In Too Deep?

In Too Deep?

Take a close look at your trees.

Do they look happy? The trunk probably looks relatively strong and free of obvious damage. Leaves might even look fairly full and lush.

Now, take a really good look and ask yourself: "If something was wrong with my trees deep down, would I be able to tell minus the obvious signs?"

You might have to conduct a "deeper" investigation into their condition, if you will. Are your trees screaming for a little "air?" Can you guess the "root" of their problem?

If you haven't figured it out yet, my puns refer to one of the biggest problems of tree installation: planting trees too deeply. In fact, 80 percent of all tree problems can be attributed to their soil environment.

Problems with Trees Planted Too Deep and Solutions to Fix

Planting a tree is a relatively quick and simple process. But how much effort you put into it can have a lifelong effect. It can cause a tree to fail very quickly, limiting its existence. But, usually, shortcutting the planting process can cause the tree to struggle for many years, never reaching its full benefits potential in the landscape. And all the while, you are unaware that your tree is crying out for help. 

deep planting2
"Volcano mulching" places excessive mulch above the root ball and against the tree's trunk further burying the tree.

Planting a tree right in the first place is the goal. Paying attention to the details in this process can mean a healthier, more vigorous and successful tree that will add multiple and growing benefits to your landscape for years to come.

The mistake of planting a tree too deeply isn't always readily apparent at the time of installation, but the long-term effects of it are substantial. When buried too deeply, tree roots decline in health and condition. And poor tree roots mean reduced tree growth and leaf size and color, decreased cold hardiness, and increased disease and insect susceptibility. Sometimes trees show these problems right away in the first year after planting, but usually the problem emerges after a few years when it becomes more challenging to fix.

How deep should trees be planted?

To understand how to plant trees right, one has to understand their roots. For tree roots to grow vigorously, they require water, oxygen and warmth. As a result, they grow shallowly in the soil. When roots are buried too deeply, less oxygen and warmth are available. 

deep planting3
Girdling roots on a mature tree strangle the roots and trunk.

Ideally, plant trees so their root flare (where the trunk starts to bulge out at the bottom) is level with or slightly above the soil surface.

To dig a hole that is the right depth for your tree, measure from the bottom of the root ball to the beginning of the tree’s root flare. Now, dig a hole that deep and situate the root flare at the right level. Want to see step-by-step what this process looks like? Watch this video on how to dig a deep enough hole. The section on planting a tree at the right depth starts at 1:30 if you want to skip ahead!

Symptoms of Trees Planted Too Deep – And How to Fix a Tree Planted Too Deep or Low

To spot a poorly planted tree, look for a trunk that is going straight into the ground like a pole. Signs of trees suffering as a result of deep planting include girdling or fewer roots; yellowing, undersized or fewer leaves; and stunted height.

You may be able to remedy buried trees by replanting them at the proper height or removing excess soil from the tree's root flare. Replanting is more successful on trees planted in the past two to three months, while removal of excess soil via a process called root crown excavation that uses compressed air to prevent injury is better for established plants.

Have questions or need help fixing your tree? Contact your local Davey arborist!

  • The Tree Doctor July 16, 2018 >Hi Clarissa, At this point, there is not much more for you to do other than keep the tree watered so the soil around the roots does not completely dry out. You can add several inches of wood chips out to the end of the root system as well. The mulch will help conserve water. Excessively hot, dry weather will make survival more difficult. Keep in mind that even keeping the soil water content perfect, you will likely see some scorch/leaf drop on the foliage because the tree will have to form new fine roots that are responsible for water uptake. Hopefully, this helps. Best of luck to you, Clarissa.
  • Clarissa Pereira July 12, 2018 >Hi Davey, Just so you have an idea, we live in the southern most part of Texas, so it's always hot and humid down here. Someone was offering a free ash tree (12-15ft tall) so my husband and I went to pick it up. Unfortunately someone had already attempted uprooting it before we arrived and a good majority of the roots were cut off. We salvaged what we could, replanted it in our yard yesterday, and added top soil and mulch as well as water last night and this morning. I will continue to water the tree 2-3 times a day as I have been reading numerous blogs on tree transplant and shock. I know the tree is in shock because the leaves are dried and I'm assuming they'll begin to fall off soon. I don't want to give up on this beautiful tree but I'm no expert and want to know if there's more we can do to for root treatment and growth or whether this is a completely lost cause. Thanks in advance!
  • The Tree Doctor March 19, 2018 >Hi there, Diane. It sounds like your tree may have lost its terminal bud, and now the buds have developed into branches giving the tree a "shrubby" look. Depending on the structure of the existing stems, you may be able to train one of the branches into taking over as a new leader, re-establishing a more tree-like form over several growing seasons. Hope this helps. Here if you have any other questions, Diane.
  • Diane Gary March 12, 2018 >I have a five year old fig tree with no trunk. Only branches. No fruit. Can I fix this?
  • The Tree Doctor November 6, 2017 >Hi Gary. Great question. We believe the wire should be removed before planting. Although, this makes it a little more difficult to keep the root ball from falling apart. If you do feel the need to leave the wiring on the root ball, it is critical to at least pull it back and cut it before planting. Hope this helps, Gary.
  • Gary Cykala November 4, 2017 >When planting an oak tree with a 4-6" trunk do you remove wire gauge from root ball when planting? We had six trees planted in Schulenburg Tx. at the first of the year and I'm almost positive that wire was never removed.
  • The Tree Doctor July 28, 2016 >Hi there, Tony! Could you please send a picture of your five live oak trees to, so we can see if they're planted too deep? We'd love to get a look at how close the trees are planted to each as well as a close-up of the trunk in the soil. Once we have that, we can let you know if there will be problems in the future. Talk more soon, Tony!
  • Tony Pakosta July 26, 2016 >When you talk about trees planted too deep how many inches is that? I planted five live oaks and I know they are a little to deep but they ate doing very well. Will there be problems in the future?
  • Bonnie Johnson September 28, 2015 >I planted a Crepe Myrtle tree about a month ago and it is now obvious to me that it was planted much to low. I thought that perhaps I could 1) very gently loosen the soil around it 2) lift it out of the hole 3) add more soil to the hole and then 4) replant the tree. Does this sound reasonable to you? Thanks in advance for your help.
  • The Tree Doctor January 15, 2015 >Thanks for your comment, Robert! Based on the information you provided, our technical advisors suggest removing soil from the base of the trunk to expose the root flare. Vertical mulching may also help.
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