Patience is a virtue – unless it is misinformed or stupid. Like waiting 15 years for a boyfriend to propose marriage to you. In retrospect, that’s how I was treating my pear tree. It had hardly grown in the 15 years since I had planted it. The few pears it did produce rarely ripened. I thought maybe the roots were struggling against a hard clay pan, but would eventually break through. Spots of clay can be unpredictable around here. I knew I had dug the planting hole to a good size, but maybe the clay was just beyond that? Everything else around it was thriving. Anything I planted in my raised beds a few feet away grew without inhibition. A dwarf apple tree to one side of the stunted pear tree was lopsided for various reasons, but doing well; and a nectarine tree on the other side was growing like it was on steroids, even though I had only fertilized it about twice in 10 years. I decided it was time to cut down the pear tree.
My landscape architect son actually did the job. He worked for a major garden nursery in the area for six summers before and during his college years. Since he graduated from the University of Idaho with his degree in landscape architecture several years ago, he has been working hands-on in the yard and with a garden business. He loves to memorize Latin plant names and create practical, as well as aesthetically pleasing, garden spaces. And he comes to work for me, in the yard of his childhood, when he can. He agreed that it was probably time to bid farewell to the pear tree.
After trimming away most of the branches and cutting away the upper part of the trunk, he began to wiggle the base of the tree in the ground. I was working nearby and he called out to me, “It shouldn’t be able to move this easily!” He could rock it back and forth with one arm.
Not surprisingly, digging out the root ball didn’t take long, as there was not extensive root growth. There was, however, a very impressive root encircling the whole base of the trunk. This root, about eight inches in diameter was girdling the tree right above it’s crown. Girdling is a botanical term which basically means “strangling.” If you know anything about plant crowns, you are now asking why I planted the crown of the tree under the ground. I will explain.
I had purchased the pear tree in a pot from a reputable garden store. The instructions said to plant it in the ground at the height at which it was planted in the pot. Unfortunately, whoever planted it in the pot had not been careful about the crown of the tree. My son says this was a common problem he has encountered, so he is now in the habit of identifying the crown of a tree by carefully removing dirt until he spots it. The crown is just where the roots begin to grow out from the trunk. It really has to be checked right next to the trunk, because a tree that has been planted too deeply may have sucker roots trying to grow to the surface around it, giving the impression of proper root growth right under the soil.
My poor pear tree had its crown nearly six inches underground. If the crown had been positioned correctly, the rogue root would either not have grown how it did, or I would have had a chance to notice it much sooner and prune it. A tree, or any plant, can recover from some short term girdling, but there is a point of no return, when the stunting is permanent.
I could tell from looking at this misdirected root that trying to cut it now (if the top of the tree had still been there) would have damaged the trunk more, in addition to the girdling already squeezing the life out of it. Also, it was a major root and would likely have left the still small tree shocked from lack of food and water. It will be much better to start with a new pear tree. I will be carefully identifying its crown, and I expect to be happily surprised at how fast it grows!