The Roots of Robert Kourik

by Linda Hopkins, Sonoma Discoveries

A quarterly publication by Sonoma West Publishers, Inc.

Author, landscape consultant and horticultural researcher is always ahead of the curve

There are few people in the county—or, really, the country—who can lay claim to the title “greywater guru.” And there’s only one Sonoma County resident who earned that title in the 1980s, before most of the country even knew what greywater was.
“I installed greywater systems in 1978. Greywater only became well known in 1990. That is the classic pathway of my life: being ahead of the curve,” said greywater guru Robert Kourik.

Such is the story of the local author, landscape consultant and horticultural researcher. In person, Kourik comes across as an earth-oriented Einstein: wispy white hair, mustache, bright eyes. His face lights up with a keen intelligence when discussing lavender, edible landscaping, greywater and drip irrigation—all subjects on which he’s published books that are considered definitive works in their respective fields (and all subjects which are in some way related, if one approaches them with an ecological mindset, as Kourik tends to do).

Kourik has been passionate about sustainable gardening and farming for decades: before, in fact, the word “sustainable” was even used. “I’ve been doing for 30, 40 years what people say is sustainable now. We called it, in the early days, environmental horticulture, appropriate horticulture, organic gardening and a few other handles,” Kourik said.

It is no surprise, then, that all of his books touch upon some aspect of sustainability. And it seems fitting that over the past decade, Kourik’s considerable curiosity has turned to the root of the matter, which, in this case, is literally roots: the underground network that constitutes the physical foundation of any plant or tree.

Kourik published his most recent book, “Understanding Roots: Discover How to Make Your Garden Flourish,“ in August of this year. The new book complements “Roots Demystified: Change Your Gardening Habits to Help Roots Thrive,” published in 2007.
“This new book is an extension of the roots idea, as opposed to developing a whole new genre or topic that hasn’t been done,” Kourik explained. “They [the two books] go together quite well, but you don’t really have to own the first one to get the benefit of the second.”

The new book contains 140 root drawings, including some sketches that had never before been seen in the United States. An extremely rare book from Hungary provided many of the maps of fruit-tree root patterns.

Back in the 1930s, root science resembled an archaeological excavation. Men dug long trenches, painstakingly uncovering and mapping the massive root systems of trees, generating the drawings depicted in Kourik’s book. Or they’d scrape away the top layer of soil for the width of an entire tree root system.“Just for fun, I put a picture of how he did it. Literally in the trenches,” Kourik said of one source. “He’d go down seven feet, scrape the soil away with a brush, like an archaeologist. He’d have something to hold the wall from collapsing on him.”

Of another source, Kourik explained, “To do the maps like this, they would literally scrape away the surface of the soil six inches, the whole width of the root system… this one is 43 feet wide.”

Kourik’s love of roots is closely tied to his work on drip irrigation. He consults and teaches classes on drip irrigation and has also published a book on the topic. “It couples with my drip irrigation book, because in the drip book there’s a little about roots, and in the root book there’s a little about drip, because they’ve got to be coupled together,” Kourik explained. “You’ve got to know where the roots grow to do the best irrigation.”

In a clay soil, roots typically grow half again as wide as the canopy. In sandy loam soil, Kourik noted, one can expect roots to grow three times wider than the foliage. In an extremely heavy clay soil that acts like a hard pan, roots can grow five times wider than the canopy. (So don’t be surprised if the sidewalk in front of your house is buckling from a tree in your backyard.)
Sidewalk problems aside, the growth pattern of roots is essential knowledge for the backyard orchardist or gardener. New feeder roots are supposed to grow outward, on the edge of a wide root web. Yet if an irrigation system deposits water at the center of the tree or plant, the root system will focus on that water, rather than exploring further afield. And a tree or plant that fails to develop a wide root system is weak.

“First off, when people do drip irrigation where they put the emitter within a foot of the trunk of the tree—or right next to the stem of a new plant—well, if the roots grow half again to three times wider than the foliage, that’s a silly place to put the water,” Kourik explained.

“New feeding roots are supposed to be out near the perimeter. If you put water at the base of the plant, the roots will just colonize the wet spot and not try to explore and get wide. And the plant doesn’t grow as well and can blow over easier in the wind.”

Kourik noted that an understanding of root structure is also essential to plant and tree spacing, particularly in a drought. “The ecosystem has a carrying capacity. We have a drought, and it can’t care for as many roots as when you don’t have a drought,” Kourik said.

He noted that tightly spaced orchards are in particular risk during a drought. “Having a lot of dwarf fruit trees in one spot may not be the best way to go, as opposed to getting one or two standard trees and multiple-grafting them. Because you get the hardiness of a standard root stock and a standard system, all dwarfing root stocks are less vigorous and more brittle. That means you have to have more square footage. Or grafting to get more varieties rather than having separate trees.”

While limited water supplies have left many backyard gardeners bemoaning the drought, Kourik prefers to take the “glass-half-full” view. Crisis spurs innovation, and the innovations derived from a crisis can result in permanently improved techniques.
“One of the things we began to do in ‘75 was to begin mulching,” Kourik said. “Saving water was the pretense, but then they saw how much weed reduction there was, and that was the big beneficial fallout of the so-called first drought.”
In the second drought—1990—he developed a passion for greywater. And this drought, Kourik hopes, will bring about the death of the lawn. “There’s a silver lining to every disaster,” Kourik said. “That’s mulch, greywater, and then lawns are the three big ones.”

If this drought ends lawns in California, Kourik’s horticultural story will have come full circle. “I mowed lawns to make money in high school,” Kourik recalled. “I didn’t give squat about the biology of it, I was just making money.” Little did he know then that a cash job mowing lawns would kickstart a career in the world of environmental horticulture—or sustainable farming and gardening, as we call it today.

ABOUT Robert Kourik
Robert Kourik lives in Occidental among towering redwoods, many varieties of lavender, and spreading oak trees with lots of deer. His extensive, 30-year-old ornamental and herbal drought- and deer-resistant garden and orchard have never been watered and only mulched. He is often referred to as one of Sonoma County’s local treasures—and he is known nationally and internationally for his knowledge and expertise. He has written 15 books on a variety of topics, including drip irrigation, environmentally sound homes, edible landscaping and lavender. The book he wrote in 1986, “Edible Landscaping,” has become a classic in its field. Kourik began his career in organic landscape maintenance in 1974, and during the next 31 years, he worked on design projects, including water gardens, paths and patios to elegant arbors, habitat gardens, innovative home playgrounds, outdoor barbecue areas, deer-resistant gardens and landscapes, and low-profile and attractive deer fences, to name a few. 

Sample Root Drawings from my Book







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