Tree takes leave of her yard

November 15, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,susan.reimer@baltsun.com

I'm not sure when it happened, but trees seem to have taken on the sentimental baggage usually associated with the family pet. At least at our house.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the death of the maple that was planted to celebrate my daughter's birth 22 years ago and the pall of sadness, as well as dread, that fell over our family.

My daughter wondered fearfully if that meant she was doomed as well, and my husband brooded about how much it would cost to remove the poor tree.

So far, Jessie is just fine, but my husband is about a grand lighter in the wallet.

And I feel as if I have earned a master's degree in horticulture.

I stalled all summer before doing anything about the tree. I don't know what I was waiting for - perhaps an arboreal version of Lazarus.

But I knew I had to get a new tree planted before the ground froze so that it would have the winter and early spring to store the energy it would need to survive a Maryland summer.

So I called Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, where I spent a lot of my time and a lot of my paycheck. Don Riddle's enormous operation in the countryside south of Annapolis - it was barely more than a greenhouse when I planted my first garden 25 years ago - is often pricey but always offers expert advice.

On a sunny morning, Mike Dudderar, who has been with Homestead 26 years in just about every capacity, arrived with his crew to take down Jessie's maple and plant a new one in its place.

"I worry about putting in memorial trees for just this reason," Dudderar said, shaking his head. "If they die, it is that much worse."

He planted a weeping cherry for his daughter 22 years ago, too, when he knew less about trees than he does now. A weeping cherry doesn't have much of a life span. "Silly me," he said.

The crew began cutting away branches about 8:30, and it was fascinating to watch. Working with both a handsaw and a chain saw, Edwin Pena perched in the branches and literally cut the tree out from under himself.

On the ground, his crew would hold a rope looped around the branches so the limbs would land where they wanted them to land - not on my deck or my neighbor's roof. Pena would cut the branches nearly all the way through, and then allow the weight, and the ropes, to do the rest.

The crackle and snap of breaking branches punctuated the ceaseless roar of the chain saw until about 10:30. By that time, the crew was down to the trunk and the stumps of the larger limbs.

"I don't climb anymore," said Dudderar, who has been cutting wood since he was 6 years old.

"I stopped liking it," he said, as he watched Pena pull a chain saw up to him on the end of a rope like someone pulling a bucket up from a well. "Besides, I have kids to put through college."

Mysteriously, the roots of my maple had woven themselves into an enormous mat about 6 inches below the surface of the yard, extending out in all directions about 5 feet. While one of the crew used an ax to loosen the matted roots, Pena used a backhoe to pull them back in chunks.

When Dudderar and Pena finally pulled the stump, they were surprised to see no deep roots. They could not explain what had killed the tree - no signs of insects or disease. But they also couldn't explain how, with its bizarre root structure, the tree had not simply fallen down long before this.

"Sometimes trees just die," Dudderar said. "Sometimes we just don't know the reason."

As the crew picked through the ground for the last bit of roots, Dudderar said that stump grinders are not always so thorough. But we wanted to plant the new tree in the same place, so it had to be cleared of all debris.

"Planting a tree in a new spot doesn't always work," he said. "Sometimes, exactly the place where you want a tree is the place where the tree was."

Dudderar and Dan Edwards, who is in charge of making sure Homestead's trees are planted correctly, arrived three days later to plant the new tree, a Sunset maple that promises early and brilliant red leaves in the fall.

The trunk was about 2 1/2 inches in diameter, and the tree is about 12 feet tall (the dead maple had a caliper of about 10 to 12 inches and was about 35 feet tall). The tree and its root ball weighed about 500 pounds, and it arrived on the back of a dump truck. It took three men and a huge dolly to move it, making an excellent case for not trying to do this yourself.

The root ball was encased in wire and burlap and neither was disturbed until the tree was in its new hole, and then the wire and burlap were only gently loosened. Damaging a root ball or allowing it to break apart can kill a tree.

The soil around the tree was amended with Leafgro, but the hole wasn't wet. "You don't want to plant a tree in a mud hole," said Edwards. He emptied an entire bag of 14-14-14 fertilizer into four large holes dug around the drip line of the tree to encourage the roots to grow out and away from the root ball.

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