Sacramento Digs Gardening logo
Sacramento Digs Gardening Article
Your resource for Sacramento-area gardening news, tips and events

Articles Recipe Index Keyword Index Calendar Twitter Facebook Instagram About Us Contact Us

What happens when soil gets too much water

Saturation can lead to crown and root rots long after the rain has stopped

Plant containers usually have drainage built in. But if the drain holes get plugged, as with this young Japanese maple, the plant can develop crown or root rot from pooling water. The same thing on a larger scale can develop with in-ground trees or shrubs.

Plant containers usually have drainage built in. But if the drain holes get plugged, as with this young Japanese maple, the plant can develop crown or root rot from pooling water. The same thing on a larger scale can develop with in-ground trees or shrubs.

Kathy Morrison

How much rain is too much? It’s a question a lot of us soggy Sacramentans have wondered about lately as we see pools forming in our backyards.

Besides flooding and downed trees, this drenching rain has another impact: Saturated soil.

It can happen in almost any landscape and can have major long-term impacts. Some of those effects won’t be clearly visible for weeks or months to come.

Saturated soil is waterlogged with all its air squeezed out. If soil stays saturated too long, it can promote devastating diseases, leading to the death of trees, shrubs and other plants.

Healthy soil has little pockets of air between the molecules of sand, clay, silt, gravel and rock. Those air pockets supply oxygen to soil microbes that break down organic matter into plant-ready nutrients.

Water also moves through those same pockets of underground space, supplying moisture to those microbes as well as plants. In saturated soil, all those pockets are filled with water with nowhere to go, and the microbes drown.

Usually, the ground is a great place to store rainwater. As it travels down through those layers of sand and gravel, water is naturally filtered. That filtration removes pathogens and pollutants. (That’s important for well water.) Tree roots can tap into the underground reserve. (That’s vital during drought.)

According to university research, pathogens in saturated soil can remain viable and can move hundreds of feet, contaminating nearby drinking water wells and infecting plants. Saturated soil also can lead to septic system failure, backing wastewater into the home and (on the other end of the system) contaminating groundwater.

In home gardens as well as commercial orchards, saturated soil can lead to outbreaks of Phytophthora-related root and crown rot.

“Periods of 18 to 24 hours or more of water-saturated soil favor Phytophthora infections,” say the UC IPM agriculture notes.

The result can be deadly but may not show up until months later. “Generally, crown rots advance rapidly and trees collapse and die soon after the first warm weather of spring,” say the UC IPM ag notes. “Chronic infections, usually of the roots, cause reduction in growth and early senescence (deterioration due to aging) and leaf fall. These trees may have decreased yield and vigor for several years before succumbing to the disease.”

Crown rot pathogens can wait dormant in dry soils for years before being reactivated by saturated soil. I know from experience. After the last major drought ended with huge winter storms, I lost several heritage camellias and a huge rhododendron to crown rot.

“Almost all fruit and nut trees, as well as most ornamental trees and shrubs (including many California natives), can develop Phytophthora rot if soil around the base of the plant remains wet for prolonged periods,” say the UC IPM experts. “In trees and shrubs, the pathogen kills plants by growing from the roots up through the root crown and into the lower trunk, where it kills the inner bark and causes a browning of the outer layer of sapwood.”

When crown rot infects a tree or shrub, the plant may actually look like it’s not getting enough water.

“The leaves of plants affected by Phytophthora rot appear drought stressed,” say the experts. “Trees or plants often wilt and die rapidly with the first warm weather of the season. Leaves may turn dull green, yellow, or in some cases red or purplish. Often, only plants in the most poorly drained area of the field or garden are affected. Phytophthora infections typically kill young trees, because their root systems and crown areas are small compared to those of mature trees.”

This situation underlines the importance of good drainage to soil and garden health. Keep an eye out for areas of the landscape that seem waterlogged. After these storms are over, watch potentially affected plants, too.

Trees and shrubs infected by crown rot tend to develop darkened patches of bark near the soil line.

“At the first signs of above-ground symptoms, examine the tree at the soil line for crown rot,” say the experts. “Carefully cut away bark that looks affected. If crown rot is present, trees can sometimes be saved by removing soil from the base of the tree down to the top of the main roots and allowing the crown tissue to dry out.”

For more information:

Note: Some newsletter subscribers did not receive Thursday's blog post. If you are among them, here's a link to the post, on the upcoming Seasonal Winter Ramble.


0 comments have been posted.

Newsletter Subscription

Sacramento Digs Gardening to your inbox.

Local News

Ad for California Local

Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 26:

Sacramento can expect another inch of rain from this latest storm. Leave the sprinklers off at least another week. Temps will dip down into the low 30s early in the week, so avoid planting tender seedlings (such as tomatoes). Concentrate on these tasks before or after this week’s rain:

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

* Knock off aphids with a strong blast of water or some bug soap as soon as they appear.

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

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to help corral blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees, which are now in bloom and setting fruit.

To prevent sunburn and borer problems on young trees, paint the exposed portion of the trunk with diluted white latex (water-based) interior paint. Dilute the paint with an equal amount of cold water before application.

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

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

Contact Us

Send us a gardening question, a post suggestion or information about an upcoming event.