The Twisted Twig

Of old wives and busted myths

By Roger DeGood - Guest Columnist

We all gather our life lessons from many sources. Some from our parents and some from our grandparents. Some are passed down and assumed to be true. So how many Boomers out there ever questioned those “facts” that got handed down from grandpa or farther up the ancestral tree. Not many, I’ll bet.

We all came from the generations where children were expected to be seen and not heard. And what grandma said must be true. After all, who are we to question that greatness? Well, the world of trees is loaded with little “facts” that over time and with science we’ve discovered ain’t necessarily so. Let’s talk about a few.

I was always taught that trees were as big underground as they are above ground. We often imagine that the root system mirrors what we see above-ground, and it’s often reinforced in artists’ renditions. A tree’s root system will span about three times the distance from the trunk to the end of the branches.

However, the root system only grows about 6 to 24 inches deep. That means that trees don’t have that tap root we all heard about. Just look the next time you pass by a tree that has been uprooted in the woods. Shallow roots.

So then, why do my sewers which are buried 3 to 4 feet deep get plugged with roots? Trees need moisture and nutrients. Both are in abundance in the sanitary sewer systems. The problem arises when the piping joints fail or the pipe itself is aged and cracking. Every time you flush the toilet or run a load of laundry, nutrient-rich water is forced out of the pipes creating air pockets in the soil.

Trees are opportunistic, so in our crushed, urban soils this failing sewer pipe offers an easy source of nutrients. Just a small opening and the subsequent leak is enough to allow root entry. Once there, your drain is plugged and you’re a client of “Rooter Guy.” So contrary to the myth, trees don’t break pipes, the pipes are already failing.

Grandpa once carved his and grandma’s initials in that big oak tree out back. When I went to look for them I couldn’t find them. The initials must be many feet above where he carved them because the tree grew a lot since then.

Nope, not so. Trees and most plants grow in three different directions. The first is the trunk, branch, and root girth. They get fatter over time. The second is from the branch tips, which is how they grow taller adding more leaves and branches. The third is the root tip as they push through the soil.

What this means is that the trunk and branches grow out and get bigger around, but that branch you always smacked your head on when you mowed the grass will continue to be “noggin’ bait” till someone prunes it off. That’s why it’s so important to gradually limb up trees while they’re young so you get the clearance you need to stand or park under it. Where are our grandparents’ initials? They are still there, just covered up with years of trunk tissue and bark.

I remember in my youth that people painted their tree trunks white. I didn’t think much of it then, but now it seems kind of silly. Some cultures still do this in other regions of the world. Often times it’s because they have always done it. No one knows the real reason.

I remember it as my father grew fruit trees and that’s a clue. Orchard growers believe that it deters insect and rodent damage and prevents fluctuating winter temperatures from splitting the bark on their fragile, newly-planted trees. I just read a recent study from Germany that supports this. Although this may be an acceptable practice in the orchard industry, there is little scientific evidence that it is necessary for our landscape trees.

A better approach for us non-commercial types is to select tree species that match the soil and plant the tree right. The flared transition zone between the tree trunk and root system (the root collar) must be exposed and just above the soil. Mulch 3-4 inches deep as wide as you can, but make sure that you have a 4-inch-wide mulch-free zone around the trunk so that you can see that root collar. NO VOLCANOS.

As far as the frost cracks are concerned, most are of little concern. If your trunk need protection from rodents or excess sun exposure, you may place white, 6 to 8-inch diameter drainage pipe around the trunk for a few years. Avoid dark pipe and anything that touches the bark. Dark pipe gets hot and cooks the bark, and wrapping bark holds in moisture making nice insect and fungi habitat. Don’t try and repair or coat any splits that you see, you’ll just be providing shelter for some fungal infection.

That brings us to my last item. It used to be thought that if you pruned a branch you needed to put some sort of dressing on the cut, just like you do for a wound on yourself. After a lot of scientific research, it was found the you are doing more harm than good by coating a tree wound. This black goop you slather on just prevents the tree from naturally creating the protective barrier it starts developing within minutes of wounding.

If the pruning cut is done correctly, at the outside edge of the branch collar and when the tree’s dormant, then the tree will seal the wound with tissue and bark which protects it from insect and fungal intruders. Prune right, at the right time, and leave it alone.

Hope you all visited our booth at the Corn Fest and got some good information on the value of those trees in your yard. For more information, please visit the Brochure Bank at the Village offices. That’s all for this time. May the Forest be With You!
Of old wives and busted myths

By Roger DeGood

Guest Columnist