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Posts Tagged ‘remedial root work’

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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Dave Leonard from Lexington, KY, manned the root forensics station at the September 10 MAA air-tool workshop at Elm Bank.  He used an Air Knife to excavate the root ball of a 4″ caliper red maple that was showing signs of decline.

Turf provided the only competition for this tree, but it was showing dieback and early fall color at the MAA workshop.

Turf provided the only competition for this tree, but it was showing dieback and early fall color at the MAA workshop. Dave Leonard excavated at its base to take a look at its rooting habit for possible problems.

With soil blown away from the original root ball, it was clear that the tree’s planting had initiated some problems — parts of the wire basket appeared at the edges of the root ball, and cut root ends had sent out an explosion of fibrous roots that turned back toward the trunk.

Root ends cut during the tree's digging in the nursery sent out masses of fibrous roots, quite a few of which turned back toward the trunk.  The interface between root ball soil and surrounding soil can inhibit root growth into the surrounding soil; removing burlap, removing the wire basket, and breaking up the root ball soil, particularly at the ball's perimeter, can help promote the spread of new roots.

Root ends cut during the tree's digging in the nursery sent out masses of fibrous roots, quite a few of which turned back toward the trunk. The interface between root ball soil and surrounding soil can inhibit root growth into the surrounding soil; removing burlap, removing the wire basket, and breaking up the root ball soil, particularly at the ball's perimeter, can help promote the spread of new roots. Note the soil line some inches up the trunk flare; removing soil above the trunk flare will also benefit the tree and lessen its stress.

Dave cut away the roots that he could not redirect outward, and trimmed off the roots that had begun to circle the trunk flare’s base, which would otherwise eventually girdle the trunk and major anchor roots.  Some of these roots were the beginnings of a secondary root system put out by the tree in response to its stress.

Removing the worst of the inward-growing and circling roots improves the tree's chances for survival.

Removing the worst of the inward-growing and circling roots improves the tree's chances for survival.

After excavating the root ball, Dave intended to continue to blow soil out away from the root ball, creating a shallow crater  out at least to the tree’s dripline.  Removing turf from that zone would eliminate plant competition for soil moisture; the addition of 2-4″ of mulch (kept away from the trunk) would help the soil retain moisture and an even temperature, add organics to it over time, and lessen the chance of soil compaction that inhibits soil/air gas exchange.

Dave said that he would also consider lifting the tree a few inches, to bring its trunk flare into a better relationship with surrounding grade.  This tree had been in the ground for a couple of years; Dave suggested that tree lifting might be worth doing within two to four years of planting, but could be detrimental to the tree after that.  (The window of opportunity for lifting a tree would be a lot wider if an air tool were used, rather than a Bobcat or excavator, as the tree could be bare-rooted and set back in place with relatively little stress from the process.)

Demonstrating arborist at this station:

Dave Leonard, Dave Leonard Consulting Arborist, Inc., Lexington, KY

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At the MAA Elm Bank workshop on September 10, 2009, Matt Foti demonstrated how to address root problems at the time of planting.  He had a fairly large collection of trunk-and-root masses to illustrate his points, and used them to show how girdling roots, secondary root systems, and J-rooted systems can develop as a result of poor planting or growing practices.

Matt first showed a couple of forest saplings he had pulled early in the day to illustrate how a naturally-seeded tree’s roots grow.  The sapling’s roots were evenly spaced around its stem, and extended out a distance relatively equivalent to the distance its topgrowth extended from the stem.

This little forest-grown white pine has a clean, evenly spaced root system.

This little forest-grown white pine has a clean, evenly spaced root system.

He then pointed to a couple of nursery-grown trees whose rooting problems had become evident after several years.

These root systems have been cut in the digging process.  In an attempt to regrow roots, the foreground tree has sent out a secondary root system, several of which are beginning to girdle other roots.  Kept too long in a burlapped ball or in a container, roots will often turn back in to the ball, making effective planting and long-term growth problematic.

These root systems have been cut in the digging process. In an attempt to regrow roots, the foreground tree has sent out a secondary root system, several of which are beginning to girdle other roots. Kept too long in a burlapped ball or in a container, roots will often turn back in to the ball, making effective planting and long-term growth problematic.

