Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Root of the Problem

The plants were not doing so well. They grew, but were spindly and pale - frankly, they looked malnourished. I blamed it on the quality of the commercial soil I’d planted them in. You know, that idea of “They just don’t make things like they used to.”...

Some years ago, we purchased 3 of those half whiskey barrels that the garden centers and grocery stores occasionally sell. We lugged them home, drilled a couple of holes in the bottom of each one and, after much discussion, we finally decided where to place them. We put a layer of rocks in the bottom for good drainage and filled them with fresh soil. Each year, I planted various perennials, annuals and spring bulbs in them, and they worked well. Then, gradually and for reasons unknown, the one barrel in the back yard began to wane. I tried fertilizing it regularly and was diligent with watering in the summer. It seemed the better care I gave it, the worse the plants did. ‘Twas a puzzlement to me.
One spring several years ago, I decided something had to be done. We mixed topsoil, sand and compost to create a wheelbarrow load of fresh new soil. Then, I began to carefully dig out the sad plants that remained in the barrel. Immediately, I knew that something was not right - the hand trowel would barely penetrate the soil. I tried chopping away as hard as I could, with little progress. Finally, after a lot of hard hacking, I managed to clear away some soil to reveal what the problem was - roots. The deeper I dug, the more roots there were. And they did not belong to the sad little plants, either.
With my husband’s help, I finally worked my way down. There, in the very bottom, one wandering root from the huge Douglas fir tree above had found its way into one of the drainage holes. Once inside, it had taken full advantage of all the water and fertilizer that I had lavished on this particular planter and literally taken over the whole thing. That entire half barrel was one mass of fir roots, leaving hardly any space, food or water for the plants I had planted there. No wonder they looked so pathetic!
At first, I was really angry. How dare that huge, wild tree just take over one of my prized planters? It had all the space and soil it needed - what nerve! But the more I thought about what had happened, the more awed I became. It all had obviously begun with one small root and one small hole. The root only sought that which roots always do - food and water. It was, after all, part of the underground support system for one giant tree and had important work to do. In the end, what totally blew me away was just how well it did it. If roots get awards, that one took top prize.

Later that summer I was to discover a similar situation with a compost pile at the base of another fir. The roots had totally taken over this rich, nourishing medium also. And already this summer I have discovered yet another planter beset with tree roots. We’ve set about, once more, learning to adapt our activities to the other living things we share our space with. The barrel, and now the planter, have been set up on bricks and - so far anyway - the tree roots have not found a way up. Our compost piles now are laid out on tarps, to discourage the roots below from taking over.
For they will seek and find what they need. 

“Blessed are those
who hunger and thirst
for righteousness,
for they will be filled.”
Matthew 5:6

The wicked desire
the plunder of evil men,
but the root
of the righteous
Proverbs 12:12


  1. Awesome!

    And, strangely, as I read this I thought about all the organizations that I've worked with that have a range of "performance" problems. Root cause analysis is one of the key processes for finding the source of the problem and solving for that. It's just exactly what you did... root cause analysis... and you found a root.
    :o LOL :o

  2. Yeah, and "rooting" it out wasn't so easy!Likewise in organizations & businesses. Glad you made the connection - my brain continually does this, which is why I write the way I do, I guess. The way I see it, the world is FULL of connections and the more of those we see and appreciate, the better. Solving a problem in one area thus teaches us ways to possibly deal with a problem in other areas. Or at least gives us ideas of what to look for. One thing inevitably leads to and builds on another...