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Fallen photinia teaches lesson about roots

Hidden by too much ‘mulch,’ crown rot revealed by wind gust

With almost no roots left to hold it in place, this photinia fell over in Saturday's storm.

With almost no roots left to hold it in place, this photinia fell over in Saturday's storm. Debbie Arrington

Why do trees (or large shrubs) suddenly fall during a big storm? The problem often lies at the roots.

Right after warning Sacramento Digs Gardening readers about trees that are leaning, I lost one of my 12-foot photinias. Blasted by wind, it fell over during Saturday’s storm.

This was a red-tip Fraser photinia – one of the most common hedge shrubs in Sacramento – and seemingly healthy. As an evergreen, it still had lots of foliage. And that canopy also was part of what led to its sudden downfall; the broad leaves apparently caught a sudden gust and that toppled the tree right over.

My first thought when I saw it: How do I get this big shrub up and stabilized? But this photinia was a goner.

On closer inspection, I discovered the photinia had snapped off at the base of its multi-trunks – it was a victim of crown rot. Only one healthy (albeit very thick) root had been holding the tree upright. There were signs of rot all around the crown (where the trunks meet the soil).

Unfortunately, it took the shrub falling over to reveal the rot. And I feel partly responsible.

Large shrub leaning away from fence
The wind did in this ailing photinia.

Planted when our home was built in 1980, the photinia was under a gigantic coastal redwood that hangs over the fence and dumps loads of debris. That redwood litter had accumulated between the fence and the trunk of the photinia, mounding around the crown.

While the redwood litter mulched the shrub and helped it through drought, it also kept too much moisture around the crown, allowing fungal disease to take hold. (Yes, you can have too much mulch.)

Crown rot is caused by funguslike water molds, according to the UCANR pest notes. Above-ground signs of this infection include twig or branch dieback, undersized or discolored leaves and dropped foliage. Mature shrubs or trees infected by these molds grow slowly and gradually decline.

My photinia had shown some twig dieback, but I attributed this to the drought. It also grew much slower in recent years; for a shrub that needs regular pruning, I thought that was a good thing.

But now there’s a wide hole in my photinia hedge. While I couldn’t save the fallen photinia, I’m raking out that redwood debris from under the remaining shrubs so their crowns can dry out.

For more on crown rot:


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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