Shrubs as well as trees are susceptible to root problems; Matt dismantled an Ilex verticillata root mass to illustrate how he treats roots bound in a container or in burlap before planting.

Fibrous roots hold together in a near solid mass right out of the container.

Fibrous roots hold together in a near solid mass right out of the container.

Using a three-pronged fork to untangle the root mass.  For a bigger shrub or small tree, a machete or pitchfork may work well to loosen soil and reorient roots.

Using a three-pronged fork to untangle the root mass. For a bigger shrub or small tree, a machete or pitchfork may work well to loosen soil and reorient roots.

Ilex verticillata root mass, now ready for planting.

Ilex verticillata root mass, now ready for planting.

Soil can present another problem for nursery-dug B&B trees.  Clay soils make sturdy root balls, which can be useful for shipping, but not so great for root growth.

This pair of trees have root masses encased in rock-hard clay soils.  Note the solid clumps of clay in the foreground, and root growth only on top of the root ball -- these roots found it impossible to grow into and through this soil.  Breaking up the soil in a root ball like this before planting promotes the tree's future health; leaving this kind of root ball intact almost guarantees tree stress and decline.

This pair of trees have root masses encased in rock-hard clay soils. Note the solid clumps of clay in the foreground, and root growth only on top of the root ball -- these roots found it impossible to grow into and through this soil. Breaking up the soil in a root ball like this before planting promotes the tree's future health; leaving this kind of root ball intact almost guarantees tree stress and decline.

Closeup of rock-hard clay root ball, broken apart (fairly violently) for demonstration purposes.

Closeup of rock-hard clay root ball, broken apart (fairly violently) for demonstration purposes.

Another example of a dense clay root ball that constricted root growth to the tree's great detriment.  Soil had also been piled up around this tree's trunk flare, further challenging its ability to live.  Tough conditions for a tree to grow in.

Another example of a dense clay root ball that constricted root growth to the tree's great detriment. Soil had also been piled up around this tree's trunk flare, further challenging its ability to live. Tough conditions for a tree to grow in...

The point of these illustrations was to show how necessary it is, when planting a tree or shrub, to work with the root ball before covering it with soil.  Removing wire baskets, removing burlap, loosening or removing the soil, untangling roots as best as possible, pruning roots when necessary — all these tactics make up a strategy for promoting real tree growth.  Bare-root techniques have shown that a great deal of the work that arborists do these days is remedial — that is, is work intended to remedy poor growing, digging, or planting practices.  With the knowledge arborists now have of how root issues so obviously affect plant health, it only makes sense to attend to those issues early on, to avoid greater problems later.

Demonstrating arborist at this station:

Matt Foti, Matthew R. Foti Landscape and Tree Service, Inc., Lexington, MA

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Here’s a quick post to alert readers to the Massachusetts Arborists Association‘s Special Seminar and Demonstration on air tool use. A team of four arborists — Mike Furgal, Matt Foti, Rolf Briggs, and Dave Leonard — will be showing how compressed-air tools can be used in arboricultural work (root forensics, bare-root planting, bare-root transplanting, shrub moving, etc.), and will discuss the advancements that this technology provide those working with or using woody plants in the landscape.

The seminar will be on September 10 at Elm Bank, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s property in Wellesley, MA — check the MAA link above for registration information.

Registration is not limited to arborists, so interested landscape architects and contractors can go and see this work. I highly recommend signing up; last year’s seminar at Matt Foti’s farm, where Mike Furgal debuted the air-tool transplanting method, was really outstanding, and this year there’s bound to be even more information available and a great deal of informed and informative discussion.

One point: Bare-root transplanting, either with an air-tool or by root-washing, may never replace other methods of transplanting. But for specimen tree transplanting, where the value of an existing tree merits the effort involved, it is currently the gold standard. The number of roots retained with bare-root transplanting prevents the tremendous stress caused by other methods, and should be considered a valuable tool in the kit available to landscape architects, arborists, and contractors.

