Posts Tagged ‘Carl Cathcart’

This past summer my good friend, Consulting Arborist Carl Cathcart took me to see an unusual weeping hemlock in a suburb of Boston.  He had shown it to me earlier in the spring, when we got to see it from the road.  This time, he had gotten permission from the owners to examine the tree close up, and so we were very fortunate to be able to stand under and next to it, measuring its stems, its height and width, and generally marveling at its astonishing beauty and size.

The tree’s crown measures approximately 33 -36’ high at its highest point, and approximately 63’ across at its widest spread.  Carl noted that it is averaging 5 1/2 – 6″ of new needled growth all around.

Seven main stems grow from the base.  Their sprawling nature made it impossible to get a diameter at breast height,  but we were able to determine that at roughly 4 ½’ from the ground the stems ranged from 15″ in diameter to 31″ in diameter.  At the tree’s base, we measured a girth of approximately 84″  — this was a tricky measurement to get as some stems grew close to horizontally from the base.  We stood in awe at this magnificent specimen.

Take a look at these photos.  We visited on a cloudy-bright day, the type of day typically good for photographing, but found so much contrast between shadow under the crown and light outside the crown that I resorted to black and white for some photos, the better to show the tree’s form.

It’s not often that we get to see such enormous and grand specimens in this part of the world.  Carl and I appreciated the privilege we had been granted, and hope you enjoy seeing what we saw.

The hemlock from one angle. It sits on a large lawn where it has been allowed to grow in full sun and without competition from other trees.

A slightly different angle. Note Carl's legs under the canopy, just to the right of center.

Carl under the canopy. Note the size of the stems compared the the size of his torso.

Under the canopy.

Underneath, from a different angle.

Not much greenery inside the tree, but plenty outside to make this limb-framed cave.


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I took a great class this past January at the Arnold Arboretum.  It was called Grafting Techniques for Ornamental Trees, and was taught by Jack Alexander, the Arboretum’s Plant Propagator.  Jack, who is not only an extremely talented plantsman but an excellent teacher, taught us how to prepare cuttings, how to make several different kinds of grafting cuts, how to fit scion and root stock together, wrap the graft point with an elastic band, and then wrap the whole shebang with Parafilm.

Anyway, at one point during the daylong class  Jack had us take a break from grafting and showed the class some slides.  Among them were shots of a grafting project that he had been commissioned, privately, to work on some years ago.

The tree, located on a property outside of Boston, was a 40-50′ high grafted weeping beech.  It had been top-grafted at a point about 5′ from grade; the trunk below the graft point was about 30″ in diameter, while the trunk above it was considerably larger.

Hartney Greymont, Inc., arborists in charge of the tree, had noticed flagging in the tree’s canopy in 1984.  They hypothesized that the roots could not get enough water up through the constriction to the tree’s crown, and that photosynthate was accumulating above the graft point.  They called in Jack Alexander to do some grafting that could help improve the situation.

The problem:  Constriction at the graft point was retarding the flow of water up to the tree’s canopy, and possibly preventing photosynthate from flowing down to the roots from the crown.

The solution:  Remedial grafting, using four beech saplings to create supplemental trunks.

The process:  In the fall of 1984, Hartney Greymont planted four 2-3″ caliper (3/4″ dbh) beech saplings around the tree, evenly spaced from each other and about 3′ out from the tree’s trunk.  The saplings settled in over the winter.   Jack, who had the experience and expertise to work comfortably with such a valuable tree, then grafted the tops of each sapling to the trunk of the specimen beech above the graft point. This process is called inarching.  Jack believes he performed the grafts in April of 1985.

The newly inarched beech, with three of the four saplings planted and grafted above the beech's graft point visible here. Matching the cambium of the saplings to the cambium of the mature tree allows photosynthate from the tree's crown to flow down the sapling trunks, supplying them with nutrients that otherwise would serve to overenlarge the beech's trunk just above the graft point, making the tree more susceptible to failure. The inarched saplings make a conduit for water to flow upwards into the canopy from the roots as they benefit from the abundance of photosynthate, and in turn enhance the tree's stability. Photo Copyright © 1985 Jack Alexander, used by permission.

The following year, one sapling had died, so Hartney planted another, and Jack grafted it to the tree in the spring of 1986.  A total of four buttress trees now help support the specimen tree.

The result:  Photosynthate flows down from the tree’s crown through the constricted graft point, as it always has, but it also flows down through the four inarched saplings.  Because the saplings are being nourished by the mature crown of the specimen, over the last 26 years they have come to serve as living buttresses to the mother tree.

In Jack’s words:  “By grafting additional rootstocks, we provided roots to provide more water to the top where it was flagging. The additional roots systems grew rapidly, tending to corroborate the opinion that there was a surplus of photosynthate accumulating above the graft union.”

A few weeks ago, in late April 2011, Carl Cathcart took me to see the beech.  The house had been sold since the beech had been buttressed, but the current homeowner was kind enough to let us see and photograph it.  Here are photos of it as it stands today.  It was wonderful to see this behemoth and to read its character, especially knowing its history.

Carl Cathcart with the inarched specimen weeping beech.

The beech from a different angle. What look like elephant legs under the tree are the ingrafted saplings that have now become living buttresses.

Three buttresses are visible in this image; the smallest is about 6" dbh. This photo was taken from about the same point as Jack Alexander's 1985 photo.

When I sent the photos to Jack, he wrote ” It’s nice to see these pics.  The tree seems like an old friend.” You can see why — this is a tree with personality, and Jack did some remarkable work with it.

Propagator/Grafter:  Jack Alexander

Arborist in charge:  Hartney Greymont, Inc. 

