I hired a less than spectacular gardener to do a brand new landscaping job for my house after it was built about 3 years ago. Since then almost half of the 30 some plants and trees he had put have died or are very unhealthy. He has long been out of the picture. Likewise, of the 10 plants that I had personally placed, only one had died.

I recently dug up two of his dead Dogwood trees and noticed that the root system seemed to be surrounded by rusted steel wire. Is this normal to plant a dogwood with this surrounding the roots? I can understand it being there to hold the roots and dirt in place over transport but shouldn't he have removed the wire before planting it?

Is this normal for a landscaper to do?

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Wire cages are most often used for large diameter trees. At that size of root ball (two feet in diameter or more) it is often impossible to remove the wire cage without the root ball crumbling and doing damage.

Landscapers should remove at least the top row of the cage so it does not poke out of the ground and act as a safety hazard. The rest is left in place and does not seem to impair plant health.

Other times I have seen wire used for smaller specimens is when the grower is using sand as the substrate for the plant. Easy to dig up and move but has it's implications for plant health if the soil it is planted in is clay.

In summary, this is not a bad practice. The tree failure is more likely to be caused by other issues.

  • If you have clay soil or poor drainage this could be a likely cause.
  • Mechanical damage by banging the trunk on the edge of wheelbarrow or pickup body is invisible at planting time but can weaken a plant over time due to the damage it creates under the bark.
  • Good drainage and I watered them a lot. Soil has a good deal of clay but I always used extra topsoil around the plants I did and they did fine. Most of the soil around the original rootball was clay in the dead trees. The thing that perturbs me is that if Dogwoods do poorly in clay he should have said something because it wasn't a surprise to him that I had a large amount of clay on my land. – maple_shaft May 4 '15 at 16:47
  • @maple_shaft choice of shrubs and trees for clay is another question, why not ask it? – kevinsky May 4 '15 at 17:29
  • 2
    I asked a second question to follow up. gardening.stackexchange.com/questions/19236/… – maple_shaft May 4 '15 at 20:15

I don't know if it is normal, but it isn't uncommon. Ideally the entire cage would be removed during planting because it can cause problems years down the line if roots grow around and through the cage. Often only the top half of the cage is removed since most trees will do most of their rooting closer to the surface.

I wouldn't expect the cage itself to be a problem within three years, though. Without photos and more of a description of the plants' declines, it would be hard to say exactly what might have happened. But here are some possibilities:

  1. Holes not dug properly, leaving the ball too deep or the hole filling up with water after rain or watering. Better to have the ball too high than too deep.
  2. Not enough water?
  3. Roots not penetrating surrounding soil - tree not becoming acclimated. This is a big problem when planting into dry, clayey soil.
  4. Poor plant material to begin with. May have been dug at the wrong time, overwintered in the basket above ground, shoddily balled.

What else did you notice when you dug up the balls - had any roots left the basket? Was there still burlap in place? Had the burlap been untied from around the trunk?

  • No burlap, no root escaping. The soil has a good deal of clay but good drainage. I usually added a good deal of topsoil in the plants that I placed, there was very little topsoil in the dead plants I dug up. – maple_shaft May 4 '15 at 16:44

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