November 8, 2010

October Glory in November

It starts like this.  The bright orange sugar maple on the hill behind steals the show in mid October, while the October Glory red maple in my garden below is just beginning to turn silvery red at the tips of its leaves.
October 21
Then this in the beginning of November:
November 3
And then, three days later:
November 6
The evolution of fall color in this Acer rubrum is an event I look forward to each November.  Some years it turns a little later, some years it's on an earlier schedule, but it always waits patiently until the calendar says November before it puts on its full scarlet cloak.

This tree was planted as a good sized specimen six summers ago.  It was one of the first trees we had installed (we had a landscaper put it in, it was pretty large, and there is an identical companion several yards away.)

Red maples are fast growing trees, and my two October Glory maples have not disappointed; they are noticeably bigger each year.  Eventually they will dominate the back yard with immense canopies of shade in summer and then carpet the lawn in solid red when the leaves fall at Thanksgiving. They grow to about 40 or 50 feet high.

Leafing out first spring after transplant 2006
They were not fast growing to start, however.  Larger trees take transplanting pretty hard, and will sulk, or just not grow for a year or two before settling in.

But the real problem initially is that the landscaper planted them too deeply.  Can you see the mulch mound at the base of the maple in the photo from 2006?  I tried to clear away some of the excess mulch, but the trees were simply sitting too low in the ground.

Red maples, like Sweetgums, are prone to girdling roots that circle around the main structures below ground and eventually choke the plant.  Sometimes you'll see that one side of the young trunk is flattened, not quite as round as the rest of the trunk.  It's an indication that a girdling root below on that side is cutting off nutrients to the part of the stem above.

Both of the October Glory red maples were showing slightly flattened sides.
from Bartlett's web site
So, after a couple years watching these trees sulk and not grow, I had Bartlett Tree Experts come in to do a root collar excavation.  Jim kept telling people our trees were having root canals.  I guess he wasn't far off.

The workers came with big compressed air machines called air spades.  These noisy machines literally blow the compacted dirt away from the roots several inches down, without the mechanical damage of digging the dirt away.  Once the top level of roots was cleared and visible, they cut away the girdling roots, then left the trees with the soil level a good six inches lower than it had been.
no root flare, planted too deep

Apparently it is such a common landscape practice to plant trees too deeply, that arborists have developed a special tool to undo the damage!  We've all seen telephone pole trees... trunks that emerge straight out of the soil like a pole, with no root flare visible at all.  Too deep, too deep.

The root collar excavations on my trees worked.

The following spring and each year thereafter my excavated maples shot up, filled out, grew lushly and have been a joy to watch as they morph from green to silvery red to scarlet glory in November.
Last fall, 2009, showing both October Glory red maples together


  1. Wow, I've never heard of this procedure before. And as you point out, it's crazy that a procedure has been invented because there is so much bad practice happening out there! Glad you were able to save your trees.

  2. Debbie/GardenofPossibilitiesNovember 8, 2010 at 2:00 PM

    Laurrie, One of the contractors I work with a lot swears more trees & shrubs die from being planted too deeply than any other reason. It's amazing how quickly your acers took off once the 'root canals' were performed. They are a spectacular addition to your fall garden, thanks for sharing the photos.

  3. That's great that there's a company that offers that service!

  4. How interesting. I have never heard of this procedure. I wonder if anyone around here does this. I hope I don't have to find out. Your trees are gorgeous.

  5. Marguerite, I think the root collar excavation procedure was originally developed to open up years of compacted soil around older trees... but now it seems to be used on all the new plantings that are so badly done!

    Debbie, boy, you see trees planted too deeply or mounded up with mulch in almost every new installation around here. It's such a pervasive planting problem.

    sweetbay, I think any good arborist does root collar excavations. I just wish more landscapers knew how to plant trees right to start with.

    Lisa, thanks! I am sure arborists in your area do these procedures. The problem of planting too deep is seen everywhere!

  6. There's an epidemic of mis-planted trees. It's particularly virulent in the parking medians of shopping centers and "professionally" landscaped commercial lots. The only way I can think to stop it is to develop a vaccine for ignorance.

  7. Joene, I know! And it is such an easy thing to do right, to plant it a little shallower. Why the proper planting depth is so universally ignored is frustrating.


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