CO-Horts Blog

Friday, October 20, 2017

Heavy Equipment Diagnostics

Posted by: Curtis Utley, Jefferson County Extension

Last month I was asked to visit a property to give my professional opinion as to why a specific Vanderwolf’s pyramidal limber pine decided to just up and die. A curious problem to be sure. As the story goes, the tree started to look a little off the 3rd week of July and by the 3rd week of August all the needles turned completely brown but, the branches remained limber. When I got to the site I noticed that the ground was nice and moist, possibly a little too wet but not so wet to cause oxygen starvation in one tree and not the others. I forgot to mention, the dead tree was one of a group of 6 or 7 Vanderwolf’s all planted in the same area roughly 12 years ago.
Stem elongation without full needle expansion "Pushed and Puked"
Next, I began to evaluate the twig growth increments and inspect the condition of the newest growth. What I found was a common problem I see in trees that don’t know they're dead yet, I affectionately describe this condition as “pushed and puked”. By this I mean the tree broke bud in the spring normally and the new growth expanded for a short time then ran out of water resources to maintain that new growth. Because the new growth is soft and succulent it is the first tissue to desiccate and turn brown and sure enough, the land manager mentioned that there were many dead branch tips in early July.
Another view of the arrested development
My conclusion was one that all too often I must utter, “Well it’s probably a root problem. For some reason, this tree is no longer able to move water out of the soil through the vascular system up the trunk and out to the needles.” It is so frustrating when I can't give people a definitive answer. The land manager really wanted a more solid answer as well and told me he would have to remove the tree anyway so if I was willing to come back on Thursday he would pull the tree out of the ground. Really? “Yea, I have equipment.” “Okay I’ll be back Thursday”
I show up on Thursday and the land manager drives up on the lawn with this huge loader. I ask him why on earth do you have such a big loader? (You see most landscape contractors use small, light maneuverable skid-steer loaders which are handy and have a million different attachments to do all kinds of different jobs.) His answer “We do snow removal here too.” Of course. I assumed he was going to dig up the tree but that was silly; to dig up the tree would have wrecked a whole lot of irrigation and nobody in their right mind would want to make more work for themselves. Instead, he wrapped a chain around the trunk and attached the end to the hook on the bucket and carefully pulled the tree out of the ground.
Check out the video:

The tree popped out of the ground like plucking a mushroom from the lawn and we had our answer, circling roots, the result of a missed step on planting day. 
Circling roots left in the ground after tree removal.

Constricted trunk, note the lack of  scaffold roots.
As a tree is transplanted the planting team should try to cut all visible circling roots or better yet, as our very own Alison O’Conner determined during her Ph.D. research, cutting the entire outer inch of the rootball off corrects all circling root problems. I call it a “root reboot” Check out Alison’s blog article:
Even Horties Make Mistakes: Tree Planting posted on Monday, August 5, 2013 for more great information about circling roots.


  1. thanks for the visuals. I see this only too often on my tree team visits.

  2. It's very instructive that this sudden death occurred 12 years after the tree was planted; amazing how long it tried to hang on....

  3. Do you expect the rest of the trees in the planting group to go the same way?

  4. Thank you for sharing valuable information. Nice post. I enjoyed reading this post.


  5. Dear Loni,
    The land manager and I did inspect the other trees in the group and I believe a few others may also die.

  6. Both article and video are such great training information to have for tree team visits.