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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.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of Feb. 18:

It's wet to start the week. When you do get outside, between or after storms, concentrate on damage control:

* Keep storm drains and gutters clear of debris.

* Clean up tree debris knocked down by wind and rain.

* Where did the water flow in your garden? Make notes where revisions are necessary.

* Are any trees leaning? See disturbances in the ground or lawn around their base? Time to call an arborist before the tree topples.

* Dump excess water out of pots.

* Indoors, start peppers, tomatoes and eggplant from seed.

* Lettuce and other greens also can be started indoors from seed.

* Got bare-root plants? Put their roots in a bucket of water until outdoor soil dries out. Or pot them up in 1- or 5-gallon containers. In April, transplant the plant, rootball and all, into the garden.

* Browse garden websites and catalogs. It’s not too late to order for spring and summer.

* Show your indoor plants some love. Dust leaves and mist to refresh.

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