Bare-rooting allows for the moving of a tree this large in less than one day...

Bare-rooting allows for the moving of a tree this large in less than one day...

...while preserving this much root mass.

...while preserving this much root mass.

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This past winter I developed plans for a couple of areas on the property belonging to my longest-standing and wonderfully enthusiastic clients, L. and A. on the North Shore. They have a lovely place on a rocky cliff overlooking Nahant Bay, and they enjoy making it even more beautiful and comfortable each year. They are both artists, and both appreciate art in two and three dimensions: L. gardens and sculpts; A. is a talented photographer.

L. and A. had asked me to figure out how to screen out views of two neighbors from their house, and to develop plans in the two areas that would work with the extensive mature plantings already in place. I drew up plans that would bring a few new plants in, as well as reuse a number of plants already onsite. L. and A. liked the ideas, and we scheduled a date to move ahead.

Leahy Landscaping of Lynn carried out the work of digging and moving the plants; the crew, led by Anibal Marita, was excellent. At my request, and under the supervision of Mark Bolcome, Leahy’s arborist, they used an air spade on the project; we were working in a heavily planted area and I wanted to disturb or lose as few roots as possible.

The plan:  Remove a 32′ long, 7′ high holly (<em>Ilex ‘China Girl'</em>) hedge from the edge of a residential drive court, reusing some of the plants for screening at the front property line, and install a collection of transplanted shrubs, a new Japanese maple, and some low Green Wave yews where the holly had been. Transplant most of the hollies to provide a 22’ long screen at the front property line, and use the rest at another location onsite.

Proposed methods:  Hand-dig the holly. To avoid further stressing the three aging red pines under which some of the hollies were to be transplanted, excavate the transplant site with an air spade. Hand-dig the rest of the plants.

Actual methods:  Hand-dug the holly, then air spaded the root balls to loosen the nursery soil at their cores. Discovered that the wire baskets had not been removed at the original planting, removed those, and loosened the remaining soil, leaving roots intact. Removing the soil allowed the plants to fit in shallower-depth holes, which was helpful on a site with a lot of existing tree roots and drainage pipes. Removing the wire baskets will allow the hollies’ roots (and crowns) to grow unimpeded in their new locations. Excavated under the pines with the air spade, and removed existing shrubs there also with the air spade, leaving all roots, including masses of feeder roots, intact. Unwrapped the Japanese maple root ball, removed the wire basket and burlap, and removed/loosened the soil with the air spade.

Removing a girdling root from the Japanese maple.  Note the root-ball soil line, four inches up the tree's trunk from the base of the trunk flare.

Removing a girdling root from the Japanese maple. Note the root-ball soil line, four inches up the tree's trunk from the base of the trunk flare.

With a mini-claw mattock, pulled soil away from the trunk flare; soil had been piled 4″ up the trunk, concealing a girdling root and the flare itself. Mark Bolcome chiseled away the girdling root and made sure the flare was correctly exposed before laborers backfilled and watered in the root ball.

Removed the red clay soil encasing the nursery root ball of a rhododendron that had been planted onsite several years ago, but that had struggled for those years.

Breaking up the clay soil in the root ball of a 4' rhododendron.

Breaking up the clay soil in the root ball of a 4' rhododendron.

With the concrete-like soil mostly gone, the plant should finally have a chance to spend its energy growing, rather than trying to break through that clay cast.

Cleared ground cover by hand in front of a row of mature Taxus trees,

Holes for holly transplants were dug by air spade, to minimize disturbance to the roots of the treeform yew hedge behind the plywood.

Holes for holly transplants were dug by air spade, to minimize disturbance to the roots of the treeform yew hedge behind the plywood.

then excavated transplant holes with the air spade — again, to keep from disturbing roots of the existing yews — and transplanted more of the holly here.

The original plan, which also included the planting of six large clump bamboos and the moving of several broadleaf evergreen and herbaceous plant, was scheduled to take perhaps two days. The hollies changed everything, though. They were enormous: planted eight or nine years ago at 3′ on center, they opened out to seven to eight feet in width.

