The earth gave easily under the blade of my shovel. I dug, scooping up black earth while building a hole. I’d started late in the day, almost too late. Soon it would be dark, and I needed to make two holes.
Axes and such
For this month learning about managing trees, I’d made a start with Joe Adkins, who showed me how to hold an axe and use a saw without horribly maiming myself.
I picked up a couple more hints or maybe just had some of the same lessons repeated by Dale Brockrath, one of the stars of the Great Lakes Timber Show, which was at the West Virginia Pumpkin Festival in Milton, last week.
The Great Lakes Timber Show is a light-hearted demonstration of a couple of timber sport or lumberjack sport-type events like ax throwing, log rolling and log chopping, and sawing.
I’d come for the chopping and sawing.
Originally, I’d wanted to include lumberjack sports in this month’s project. Cutting down and cutting up trees at NASCAR speeds seemed to fit in nicely, but I had the time of year all wrong. The sport is bigger than being a side project and the best mentor I could find was out of the country.
Still, I figured I could get some tips from the Great Lakes Timber guys after a show.
I was impressed.
While standing in a crowd of middle-schoolers, I watched Dale hack through a log two- or three-times the size of the branch I cut up last week in about 24 seconds.
It took me somewhere around 20 minutes to chop a heavy 8-foot fallen branch into four, ugly pieces, and I’d been a slimy mess after.
Dale hadn’t broken a sweat.
After a noon show, I talked with him for a couple of minutes, asked if there was anything special about his ax?
“Nope,” Dale said.
He bought it at your basic hardware store, but the thing looked sharp enough to shave with.
“You’ve got to hone it like a knife,” he told me. “This one isn’t all that pretty. I got a little sloppy, but the edge is good.”
If I wanted to cut down anything in my yard, I’d need to figure out how to sharpen my ax.
From axes to shovels
While I worked that out, I began looking into tree planting.
I’ve been planting trees at my house, outside of Charleston, after I grew my first garden six years ago.
My first real garden was magical. Everything but the okra grew and grew and grew.
I ate tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches until I was sick of them, gave away zucchini by the basket and made gallons of pumpkin butter, which became a go-to for Christmas gifts.
It was all a fluke.
A year later, the neighborhood deer picked through my garden like it was a $5 lunch buffet and then took out the two apple saplings I planted; the start of a future orchard I hoped would eventually reduce time spent pushing a mower.
The deer chewed them down to the ground.
A year later, I tried again. The deer devoured one tree, while the other withered away.
I got books on growing trees, flipped through them, sometimes read them, but even if I was able to keep Bambi and his friends away, the trees still struggled.
I tried different fruit trees: peach, cherries and figs, because I like Fig Newtons.
To ward off the animals, I bought smelly pods to post on the ground near the trunk that were supposed to be to deer what a cross was to a vampire. I hung aluminum pie pans because I’d heard somewhere that the noise of the crinkling metal moving in the breeze would startle the deer.
The peach tree dried up. The cherry trees were attacked and died out, though the deer left the pie pans alone.
The fig tree vanished. It was just gone.
Currently, I have one spindly apple sapling that looks smaller than when I planted it a year ago, a chewed up peach tree I added in the spring and one tiny shrub that could be cherry or might be peach.
The deer got at that one, too, but it came back. It now has leaves, but at a foot tall, it’s hard to tell what kind of tree it is.
I barely remember planting the thing.
All of my trees are now in shoddily constructed cages, which looks as sad as it sounds.
Getting help from the pros
Looking for answers, I went to Green’s Feed and Seed on a Saturday morning willing to talk to anybody.
I like Green’s Feed and Seed. They’re local, and while I’m not a “buy local or die” guy, if I have a question tougher than “where do I find ...?” they usually come through.
It was a beautiful morning, warm for October, and my son, Emmett, and I had the outdoor garden center mostly to ourselves.
We did a slow loop around Green’s stock of fruit trees, which looked healthy and green. The store’s fig trees had figs on them. I wanted to grow figs, though really, I just want an endless supply of Fig Newtons.
Emmett pointed out the peach and apple trees.
I reminded him we weren’t buying anything, just asking questions. Besides, we’d had peach and apple trees — sort of.
“Hey, they have pawpaws,” Emmett said.
He’d had the fruit at school and tried a scoop of pawpaw ice cream at Ellen’s Ice Cream.
I repeated we weren’t buying anything.
Daisy Dunlap, a clerk, found us before we made our second lap, asked if we needed anything and I went into my spiel about how I’d tried to grow trees, some of them from this very store, and failed, repeatedly.
