Test Before Treatment: Soil & Tissue Testing

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Test Before Treatment

I find it interesting that test procedures recommended in the medical field for human health have become part of the expected methodology, but not so much in arboriculture, for tree health. As arborists, we are trained that a soil test should be done prior to recommending fertilization, for example, but I don’t know of many outfits that make soil sampling a part of their modus operandi. On the other side of the equation, many clients will choose not to do a soil or tissue sample when presented with the option, perhaps because of budgetary reasons. I think it is time this started to change, because knowledge of a problem is the first step toward the solution. Given an unhealthy tree, I might suspect what the problem is, but unless it is one that is readily identifiable in the field, I would rather start with the sampling than attempt a treatment.

Click here to see the 9-step soil testing process!

Fertilization is one instance where a soil sample, at minimum, should be taken. For fertilization, a tissue sample would also be good, for reasons I will get into shortly. Another instance when plant samples are usually taken is when a problem is not readily identifiable in the field, and the problem is not so developed that treatment is still a viable option. A third instance where sampling is necessary is to rule out the possibility of a disease which could spread to neighboring healthy trees. In this case even dead plants may be sampled to detect the presence of one of these pathogens if possible, and to know how to dispose of the dead plants properly.

Fertilization

In general, “tame” trees and shrubs in finished landscapes benefit from fertilization because they are growing in conditions that do not resemble where they would be growing if they were “wild”. I may not need to sample the soil in an urban landscape to know that usually the addition of organic matter is going to benefit the trees, along with the nitrogen that composted organic matter provides for growth. Also, I know that most of the soil we find in the Columbus area is a limestone based, heavy clay soil. This particular bit of knowledge has led to some confusion in particular tree treatments I am about to discuss. (If you have Pin Oak, River Birch, Maple, Sweetgum, or Sweetbay Magnolia on your property, read this section if nothing else!!)  Arborists have traditionally been taught that chlorosis (yellowing foliage) in these trees is due to either a deficiency of iron or manganese in our heavy clay soils. If the tree is a Pin, Red, Shingle, or Sawtooth Oak, you treat it with iron. If the tree is a Maple or a Sweetgum, treat it with manganese. At this point in my life I don’t recall what the recommendation was for the other trees. Why not?

  Chlorosis in a Red Maple

Chlorosis in a Red Maple

  Chlorosis in a River Birch

Chlorosis in a River Birch

After years of treating trees this way with very mixed results, I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Darrah at CLC LABS. His findings over the years for our Columbus soils, related to chlorosis in these trees, have been that the problem is nearly always a manganese deficiency. To make matters even worse, giving iron to a tree that has a manganese deficiency appears to make the manganese deficiency even more pronounced. To this day I continue to be filled with satisfaction when I drive past a tree that was not responding to year after year of iron treatments, in the soil and with trunk injections and implants, to no avail, by someone else. Then, after sending soil and tissue samples to the lab, we found a surplus of iron and a dearth of manganese. The remedy? Treat aggressively with manganese. Sometimes the result is immediate, most times we see a turnaround after 2-3 seasons of treating appropriately. But what a satisfying feeling to know that we have figured out what the problem was, and now the symptoms are being reversed! To be clear, the satisfaction does not come from knowing we were right and someone else was wrong!  It comes from seeing a tree that was in decline start to come back to life.

Click here to see Dr. Darrah at CLC LABS perform soil testing!

When I encounter chlorotic foliage in trees now, my top suspect for nutrient deficiency  is manganese. If a tree is only beginning to show symptoms, I may recommend manganese to see if it turns around. If it does not turn around, we can sample to see what the issue is. Why take this backward approach? Maybe because I have a subconscious fear that a client may feel that I am just trying to sell additional services that are not needed. Especially if the other two arborists (from other companies) she spoke to “never recommended sampling”. And in her mind she may be thinking “Why does this arborist need to take samples? Can’t he tell what the problem is? And anyway, the other arborists said the issue was iron, not manganese.”  So, since I know there is a very high chance the problem is manganese, that’s what I will recommend. 

