|Collecting & Training Crab-Apples|
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by John Biel
Collecting the Tree
On the day of the dig the tree was growing actively. The buds were swelling. It was early spring. The ground was thawed and saturated with water. It was very wet. Kneeling was not a good idea. To begin, the years of accumulated dead grass was raked away from the trunk with a three - pronged steel rake. This alone was enough to work up a good sweat, but it revealed two interesting things. The first was that the tree had attractive buttressing. The second thing revealed was that the promised sandy soil was, in fact, clay - clinging, cloying clay. Further exploration revealed that the root system had penetrated the clay only slightly -about the depth of the shovel. The lateral roots had not grown out too far but were also embedded in clay. The "surface soil" consisted of grass roots and decades of matted mulch.
In retrospect, the problem with the dig was that I approached it as if I were collecting a conifer. I dug a trench around the tree. Not an easy task, because as soon as a shovel full of clay was taken out, the hole filled with water. But I persevered and ended up with a nice little moat. With the trench sort of finished and now full of water, the next step was to reduce the lateral roots because it was obvious to me that, leaving them as they were, was ridiculous. To achieve this goal, I used a Japanese fine - toothed folding saw. Unfortunately, a couple of swift strokes through the clay and wood were enough to clog the teeth. Lucky for me there was a lot of water handy to rinse them out.
As a result of this struggle, bending was getting painful.
There was no way I could reach the taproot by bending over. Even
though the tree might only have a short taproot, it nevertheless
had one, and it had to be cut.There was nothing for it but to
get down on my knees. Still, I couldn't get under the root ball.
Finally, it dawned on me that if I could rock the tree to one
side I'd be able to get the job done. (Even if that didn't work
I'd at least have a good reason for being so muddy and wet.)
With the lateral and tap roots now cut, it was time to psyche
myself up for what I knew would be another hernia-inducing effort:
lifting out the stump. With a sucking sound it came out, along
with clumps of grass and
The stump was really heavy! I thought it was because of all that clay hanging off it. Solution: get rid of clay. So I dragged the stump to an old but deeper excavation hole full of water to wash it clean. The best way to do that, I figured, was to get the stump into the water, and while straddling the hole, grasp the trunk - all four feet of it - and energetically pump it up and down in the water.
It worked! But as with most spur of the moment good ideas, there is often a short- coming. Mine was no exception. The action totally wiped me out. I got wetter and muddier than I had ever been in my life, and I still had a long trek ahead of me, some of it through knee-high tangled grass. But I took some consolation from the fact that others were just as badly off, but I, at least, had a root ball that was clean! To my amazement, the stump wasn't all that much lighter. In thinking about it later, it made sense. Apple wood is dense and heavy at the best of time, and since the tree was actively growing when it was collected, who knows how much water had been sucked into the trunk? Anyway, I did shorten the roots some more while reflecting on the potential futility of what I had just gone through: the tree might die. With that happy thought in mind, the stump was bagged and lashed to my backpack for the trip home.
As the saying goes, experience is the best teacher. As a result, I have learned, the hard way, that, with apples (and other deciduous material I have collected since that eventful day), it's OK to bare root the material and that you don't need a very big root ball.The root ball needs to be just big enough to preserve the taper of the lateral roots. I learned also the following:
- Apple stumps are really, really