Posts Tagged ‘innovative arboriculture’

Contractors, arborists, and landscape architects in Massachusetts would do well to check out the Ecological Landscaping Association’s September events list.  The ELA is offering a number of really good workshops, on topics ranging from Boston-area restoration projects to the use of fire in landscape management, as well as a two-part, two-day workshop on root issues.  

One day of the root work will focus on soils(f you’ve read any of this blog, or Taking Place In The Trees, you’ll know that I’m interested in roots.)  In the air tool workshop, entitled At The Root: Air Tools Workshop, Rolf Briggs and Matt Foti will be talking about using air to work in the root zone, to decompact soils, to transplant trees and shrubs and also about how to plant nursery-grown stock properly.  

Matt and Rolf have done a similar workshop for the Mass. Arborists Association in the past, and Matt holds an annual workshop on proper planting techniques.  Being able to see what a root system looks like is eye-opening.  Learning — not just from written specs or a generic tree-planting detail — how a tree or shrub should be planted is essential, and well worth the price of admission.  I have been to at least three of these workshops, and learn something new at each one, and so can say that this workshop is one every landscape architect who designs plantings, and every contractor who sells plantings should attend.

Michael waters in a hemlock whose root flare has been excavated with air.


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It has been a while since I’ve written about root flares. I got some photos from my friend Carl Cathcart the other day, showcasing the excavation of a hemlock root flare. This tree is one of a hedge of 7-8′ tall hemlocks planted two years ago. Its owner had noticed that while the hedge wasn’t failing, it wasn’t exactly thriving, either. He called Carl, a Consulting Arborist, in to inspect the situation.

Carl zeroed in immediately on the base of the tree, and with a little hand excavation discovered that the hemlocks were sitting at least four inches too deep in their root balls. It has been customary for years to plant balled and burlapped trees so that the top of their root balls sits at or slightly above the finish grade around them. Cultivation practices in the growers’ nurseries have changed since that technique became the standard, though, and now it is necessary to check each root ball to make sure that root ball soil is not covering a tree’s root flare. A buried root flare — whether it is buried with root ball soil, compost, or an excess of mulch post-planting — spells trouble for a woody plant, and can be the cause of a tree’s failure to thrive. Small leaves, shorter-than-normal annual twig extension, and thin foliage can all be symptoms of a buried root flare. Root flares are not roots and are not adapted to life under the soil surface; they are part of the tree’s aboveground trunk, and typically need to be exposed to the air.

The in-field solution to this problem (should the excess soil not be removed in the nursery) is to excavate the root flare onsite during project planting. This task should be done before the tree is planted, so that the flare is planted at the correct grade; unfortunately, many contractors are not even aware of the issue, and will not have included time for root excavation in their bid. Here’s where landscape architects can make a major difference in the longevity of their project’s woody plants, and where contractors can distinguish themselves from the competition; LAs aware of the need to excavate root flares should include that requirement in their bid sheets for contractors, and contractors aware of that need (whether they are in a bid situation or not) can use this task, and the benefits it brings to the planted landscape, as a compelling selling point.

When root flare excavation doesn’t take place when the plants go in the ground, the signs of tree stress will likely show up within a year or two. At that point, hand excavation is still possible, but air-tool excavation usually will be more efficient.

When Carl identified the problem, he advised the homeowner to have air-tool excavation done. Matt Foti of Matthew R. Foti Tree and Landscape sent over a crew to carry out the work; Carl’s photos illustrate this post-planting process nicely.

The arborist has tied up the hemlock's branches for easier access in to the root ball. In this photo some of the soil has been blown away already.

A compressed air tool blows off the root mass. Just visible behind the tree is a plywood barrier that helps keep airborne soil from covering the surrounding plants.

The root flare has been uncovered; note the soil line about four inches up from the root mass. When you see side branches at, just above, or even emerging from below the soil level you can suspect a buried root flare. Carefully scraping away soil at the tree's trunk will indicate if further excavation is necessary. Now that the root flare is exposed, it is possible to see the girdling root that has formed on the trunk's left side.

The girdling root has been cut off, preventing any further vascular constriction in the root coming off the trunk and heading toward the photo's lower left corner.

With the root flare exposed and girdling roots removed, planting soil is blown or shoveled back into the excavated area at the correct grade.

The last step, before untying the branches, is to water the excavated area thoroughly, to rehydrate roots and to eliminate any air pockets in the root mass.

Project site: Private Residence, Sudbury, MA

Consulting Arborist: Carl Cathcart, A Plant Healthcare Consultant
Arborist for root flare excavation: Matthew R. Foti Landscape and Tree Service, Inc.

