Friday, June 24, 2011

Saving Dad's Tree

A friend recently emailed me with a tree question. Jimmy lost his dad some years ago and ended up planting a tree in his backyard. Now Jimmy and his family are on the verge of moving so he emailed wondering if there was a way of taking the tree with him. He mentioned that a few saplings had popped up but didn't know what to do with them. Not knowing what kind of tree we were talking about I asked Jimmy to email me some shots, including ones of the saplings. Below is our little back and forth. I thought it might be interesting to those of you that might want to preserve and grow various saplings that might show up on your property.

Jimmy wrote:
Hey Alex,
Here are two pictures of the tree(s). After I noticed the one sapling, I found another much further from the tree. I won't be moving for quite some time. Who knows, I may even have some others grow next year. I had one last year start to grow, but then it never survived. I need to move them though, because one of them are on the edge of my garden (if I ever get around to planting). the other is growing where my association mows the grass near my house.

I planted the tree in 2000 when my Dad died. It was about two feet tall at the time.

Any info you could provide would be huge. I did read that Japanese Maples like slightly acidic soil. I drink PLENTY of coffee if the grinds would help. :-)

Thanks for taking the time to do this.
I look forward to hearing (reading) what you have to say.

Thanks again.

Here is the small novella I replied with:
Thanks for sending the pics - they always help a lot when dealing with plant questions. Definitely saved you at least hundreds of words, if not thousands!

So, Dad's tree is probably a kind of Japanese Maple called a 'Bloodgood'. The scientific/botanical name is Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood' and that is nice to know sometimes because it can lead you to more knowledgeable websites amidst the sea of commercial shit on the internet. As you know it is a great upright, spreading tree with that awesome red foliage that keeps all season. Though not a terribly fast grower a Bloodgood maple can get to be 15'-20' tall and maybe 10-15' wide before it will begin to slow down and approach maturity. You're psyched because of all the Japanese maple cultivars that are out there this guy is known for it's durability and resistance to various pests and diseases, and in time they do create a beautiful form in the landscape. When studying color composition in the garden you learn to incorporate red foliage into the scenario because it tricks the eye and makes the greens of the garden more vibrant. But enough of the history and theory nonsense, let's talk about the challenge at hand.

I'm going to talk about the saplings because I think that is an easy and perfectly doable way of keeping the tree as part of your life. However, before going on, let me also say that you can propagate this tree from cuttings. Basically you would take fresh cuttings of new growth of a certain size, apply a powder packaged as a "rooting hormone", and pot them up and hope that they establish roots and become their own trees. If you wanted to go that route then we could have a quick phone conversation and I can pass on the steps and order involved. But as you can imagine that is more of a process than just digging up the little critters you have found, so we'll keep it as your second option. Again, I imagine you can keep the saplings going, but if you wanted to try and get into propagating it can be fun and I'd be happy to get you started.

So basically it is as simple as you'd guess. You're going to dig up the saplings and pot them up and tend to them the best you can and hopefully they take and grow well for you. The saplings are growing from seed dropped by the tree (of course), and they should grow true-to-seed, which basically means they should look like the parent tree as they become their own entities. However, you want to know a few things going into it.

You see how those leaves on the sapling you photographed look different than the leaves on the main tree (more curvy and lobed, etc.)?
When grown from seed, plants often produce a first set of leaves that is different looking, and that is what we are seeing. The next leaves the sapling produces, you should see, are going to be more like the basic five-point leaves that the main tree has. In my opinion, if you can, I would wait until the sapling produces a few "real leaves" (for lack of a better phrase) to let you know that it is a little further along in terms of development. However, because of the concern of the lawnmowers I know time is of the essence so if you can't wait that long then so be it. With your trowel begin to dig around the sapling but give yourself more room than you think is necessary. In other words I would dig the circle at least a few inches in radius from the sapling, and score the soil straight down and not at much of an angle towards the roots of the sapling. From seed maples love to start with a good tap root to get established and you need to keep that intact through the transplant. The tap root could be as tall as the sapling so use a trowel that it at least 4-6" because you will want to carefully dig and excavate that deep to be sure you aren't breaking anything. You know, take your time, no need to rush, it's going to take you all of ten minutes. Eventually the roots will begin to grow more out than down but by that point you should be on to the new place and new yard. Once you have the kids out of the ground pot them up in plastic pots with drainage. Plastic retains moisture better than a clay pot, and you can use/recycle a cheapo "growers pot" like you get from the garden center, or even chop the top off a 2-liter bottle and just poke holes in the bottom. The pots have to have drainage (most crucial) and yeah, again you will want a container at least 5-6" deep by 4-5" wide. You don't have to use a container so big as a 5-gallon, that's kind of overkill. If you can find and use regular garden soil to fill in your containers that is fine. I'd choose potting them in good crumbled, loosened up, garden soil over potting soil because the plant will have to deal with less unnecessary adaptation. Once potted up you can pick out some of the grass plants if you want and top-dress with soil, but don't bury the top of the young stem too much. Overall your goal to keep the "rootball" that you have excavated in one piece and not try to break it up too much or at all. Keep the potted saplings in a protected spot in part shade, so maybe by that little shed. Be sure to water them well after being transplanted, to the point of seeing water come out of the bottom of their containers. Once all is said and done, if you have a dead space in your yard where the lawnmower is not a concern, you can even sink the whole pot back into the ground (called "heeling in" a container), keeping the lip of it above ground so you know exactly where it is. Sometimes if I have a transplant that I am not going to use for a while I will heel it in, pot and all because then at least I know it is going to stay more insulated and protected in the ground, and when I am ready to plant it in it's new place then all I have to do it pull up the whole pot and plant away. The only catch with that is that you have to remember to still water it during long dry spells. Your potted saplings should be okay in their containers for as long as you need to keep them that way. If it becomes years then you will have to transplant, but I know it won't be that long. Well down the road we will talk about proper training of young saplings to help get a nicely shaped specimen.

Hopefully all this is helpful. Obviously if this brings up any more questions ask away and I'll chime in again soon.
Best of luck, and keep me posted.

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