This article is about diagnosing tree problems, problems specifically related to deep planting. To move into this diagnosis you will need some knowledge. Please read my articles on bud scars and the planting sequence to familiarize yourself with these concepts.
Here’s how this could set up – suppose about three years ago you or your contractor planted a new tree on your property. Although at first the tree seemed fine, as the seasons have passed, it hasn’t grown much or at all and its condition could best be described as sulking. By realizing these two facts, the time interval and the lack of growth, the deep planting idea is valid.
Now inspect the branch tips as described in bud scars. This will prove to you how little the tree has grown. The next important sign to look for is the shape of the trunk. At ground level the trunk should be noticeably wider than a foot or two above the ground. The trunk should become narrower as you get farther from the ground. If not, the naturally wider part of the tree is out of sight, below ground, and it has been planted too deep, deep enough that the natural widening of the trunk, the root crown, has been buried.
Planting too deep has a significant impact on how the tree lives and grows. The roots need air to live and flourish. When planted deep into clay-based soils the tree starts to suffocate. If the soil stays wet, the tree begins to drown. When the root system is operating well below acceptable levels, so it is with the upper growth of the tree, hence the tight bud scars.
So, by using two quick visual clues, tight bud scars and lack of trunk swelling at the ground, you can quickly learn that your tree was planted to deep and is in limbo until either one of two things happens. First, do nothing, and watch the tree continue to decline until there is no hope. Second, replant the tree; since there has been little to no growth, this is not difficult. Carefully lift the tree out of its planting site and replant using the instructions in my planting article sequence.
If replanting is not possible or the tree is so large that this is not possible to lift it without machinery, then carefully remove the soil over the root ball. Ideally you would want to remove soil until the natural root crown appears. Be careful not to cut any pencil size or larger roots. These may be the roots the tree is depending upon to get its water to the leaves.
Many times deep planted trees develop new roots to do the job that the original roots cannot perform due to their suffocation. Be very careful not to cut these as the tree’s life depends upon them. You can remove soil around them without damaging them. Afterwards you can cover these exposed roots with a light soil mix, no clay, and then mulch that breathes. As you remove more soil the trunk may become wobbly; if so, you will need to stake the tree as described in the planting sequence of articles. Most trees if planted properly at the root crown need to be staked. Many commercial planters skip this step and deep plant to ensure that the tree will not blow over; it also ensures that the tree will suffer significantly from deep planting.