An under-diagnosed cause of turf and ornamental problems

Editor’s note: This article is from the archives of the MSU Crop Advisory Team Alerts. Check the label of any pesticide referenced to ensure your use is included.

My girls are convinced that the reason I’m losing the hair on top of my head is my skull is becoming more dense as I get older. They actually say “hard-headed,” usually in a loud voice as they slam the door. So, the hair roots can’t grow and the hair dies. Those of you who know me understand that this is obviously a misdiagnosis, but it may apply to many situations in lawns and ornamental beds. Restricted root systems can cause symptoms such as slow growth, small leaves, disease susceptibility, insect attack, early senescence and dormancy. All of these symptoms can be explained by reduced water and nutrient uptake and the resulting plant stress.

Testing for restricted rooting areas (soil compaction) is easy and quick. I use a 0.375-inch steel rod about 4 feet long that I bought at a box store. It doesn’t take a lot of strength to push the rod into the soil (if it does, you know you’ve found a problem) and it’s easy to tell if you hit a rock. Make sure that you probe completely around the affected plant or area; many times I’ve found compaction on only one side. Also, probe well away from the plant: roots usually extend out for several times the diameter of the top.

I just hope my daughters don’t read this article; might give them ideas that could be painful.

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