Friday, November 1, 2013

Planting a REALLY Large River Birch Tree

Welcome to sunny Alabama! Where roses grow and bloom freely and where October and November are the absolutely best months to visit. I am on just such a visit helping out with my granddaughter while her father recovers from a surgery. He is doing well. Farmer Fix-it remains at home holding down the fort and working the land. We are both so connected to that land I'm almost ready to pitch a tent and hang out there more often. Today's post is kind of about the land in that it has a lot to do with planting trees. I have already moved several trees to the land including some large ones. So far they are all doing really well. I love trees. Trees and shrubs are my thing in the garden and, as I've said before, perennials and flowers are the supporting players. I always start with trees in my garden then move to the shrubs. Trees are ever so important in southern Alabama because they provide much needed shade and cooling effects via their respiration (okay, so it may be subtle but it is there!)
My daughter lives in a newer subdivision that used to be a tree farm. Yes, you heard that right. Prior to the houses being built here the red clay of the southern Alabama wiregrass region housed thousands of trees. The trees are mainly maples but there are also river birches in the mix. Unfortunately, the builder chose to take out all of the trees in parts of the subdivision, including the area where my daughter's house is located. Can you believe that? Beautiful trees and they are all just bull dozed over and disposed of? How could anyone build a house in the south and do away with all of the trees? The builder is now leaving more and more trees in the newer houses that are being built daily. A smart move. And I must say he is doing a good job of landscaping the lots. I even noticed the trees are being mulched and limbed up-properly! A really good thing as trees growing in tree farms can use some maintenance and the trees here all need it. 

On my daily walk with my granddaughter I spotted a man and a skid steer. He was ripping trees out using the skid steer. The trees were all about 20 feet tall and taller. I was shocked by the roots-or lack of. I was thinking that 20+ feet tall trees would have big rootballs. Perhaps they did but when ripped out by a skid steer the rootball pretty much disintegrates. This fact is compounded by the sandy red clay of Alabama (it falls apart easily) and also by the distance the skid steer pushes the trees to get them out of the way. Nonetheless there are plenty of roots on the river birch I rescued.
The major anchoring roots were damaged, as was the trunk, but there were still plenty of fine roots that I believe could sustain this tall tree-with some accommodations. The accommodations primarily consisted of pruning a good part of the tree off, and also pruning some roots and planting the tree in good quality soil with a root stimulator containing phosphorous. More on that later.

I found out there were two river birches available after speaking to the skid steer operator. He pointed me in their direction and said those were the only two river birches he was ripping out today. He also let me know that once he pulled out the trees "They would die." I did not agree or disagree with him. I just smiled and hiked over to where the trees were laying in the brush while he continued ripping out the beautiful maple trees. My granddaughter Adella did not know what to think of it all. She was my partner in crime on this day. 
After surveying the birches we quickly walked home where I got my small hatchback car to haul the tree back to Christine's house. That was fun! The tree was about three times as long as my car. I placed it on top of the car, where I had laid some towels to keep it from scratching the car, tied it to the inside of the car with dog leashes, then headed back to the house. Luckily we had only a short distance to travel and the subdivision is not a high traffic area. Once I got it back to the house I propped it up in a swimming pool and tied it off to make sure it did not blow over. I was not really sure if Christine and her husband would want the tree. I had no worries in that arena. When Christine came home from work she was absolutely delighted with the tree! Her husband even said he likes it.
We decided to plant it the next day. This was a tough job even for me. I am very used to digging holes but geez, we actually could've used a pick axe to dig this hole! I thought sandy clay would be easy to dig in. The soil is probably more clay but it is gritty and sandy as well. Apparently the two mix well to form bricks when it is dry. The hole we needed to dig had to be at least five feet wide by about four feet. This is a big hole. The hole did not need to be deep. In our case just deep enough to sit the trunk into it so that it sat at the same level it was when it was in the tree farm area. Basically, our hole was only two to three feet deep. Ideally you want to dig holes two to three times the size of the root ball. We had no rootball and I felt that digging the hole big enough to match the roots was adequate-plus it was all we could do! Even with Adella's help it was a pretty hard and long job in the Alabama 80 degree heat!
The thing that helped make the hole digging task easier was water. We dug a little then filled the hole with water. That water sat for a pretty long time without draining, but it did at least soften the soil along the edges a bit. We were also helped by the fact that the dogs had dug a really big hole already. The above picture shows the tree in place and partially filled in. We were short on soil but Christy has a compost bin full of compost. A wheelbarrow of that compost plus a large pot full of topsoil, and a phosphorous supplement helped us fill in the hole and stabilize the roots.
Just planting the tree and covering the roots would never have been enough to hold the tree in place. Prior to even filling n the hole we had to stake the tree. This involved a sledgehammer, a bruised knee when the sledgehammer's head did not meet with its target, and some strong arms. Finally, the stakes were in place and the tree was securely tied up with ratchet straps (it works!). I am not sure if this tree will make it or not but having done this very same thing a few years ago I can tell you river birches are TOUGH trees. Time will tell how this one will fare, but so far it is doing well and we are looking forward to shade....

in the garden....

Words and Photos Property of In the Garden Blog Team, In the Garden


  1. You have an endless amount of determination girl! I know it is tough seeing all those trees ripped out of the ground. I see it often here with new housing developments. It makes no sense when people want some nice trees in their yard. But the contractors only see an obstacle to overcome while building. I love neighborhoods where they have worked around the trees. So homey... Hope your tree survives after all that hard work...

  2. I hope it makes it, it sure had plenty of love and encouragement to help it to it's new environment. How awful that all of the trees were done away with for this development.

    Have a great weekend ~ FlowerLady

  3. Love those River Birches. Hope it make it fine. Sure wish they would grow here.

  4. I am rooting for the tree and congrats to the tree planter. A tough job.

  5. What a job! I hope it survives. I have a river birch, too, and they love as much water as you can give them. You have a big heart to save these trees. :o)

  6. I am still trying to picture you with this huge tree tied to the top of your small car with dog leashes, Tina--that's a funny mental image, though I've got to admire your ingenuity:) A great job of rescuing this tree, though; with your TLC, I think it has a good chance of survival.

    It made me sad to think of the builder ripping out all these trees. That's one of the reasons I wouldn't want to live in a new subdivision--the homes all look so bare without trees!

    P.S., what an adorable garden helper!

  7. I just simply cannot imagine bulldozing trees. Unbelievable, but it happens all the time in these subdivisions (I live in one!). We have a River Birch, planted before we got here, in 1994, and it is gorgeous! Contrary to what they should prefer....ours gets hot western sun all day long and absolutely no water! It's flourishing! Anyway, good for you for "rescuing" the trees and good luck with them ....

  8. I can believe that they mowed down the trees. They do it here but in our development they kept so many unfortunately the ones they kept in my garden are 90% ash which will have to come down due to EAB. Lovely to see you planting the birch and bringing the trees back.

  9. Wow. Yea for saving the tree. Wish there were photos of you with it on the car! Hope it settles into its new spot quickly!