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Another question asked at last week’s New England Grows about bare-root transplanting was “How do you make sure the roots don’t dry out?” The answer, of course, is that you water the tree you’re moving.  You water it thoroughly a couple of days before the transplant, to insure that the tree’s tissues have good turgor pressure and moisture reserves for the bare-rooting.  You take a break every now and again during the blow-out (if you’re using compressed air) and spray down the exposed roots with water.  You may spray more water on the roots — the top, bottom, and inside of the root mass — when you pick the tree up on forks to deliver it to its new home.  You ‘mud in’ the tree as you backfill, saturating the backfill soil with water to eliminate any air pockets and again, to combat root dessication.   And once you have mulched the tree well, you water still more.

Water in all phases of the operation is key to tree transplanting.

Cornell’s Urban Horticulture Institute advocates using a hydrogel slurry to hold water on the bare roots during planting.  Their excellent Creating the Urban Forest:  The Bare-Root Method describes the process of planting young trees bare-root, and is well worth reading.  The challenge of using a slurry for large-tree transplanting would be in getting a consistent coating of hydrogel on the roots (you can’t dip the root plate in a tub, the way you can with a sapling root mass) — but there must be a solution (so to speak) to that problem. And finally, aftercare is critical.  Moving a large specimen tree bare-root takes time and effort, and it would be folly to follow all the steps, get the tree in the ground, and then leave its re-establishment and survival up to chance.  Some arborists add fertilizer and bio-stimulants to the backfill, some don’t.  What is essential, again, is water.  Consistent and adequate water for the first growing season is the best way to make sure that a transplanted tree makes the transition to its new home, survives, and thrives.

Watering in a root-washed pin oak at Cavicchio's Nursery. Photo courtesy of Carl Cathcart.

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In the fall of 2008 Carl Cathcart persuaded Cavicchio’s Greenhouses to wash the roots on a stressed B&B Quercus rubra (Red Oak), and to plant it in a spot where it might be able to settle in.  Carl sent me photos of the root-washing process, which I posted on Taking Place last summer.  He and I then drove to Sudbury to see the tree, and to check out the three Red Oaks in similar condition that Cavicchio’s had planted conventionally, to see how they would progress in relation to the root-washed oak.

Photos of all the planted-out trees are on Taking Place, and because there are so many of them I’m simply posting the links to those posts here.  To see the photos and read about the root-washing experiment, click here first, and then click here.

The summary:  in mid-July, the bare-rooted tree looked best of all four trees.  It had some dead wood, but nothing that hadn’t been on the tree the previous autumn, and it had good foliage color and density, if the foliage itself was a bit small.  By comparison, the other three trees looked as if they were struggling: each tree had sprouted out new shoots along its trunk, often a sign of a tree in decline; foliage was small, and there was lots of deadwood in each tree.  It’s not a scientifically rigorous experiment, but one worth following over the next few years, to see how the trees progress.

Leaning into the root ball.  Lower water pressure may be a bit easier for those tiny feeder roots, but high pressure makes getting the hard clay soil off a faster process.  It's not clear yet how feeder root regrowth is affected by this kind of treatment, whether the pressure comes from air or water.  Early reactions seem promising, but it may be several years before a re-examination of the roots shows how risks and benefits balance..

Leaning into the root ball. Lower water pressure may be a bit easier for those tiny feeder roots, but high pressure makes getting the hard clay soil off a faster process. It's not clear yet how feeder root regrowth is affected by this kind of treatment, whether the pressure comes from air or water. Early reactions seem promising, but it may be several years before a re-examination of the roots shows how risks and benefits balance..

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In the year since I’ve been writing about bare-root transplanting and air-tool use, I’ve had the great good fortune to be able to ask questions of the real experts, the arborists who are doing this work and promoting it throughout Massachusetts and the US.  Three in particular have been especially helpful:

Mike Furgal

Mike Furgal

Mike Furgal, the original developer of the air-tool bare-root transplant method, has patiently reviewed my articles and given thoughtful and well-considered answers to all my questions.  He has a tremendous amount of knowledge about trees and transplanting, and he is extremely generous in sharing it.

Matt Foti

Matt Foti

Matt Foti, who hosted the first MAA workshop on air-tool bare-root transplanting (given by Mike and Matt) at his nursery at Nonset Farm, has taken the time to discuss a wide range of tree-related issues with me, and to provide clarifications to help make this information as up-to-the-minute and accurate as possible.  He has been the catalyst to get word of bare-root work out to the MAA and beyond, and has put energy and dedication into practicing, experimenting, and teaching.  Another generous guy.

Carl Cathcart

Carl Cathcart

Carl Cathcart, Consulting Arborist, has provided encouragement and still more information to me from the day we met at the Nonset Farm workshop.  He alerted me to the Cavicchio’s root-washing experiment, he talks up my writing to other arborists, and his encouragement is what got me writing about this stuff in the first place.

In July, Matt and Mike transplanted a number of very large trees for a project in Wellesley, MA.  They (and the homeowner, contractor, and landscape architect) kindly allowed me and a colleague to videotape the moving of two forty-foot high London Plane trees.  Editing of over six hours of videotape is underway now, and I’m hopeful that I’ll have a decent film this fall that Matt and Mike can do some voiceover comments on (not possible on site — air-tools are incredibly loud!).    When we’re done, it should give a fairly comprehensive look at how this method works for transplanting significant trees.  (And I bet Carl’s going to talk it up…)

For all these reasons, I offer my sincerest thanks to Mike, Matt, and Carl.  They are models of generosity, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

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