Q: We had an ornamental pear tree planted on a berm about three years ago. It started to lean soon after planting, and the landscaper used a wooden stake and a wire to pull it back up straight. But wet soil loosened the stake, and the tree is leaning again. What are my options?
A: Let's start at the beginning. Berms are often created from the worst dirt available and then made even worse by tractors driving all over them. A little bit of topsoil makes them look pretty. Plants are added and expected to grow. Unfortunately, many plants grow just well-enough to the unsuspecting person's eye that many people believe this technique of berm building works fine. The plants in a typical berm are often just barely growing, compared to those in a berm made from good loose topsoil.
A tree is supposed to put out enough roots into deep-enough soil to keep it from blowing over. Since yours still blew over, there is something wrong. It may be that the original hole was dug too large and the soil was not properly backfilled around the tree root system. Trees planted like this can tip over even without any wind. With leaning trees, it is best to dig out the soil around the root ball, straighten the tree and repack the soil.
Pulling the tree upright with a stake and wire will not work. All that does is bend the trunk. When the wire is removed, the trunk will straighten out again in the leaning position. If the wire is left on for several years, the trunk will grow in the new direction, but it will be very weak. It doesn't develop strength because it has been depending on the wire. The trunk may break when the wire is removed.
You will need to do a miniature transplant of the tree in the same location. Do this now while the tree is dormant. Dig out the soil on the high and low sides, and leave the roots intact sideways across the middle.
Imagine looking straight down on the tree. If you want to push the tree back toward the 12 o'clock position, you will cut the roots at the 6 and 12 o'clock positions. The tree will rotate on the axis of roots at the 3 and 9 o'clock positions. Cut as few roots as possible. But if the tree won't budge, you may need to cut more toward the 5 and 7 o'clock positions, and then the 4 and 8 o'clock positions.
Carefully straighten it up, and backfill the soil. Some water in the hole can act as a lubricant to help move the soil and roots. If it needs to be wired again, allow the tree to move 6 inches in all directions before it pulls the wire taunt. This will create a stronger trunk. Remove the wire at the end of the summer.
Be sure to watch the tree this summer if the weather is dry, and water as necessary. Don't add fertilizer to the hole, as it may burn the tree roots.
If you try straightening the tree and it won't budge, you can always plant a couple more and say that you planned it this way. Plant two or three more trees about 3 or 4 feet from the original. Lean them out at various angles to form an artistic multiple-trunked appearance.
Buying the ugliest-shaped tree at the nursery, planting it askew and doing a little pruning might just make the prettiest tree of all. Think character, not uniformity. In your case, adding another trunk or two to the mix might make for a prettier arrangement than a straightened tree could make.
Jeff Rugg's weekly column, "A Greener View," can be found at creators.com.