They were planted with the bulap and metal as removing it would have broken or distressed the root system. It has been 4 years and I hardly have any growth. The canopy looks weak and sagging. How can I turn this around? Please help!

Will County Illinois trees and shrubs pine trees horticulture

1 Response

Hi --

I'm sorry to have to tell you that you were given some bad advice on how to plant balled-and-burlapped trees. Once upon a time the theory was that burlap would decompose quickly and roots would find their way through the wire, but theory isn't reality and the success of "leave the wrappers on" planting technique has been long debunked by many a dead tree. Some fail to establish, while others "choke" to death as trapped and misdirected roots girdle (wrap around) the trunk below the soil line.

Indeed, standard advice has long been to remove as much burlap as possible (especially since much "burlap" isn't 100% natural, sure-to-decompose-quickly lightweight burlap, if it's burlap at all!) and at least the top half of wire baskets. Best practice is to remove all wrapping material, which of course can be too difficult to accomplish with large rootballs. The "safe" compromise is to set the tree in place in a hole 3x the width of the rootball, which leaves you room to open up and remove all wrapping materials after the tree has been moved into place (or at least cut away everything that isn't underneath the rootball).

The Colorado State University Extension has an excellent article entitled "The Science of Planting Trees" and gives both the whys and hows of proper planting:

When transplanting trees, the larger the tree, the longer it takes for a tree to establish itself. A loose rule of thumb is a year for every inch of trunk diameter, which implies that a tree with a three-inch trunk won't show a lot of growth for three years or so. That said, your photos do appear to indicate distress beyond any usual "settling in". Chances are this is related to improper planting technique, though failure to thrive could also be attributable to soil or nutrient issues.

For a proper assessment of what's going on with each tree, you should consult with a certified arborist -- a "tree doctor" -- who can inspect the trees on site and tell you whether some or all can be saved with reasonable intervention.

If you don't already have an ISA-certified arborist, you can check with any tree-savvy neighbors, or see the listings at the Illinois Arborist Association (the map is under development, also see the link at the bottom of the page for text listing):

or follow the "find an arborist" links at the International Society of Arboriculture's information-packed consumer website (search by postal code rather than city/state when you get the choice):

I wish I could give you better news, but know this is news I've had to deliver far too often. The value trees bring to a property do represent a monetary investment, but even more importantly, they represent an investment in time that money can't buy. If you must start over, select carefully based on your site/soil, be sure to plant (or have trees planted) properly, and learn about proper tree care (your arborist can advise on or even perform all of these). Good luck!