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I just got a rough cut today of the video, shot last summer, of the moving of a very large (about 14″ caliper, 30′ height) London Plane Tree in Wellesley, MA. It’s taken a while to edit several hours of footage down to a half an hour, but it’s about done, and in the next few weeks I hope to have added commentary. This video is from the project run by Matt Foti’s crew, aided by Mike Furgal, and it showcases the techniques used in air-tool transplanting. I hope to be able to preview the rough cut at New England Grows, and have the final version completed by the end of February; if there’s enough interest in the landscape architecture, architecture, or arboriculture communities I’ll sell copies. Stay tuned.

The first of five 12-14' caliper London Plane trees being excavated with air tools and transplanted bare root in August 2009.

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This tree has never been bare-rooted, as far as I know (though who could say, at this point?) It lives at Elm Bank, Mass. Hort’s headquarters in Wellesley, MA, and I took these photos at last week’s air-tool workshop there.

Norway spruce at Elm Bank.

Norway spruce at Elm Bank.

  Somehow it seems that Morticia Addams should come drifting into the picture to perch on this fantastic bench, sweeping a murky gloom behind her.

Somehow it seems that Morticia Addams should come drifting into the picture to perch on this fantastic bench, sweeping a murky gloom behind her.

For those of you still clicking on this site to see air-tool transplant posts, check out Taking Place In The Trees (www.takingplaceinthetrees.net).

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On Taking Place In The Trees, the new woody plants blog, I’m currently reporting on a great workshop given last week at Elm Bank and sponsored by the Massachusetts Arborists Association. Four top-notch arborists presented demonstrations and talks on tree root issues and some really innovative strategies for dealing with them. Of the hundred or so attendees, I believe that perhaps two (including me) were landscape architects. Tom Wirth was also there, and soaking up the information like a sponge; I’m sure he’ll use it on behalf of his clients’ landscapes, as will I.

Here’s the thing: I know that many LAs were invited to this event — I spread the word, as did several of the arborists there, including Carl Cathcart, who seems to know everyone and who is an active promoter of the wealth of plant-related knowledge that originates here in Massachusetts.

But why such a low LA turnout? It was a relatively low-cost event, and from what I’ve heard of local firms in this economy, the boards all over town aren’t loaded with projects. Was lack of time an issue for everyone? Do landscape architects have no interest in the largest living elements they use in design? Was there not enough promotion? Have people heard at all about what great work is being pioneered here? If you have thoughts about this issue, please write your comments in below — I’m baffled at the absence of representatives from the landscape architectural profession at these events.

A six-inch caliper Elm with a fourteen-foot diameter root mass, being moved bare-root.  How does this thing fit inside a standard ANLA root ball?  You have to cut off all but 60 inches of the roots to do so.  Bare-root, you get to keep all this root mass and the growing potential it represents. Photo taken at the MAA workshop on September 10, 2009.

A six-inch caliper Elm with a fourteen-foot diameter root mass, being moved bare-root. How does this thing fit inside a standard ANLA root ball? You have to cut off all but 60 inches of the roots to do so. Bare-root, you get to keep all this root mass and the growing potential it represents. Photo taken at the MAA workshop on September 10, 2009.

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Here’s a quick post to alert readers to the Massachusetts Arborists Association 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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Tom Ryan*, my first landscape architecture mentor, and I have discussed the desirability of specifying that the trees and shrubs we design into a site be planted bare root whenever possible. As long as the roots can be kept moist — something now entirely possible with the use of hydrogels — most nursery-grown plants fare better, are more apt to be planted in a way that promotes their future health, and are less expensive than B&B plants. And we all know that healthier plants mean more long-lived designs….

Nina Bassuk and the Urban Horticulture Institute at Cornell have put up on the web an outstanding illustrated tutorial on how to plant shrubs and trees bare root.

One of the challenges for landscape architects is to get more nurseries to offer bare-root plants for sale. Currently, balled-and-burlapped and container-grown are the most available kinds of woody plants in the nursery-to-contractor trade. Like any business, nurseries respond to demand.

Like any business, nurseries respond to demand. Years ago, I was having a casual chat with the president of a local nursery and garden center, and asking why plant selections were limited to a number of fairly standard species and cultivars (I had recently assembled a plant list that specified some more unusual species than his large nursery carried). He told me that if his nursery responded to demand; without greater demand for more variety, his business stuck with the standard choices. If more contractors were to bring him more complex lists, his nursery would be happy to accommodate them. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg argument — but essentially it means that continued and persistent demand will get results.

If landscape architects, through our planting choices and plant specifications, possess the ability to influence nursery offerings, then why shouldn’t we also be able to influence the method with which those offerings are packaged? With a greater understanding of the benefits of bare-root plants, perhaps more of us will start to specify bare-root plants, and so create the demand for nurseries to meet. It’s an idea worth exploring.

If you have had experience specifying bare-root plants for a project, we’d love it if you would write in and tell us about it.

Chionanthus retusus, Swan Point Cemetery

Chionanthus retusus, Swan Point Cemetery

*This September Tom will be named a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects — a great honor for any landscape architect, and one that he fully deserves.

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