“Radical Root Run”
Not just treating, but training…
An expansion on the potential of root injection techniques
I need to preface this conversation by highlighting the fact that I like to have fun and stay creative with my tree care practice, as is evidenced by the radicle/radical pun in the title. Only by having fun with our work can we maintain the childish curiosity that generates the questions and ideas that push our industry and practice forward. There is a lot of really valuable conventional wisdom available in the tree care industry to be digested. Industry standards and best practices for applications keep us honest and help to establish some consistency in our work. I believe though that for the inquisitive mind, there is always more to learn, especially in a field such as tree care where there is still so much potential for advancement and discovery.
I have been injecting stress reducers and root feed applications for trees in concentric circles from the trunk out to the drip line since I was 17 years old. It’s the way I was taught, and I always saw results. Only recently have I been experimenting more with where I put my volume, sometimes intentionally favoring one side of a plant or a specific feature of the landscape. For the last few years I have been working out this theory of “Radical Root Run”, and experimenting to see what works where. My intention is to suggest that by injecting high volumes of organic stress reducers and feeds creatively, we have the ability to occasionally break away from the monotony of concentric circles to establish a more sustainable tree care practice.
This idea actually first originated when I was taking some years away from home to guide fly fishing in the Rocky Mountains. I was guiding in some high territory, ranging sometimes up toward 10-11’000 ft. elevation in alpine wilderness. In my experience, trout will move around in a stream to establish productive feeding lanes and locate favorable habitat, but trees tend to stay where they’re planted. I was blown away by the success of the ancient pines in such a hostile environment, frequently growing well into maturity precariously perched on top of boulders with roots reaching far and deep around rocks into the bare substrate at the top of the treeline. The roots were seeking any earth they could find in an environment resembling a moonscape, working through small cracks in the lifeless rock in search of nutrients and water. With so precious few resources available to them, these efficient trees could not only survive, but thrive…
Different examples of this phenomena can be found in many environments, but the general principle remains: Roots, when given the option, will grow toward water and nutrient sinks rather than away, especially in more competitive environments or sterile soils. I believe that we have the ability to train this growth, especially in younger trees, in order to foster more sustainable development in landscapes. This is what I have learned:
I learned that if I inject too shallow or drench too often, I will accidentally train roots toward the surface of the soil, making them more vulnerable to lawn mowers, freeze and thaw, drought conditions, and other stressors. This is called hydrotropism.
With new plantings, I can keep my treatments just outside the ball to encourage the young roots to walk out into native soil more quickly than they otherwise might have. With successive applications, I will gradually keep working my material farther out from the ball. This in turn speeds the rate and success of establishment, ensuring reduced risk of major stress events in the tree’s early years. If you provide too much nutrition in the planting hole, or constantly basal inject, the tree may never be very motivated to reach out into the native soil and really become well established.
With trees that have a disease that impairs their vascular system, it is sometimes better to inject higher volumes toward the basal flare than the dripline. If the tree’s transport system is crippled, who knows if material out near the dripline will even get up to the canopy in time to be of benefit? I deal with this problem with trees that have bacterial leaf scorch in my area, and it’s also why we sometimes treat trunks of very sick trees directly rather than injecting them- faster uptake, faster action.
I have found that with vigorous trees, basal injections are often the lazy route and a higher number of more distant injection sites give me better coverage and long term results. Too much basal injecting will encourage girdling and general root congestion under the flare. When roots are trained out to cover more native soil, they have more surface area available to them for uptake of water and nutrients, as well as greater mechanical stability. This is what healthy trees prefer, and it lessens the need for further supplementary applications.
I have found that the roots of a redwood planted ten feet off of your foundation probably won’t come crashing through your basement wall, but may reach out away from the home and find their way into the old septic tank in the front yard, they seek the sink. I learned that the giant redwoods in the Pacific Northwest get a lot of their nutrition from salmon scraps left by bears on the forest floor. This is why your redwood will visibly flex like the incredible hulk if you inject it with a high rate of fish hydrolysate…
I’ve learned that some trees have massive root runs naturally, and that some prefer to keep things closer to home. Learning the difference between the two will yield you greater efficiency with your material use and time.
I’ve learned that some trees form strong communities, and by focusing higher volumes in between trees of the same species (when they stand close enough to each other), I can sometimes encourage these relationships by introducing the trees to each other before they may have otherwise met. This practice has the additional benefit of providing carbon as a food substrate to the colonies of mycorrhizae and other beneficial biology in the soil that enhance the communal ties in between trees and support their overall vigor.
I believe that by keeping my rates modest, but my volumes high, my ability to creatively place my treatments where they will do the most good improves. With higher volumes and more injection sites, labor goes up, but coverage is more thorough and margin for error goes down.
I have learned that every tree is unique, and they all have their own specific requirements. Only by tuning into the environmental cues and learning these organisms’ individual needs over time will I have the capacity to do my best work. Putting my injection volume not only where roots are but also where I eventually want them to be is a bit like the proverbial dangling of a carrot in front of a donkey. I believe that by not just treating, but also training, I have the capacity to not only correct the past, but maybe also improve a tree’s prospects for the future.
Spring is on it’s way and even though I am still a few months out from really ramping up my injecting work for 2021, it’s never too soon to start talking about it. The backbone of my annual tree service program consists of three high volume liquid soil injection applications: spring stress reducer, summer stress reducer, and deep root feed (fall/winter). These applications all utilize many of the same materials, albeit at varying rates. All of these applications include our Organic Approach Influence or Nourish products, which are both available with or without iron. These products are both powerful biostimulant packages which provide a solid foundation for the addition of micros, macros, a surfactant, and other biologicals to my tank mix. For micros I always have Organic Approach LC 10+7 in my tank. For macros I bounce around between fish hydrolysate, our LC 5-0-3, and occasionally soluble protein powders. The end result is always the same, a diverse tank mix that feeds the biomass in the soil as much as it feeds the tree itself. These building blocks of my tank mixes have the capacity to cover me for everything from preventative maintenance to crisis intervention. By providing trees with what they would otherwise have in an ideal soil environment, they have greater pathogen resistance, they attract fewer pests, and they have a greater capacity to realize their potential as the vigorous, robust, and beautiful organisms that they are. This is sustainable tree practice, and it’s pretty radical.