BUT, there have been a very small number of samples that came back showing some other micronutrient deficiency (or surplus), that was critical for knowing what the best treatment approach was. And this is why sampling should always take place first. I pledge to offer that as the first step in a treatment plan to each client with a sickly tree. At least then I will have done my due diligence.

As a final note for fertilization, if the time of year is right, a tissue sample is great for getting a more complete picture of what is happening in the tree.  By comparing soil to tissue, we can see what is available to the tree and what is actually inside the tree.  This helps with diagnosing the cause for symptoms. 

Sampling for disease diagnosis, live or dying trees

There are many diseases arborists can positively identify in the field if properly trained, and they should be able and willing to show the client what they are seeing, and why it needs to be treated (or not). I still find insects that pop up sporadically that I have never seen before. Usually I can pull out the reference books back at the office and find the pest or pathogen, but if I fail at that, it is time to take a sample to the clinic. Even if an arborist had exhaustive knowledge for field identification of diseases (which is a tall order), there are certain diseases that require a specialized lab for a positive identification. In the case of live trees, one may decide that sampling is not needed due to how advanced the symptoms are. If the tree is not salvageable, perhaps sampling is not the best use of funds. But if the symptoms are those that could be of an infectious nature, threatening other live trees, sampling is paramount, and should be done promptly.  Let’s look at Oak Wilt, for example. 

Several years ago, Russell Tree Experts submitted the first positively identifiable sample of this disease taken from a tree in Franklin County. The year prior, a consulting arborist had turned in a positive sample from a tree in Delaware County. Oak Wilt is a disease that was known in the northeastern counties, and we were sad to see it moving into our neighborhood. However, had we not taken the samples, we would not have known the steps to take to properly dispose of the dead trees, inoculate the surrounding live trees at high risk of infection, and try to get the word out to the local arborist community. That was several years ago. Since then, more and more arborists have had positive samples, but to my chagrin, I still run into trees that I am fairly certain died of Oak Wilt but were removed willy nilly by “arborists” who maybe never even thought why the Red Oak went from live to dead in a matter of days. It takes time for word to get around, and it takes tree owners who are concerned about their trees.  

I am happy to say there are several reputable, trustworthy tree care companies in the Columbus area whom I am proud to count as colleagues (and I hope they feel the same way about us!).  This provides discerning clientele with plenty of good options to choose from. I am also very happy that more and more people are realizing how important the care of trees and plants is – not just for the love of their own back yard, but for the good of their neighbors.  How do I know you are out there? Because you take the time to read these thoughts that flow out of my fingers into the keyboard. As I write this, early evening is coming on. I am looking out my window across a field divided by a small stream. Green grass in the foreground flows to the border of the stream, outlined in buckthorn turning yellowish green, brilliant yellow Maple on the left, defoliated Cottonwoods against the sky. Anchoring the scene on the right is a large Pin Oak turning an orange bronze. When the sun shines it lights up like fire. Across the stream a recently harvested soybean field, the color of straw. In the background, all across the window frame, stretches a native woods made up of what appears to be mostly Oak and Hickory: rusty, ruddy, yellow, gold.  Above the green grass, tan straw, and tree line made of fire a sheet of sky in light gray is spread, with a hint of pink peeking through here and there. 

Stop for a moment.  Look around.  Let peace find you, and give thanks for it. The more we notice it, the less we can take it for granted.

Your friendly neighborhood arborist, 
José Fernández

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José Fernández | Regional Manager, Russell Tree Experts

José became an ISA Certified Arborist® in 2004, and a Board-Certified Master Arborist® in 2015. Currently he is enrolled at The Ohio State University pursuing a Master’s Degree in Plant Health Management. José likes working around trees because he is still filled with wonder every time he walks in the woods.