One holly, trussed for moving.  Ten of these plants had been placed on 3' centers to make a hedge; when freed from the hedge, each one opened out to cover at least seven feet in breadth.

One holly, trussed for moving. Ten of these plants had been placed on 3' centers to make a hedge; when freed from the hedge, each one opened out to cover at least seven feet in breadth.

There was no way we could fit them all where we had intended; they would have taken up more than seventy linear feet if we had placed them side by side!

Hand-dug holly that has been bare-rooted being prepared for transplant. Notice the clumps of hard, heavy soil from its original root ball lying around it; the wire basket is lying off to the left.

Hand-dug holly that has been bare-rooted being prepared for transplant. Notice the clumps of hard, heavy soil from its original root ball lying around it; the wire basket is lying off to the left.

The trussed holly, now untied and moved to the planting bed, is at the back right of the photo. Liberated from the crush of a too-tight hedge planting, it has opened out to cover almost nine feet of fence.

The trussed holly, now untied and moved to the planting bed, is at the back right of the photo. Liberated from the crush of a too-tight hedge planting, it has opened out to cover almost nine feet of fence.

So it took a while to figure out where to put them, and then more time preparing those new locations to receive them. We ended up placing them — ten from the hedge, plus a shorter male plant — at various points around the property’s edge, where they do a magnificent job of screening out the neighbors.

Accomplishing the work took a full three days. Lessons learned:

1. An air spade is a great tool for any kind of planting work. We tested its capabilities, and found it invaluable for working under trees, for bare-rooting new plants, for excavating existing shrubs, and for removing that dreadful red clay soil from the 4′ rhododendron. We used it to investigate suspicious root issues — that concrete-like slug encasing the rhody’s root mass, the hollies’ wire baskets, the Japanese maple’s buried root flare and girdling root — and when it wasn’t being used on the transplanting operation, we used it to give a little breathing room to the root flare of a river birch planted on site a few years ago.

On this particular site, which has been intensively gardened for decades, the soil is beautifully dark and rock-free. The air spade had no difficulty blowing it out of planting holes. Even with a rockier soil, an air spade has enough pressure (90 psig) that bare-rooting shrubs takes a relatively short time. A laborer team can generally dig a 4-5′ broadleaf evergreen shrub in minutes. An air spade can do it as quickly or in a few more minutes, depending on soil type — but the amount of root mass saved makes the air spade by far the preferred method, horticulturally.

2. Plywood screens work beautifully to confine the overspray of soil from the spading site. For bare-rooting the already-dug hollies, the landscapers figured out that they could lift each plant into the back of their high-sided truck and spade off the root soil there, which kept the soil contained and the site clean.

3. At a minimum, workers using the air spade or helping with the bare-rooting should wear goggles and a face mask; very fine particles of soil spray everywhere at high pressure, and eyes and lungs should be protected. In rocky or sandy soil, the hazard is greater, and long sleeves and protective visored helmets are a good idea.

4. Never plant China Girl hollies that close together. They have a lush and luxuriant round form, and are determined to grow to that form (shrubs will push to grow into their particular habits — with some, you can push back by hedging them, but it makes sense to pick a variety whose natural habit lends itself to hedge form). Ten hollies had been planted at 3\’ o.c. to make a hedge; when removed from hedge configuration, the plants spread to between seven and nine feet in breadth. These plants now make a contribution to the landscape that they couldn’t in hedge form.

L. couldn’t remember if the original plan, done by another LA, had called for China Girls or for some other holly, and wondered if the contractor might have substituted China Girls for something else. We’ll never know — but we’ll know what to avoid in future.

Conclusion: The planting techniques were first-rate, the plants looked happy, the place looked great. L. and A. are delighted with the results (I know I’ve succeeded when I’ve pleased their artists’ eyes), and Leahy is moving on to do other air spade projects, knowing how well the technique works in a number of different situations. Now we’ll all be watching to see how everything grows; I’m betting they will all thrive.

Company:  Leahy Landscaping of Lynn, MA

Leahy Project Manager: Aisha Lord

Leahy Arborist: Mark Bolcome, MCA

Leahy Foreman: Anibal Marita

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