“Do you have any ideas?” I asked.
Daisy yelled for Margie.
Margie Cooper didn’t claim to be an expert, just knowledgeable. She gave me a rhyme to remember.
“Plant them high or watch them die.”
When you plant a new tree, she said, “You need to leave about an inch or two of the roots above ground. Don’t want to bury the thing.”
I’d always dropped the saplings in the hole and covered them up a couple of inches past the bottom of the trunk — for better stability, because where I plant is on the side of a hill.
Margie said it helped if the earth at the bottom of the hole was loose or, better, mixed with compost.
“You want the roots to have someplace to go,” she said.
Margie also told me to get a dandelion digger (a menacing, screwdriver-like garden tool) and slash the sides of the root ball to loosen up the ball of roots, so they would grow outward.
If the roots didn’t expand, the tree probably wouldn’t get much bigger than what it was when you bought it, she said.
Margie said to make sure my trees got plenty of water, particularly during those thirsty days when the temperature hovers around or goes above 90. I should water every three days, when it was dry.
And fall was great for planting. I could also maybe replant trees that weren’t doing so well and correct my mistakes, if they hadn’t been in the ground too long.
But no promises. It might not work.
“Wait until it’s cooler,” she said. “Not on a day like today, but wait until it feels like fall.”
“And what about the deer?” I asked. The local herd, I explained, was a plague.
Margie recommended two things: “Liquid Fence,” a product that makes things taste awful, like hot pepper and garlic-flavored vomit.
Yes, I sampled it. It reminded me of a particularly bad Sunday morning in college.
“It works,” she promised. “But you have to keep re-applying it. If you put that on something today and it rains tomorrow, you’ll need to put more on.”
Margie also told me I could go to the Dollar Store, buy women’s knee-high stockings, drop in some shavings of Irish Spring Soap and tie the stocking to each tree.
The people smell was supposed to scare off deer, but I had my doubts. Two years ago, I pitched a tent in my yard to camp and got chased off by a couple of deer who didn’t seem deterred by either my smell or my snoring.
Almost as an afterthought, Daisy told me that if the trees somehow failed, Green’s had a year-long return policy. I could just dig them up and bring back the remains for a refund.
More expert advice
I bought two pawpaw trees, but then contacted the Forest Resources Management Program at West Virginia University to get a second opinion and some more advice. They put me in touch with Dr. Greg Dahle, the affable associate professor of arboriculture and urban forestry.
He agreed with a lot of what Margie said, particularly about not burying the tree and making sure the tree got enough water.
“That’s the worst [and most common] thing we see with new plantings — the root system doesn’t get enough water,” he said. “It dries out and dies out.”
Soil, he said, needed to be moist, but not oversaturated.
Plant roots need water and air to produce the energy, he explained. You can drown a tree with too much water.
Greg said trees could and maybe should be watered through the fall and winter, as long as the temperatures were mild and not freezing.
Fall was a great time to plant, he agreed. That wasn’t just a sales pitch.
“If you were to plant this week, you’d have weeks of growth,” he told me. “Maybe all the way up until about Christmastime.”
The leaves might drop and the top of the tree might go dormant, but as long as the below-ground temperature was above about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, Greg said the roots would grow, if slowly.
Setting the roots was a good first step.
Greg didn’t strongly recommend adding fertilizer, but said it wasn’t a bad thing in moderation.
Many store-bought plants come in potting soil-filled buckets that already contain fertilizer, but he said sprinkling a little extra around the newly planted tree would be OK.
It might not help, but it shouldn’t hurt, either.
Greg may have helped me identify what killed an old tree in my backyard that quietly died off.
Because the way the seasons have played out over the past several years, some tree-munching insects are doing very well — like the emerald ash-borer and the hemlock woolly adelgid.
In the past, extended bitter cold during the winter would cut back the population and slow their growth, but warmer winters and longer growing seasons have helped the bugs flourish.
From the borer marks in the desiccated wood and the fact the tree was riddled with the holes made by woodpeckers digging for their next meal, it seemed likely that the bugs were probably to blame — but not the woodpecker.
“I consider woodpeckers neutral,” Greg told me. “They may be mildly helpful. They hunt the ash borer larva, which are often found in the stressed, sick or dead parts of a tree.”
One year at a time?
I got the pawpaw trees home and chose a space not far from my garden and in good light.
I hosed them down with the Liquid Fence and put up a barrier of deer netting. The netting didn’t stop them from getting to my tomatoes two years ago, but it kept them out of the pumpkins this year.
I added water and hoped for the best, but also kept that receipt.