Beverly Shaw
Master Gardener
Purdue University







Question and Answer

Q.  We are building a new home and in the side yard are two, huge 16-year-old blue spruce. We are trying to save them so we designed a retaining wall to include these trees, but huge concrete trucks have had to go rather close to them. I'm worried they have damaged the roots. The trees have dead tips hanging from some of the branches. What can I do to help save these beautiful old trees? I have another spruce farther away, and I don't see any damage on it. Please help! -- Dee Wallace, Greensburg, Ind.

A.  I'm sorry my answer probably comes too late to be of service. In fact, it was probably already too late when you wrote to this column. By the time damage is apparent on an evergreen, it's usually irreversible.

In order to protect trees during construction, temporary fencing should be put up to keep equipment off the root zone. This is an important part of reducing soil compaction during construction.

Heavy equipment on the site compacts the soil and reduces the pore space for air and water. Typically, the top four to eight inches of soil are compressed into a dense mass. This damages existing plant roots, increases surface runoff and erosion, decreases water moving into the soil, decreases soil aeration and makes it more difficult for plant roots to grow. It's difficult and expensive to correct soil compaction. It's much easier to prevent it.

If you do any more remodeling, keep vehicular traffic routed away from desirable trees. Also, make sure construction materials are not stored near trees.  Fence off an area equal to 1.5 times the dripline.

If vehicles MUST go over the rootzone of the trees, mulch with a six-inch thick layer of wood chips to reduce the compaction. This layer of mulch can be removed after construction.

Do not increase or decrease the amount of soil covering the roots, unless it is absolutely necessary. The majority of tree feeder roots are located in the top four to eight inches of soil. When the soil grade is decreased, not only is the nutrient rich topsoil removed, most of the tree's feeder roots are removed also. If the soil grade must be increased, aeration will be reduced. Few species will tolerate fill of even a few inches placed against the main trunk.

Now that the construction is over, if your trees have survived, make sure you give them regular watering and fertilizing for the next several years.

Q.  I read your column with great interest and thought you might be able to steer me toward a good how-to book about common plants and blooms. I inherited a lovely garden of "stuff" when we bought a house recently, and I have no knowledge when it comes to their care, such as when to prune, transplant, feed and all that. There are a variety of plants, including iris, peonies, hosta, day lilies, clematis, etc. -- Gail Eldridge, Winamac, Ind.

A.  Purdue Extension has a good series of publications concerning the care of many of the plants that you've mentioned. You can peruse them at www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/garden_pubs.html. These are particularly helpful because they deal with Indiana climate and soils.

There are thousands of gardening books on the market. You can begin with an inexpensive paperback covering the basics of perennial gardening, such as one from the Taylor or Ortho guides to gardening.

Experience is the best teacher. By interacting with the plants on a regular basis while you weed, water and mulch, look for signs of health or lack thereof. Weekly inspections will teach you which plants require more or less water (look for wilting leaves) and which are heavy feeders (look for a lack of even, green coloration). A friend that gardens will probably be more than happy to walk through your garden and give advice!

Q.  We "had" a beautiful, full, lush honeysuckle vine growing beside our deck. My 92-year-old grandmother came to visit and wanted a start of it. I found a root and dug it up. I'm afraid I dug up the "mother" root as the trellising vines now seem to be dying. I'm sick about it, because that is one thing that stole my heart away when we found our new home. The vine was certainly well established as it was growing everywhere. Is there any way I can save or revive it? Please help! I truly miss the sweet fragrance that welcomed us home every evening. -- Trina Estes, Bloomfield, Ind.

A.  Honeysuckles have a fibrous root system so there is no tap root or "mother" root for you to have disturbed. It is likely, however, that you inflicted enough root damage to cause the top growth to collapse from stress. Honeysuckles are tough, durable plants. Even if the top dies back to the ground, the plant will probably send up new shoots from the roots next spring. Provide regular water and fertilizer during the upcoming year, especially during times of drought.


Contact: B. Rosie Lerner
Editor: Olivia Maddox,