Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hornbeam Smackdown

     The charming American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliana) is not often found in home gardens. Perhaps it grows too slowly for those who want a towering tree in sixty seconds or less. I immediately feel kinship with a gardener who has one--in my mind it implies upstanding character. This native species has survived the onslaught of lumber barons and exotic pestilence where other key species such as Elm, Chestnut and Ash have met their Waterloo. Maybe it is no coincidence that American Hornbeam is also commonly known as Musclewood.
     Recently I was given one as a gift--I assumed a seedling in a small pot. Then a truck arrived at my home hauling a 2.5 caliper (ten foot) specimen with a three hundred pound root ball. 
     The driver offered to help me situate the tree using his hand cart but I warned him it was too risky. During the rainy season the soil on my property holds enough water to power the Hoover Dam for a week and I knew we'd end only up perishing in the mire. He wished me the best.
      I pulled on my high boots and hiked into the marshy field to scout the perfect location. Successful tree planting requires a bright ability to visualize things in twenty years. For example a row of young spruce trees planted directly beneath utility lines will one day make a nice pile of wood chips.
     American Hornbeam is a beautiful small tree, maturing to about twenty-five feet in height. Its satiny-sinewy bark is grey-blue and rock hard; the glossy leavens are deep green, ovate-oblong, sharply serrate. In fall the foliage becomes scarlet-orange. A tree this lovely requires a place in the landscape where it will not be ruined by crappy real estate.
     As I puttered along in my John Deere, transporting the tree at the slowest possible speed, I felt like 73 year-old Alvin Straight who in 1994 drove his sit-down mower from Iowa to Wisconsin. Every waterlogged gorge and grassy hump threatened to demolish me.
     Now, I've been planting trees of all sizes for a long time yet I persist in misjudging the depth of a hole. Yes I do love to dig holes the same way I like to bite my nails and brush my teeth--with far more zeal than is necessary. There I was on a cold November afternoon with bloody fingertips, self-inflicted gum recession, and a too-deep hole filled with a 300 pound tree.  
     My dad offered the worst possible solution: hitch a bungee cord from the back of the John Deere to the root ball and pull it out. I fumed that we did not have time to review Sir Isaac Newton's universal law of gravitation proving that heavy stuff gets heavier when it goes into a hole.  
     I opted instead for 4x4's. Using our bodies for counterweight I managed to jack the tree high enough to make a clay mound beneath the rootball, gradually raising the tree to a proper height. 
     To ensure good drainage in a wet area I elevated the root flare a few inches above the soil level and mulched with six bags of organic soil and two bags of shredded cedar. The stakes will be removed in one year after reaction wood has formed and the root plate is well anchored. Lastly I protected the trunk from girdling rodents by wrapping it with chicken wire.  
     Before heading in from the cold I took a final moment to appreciate my new American Hornbeam, a glorious addition to the landscape. I can hardly wait for spring when I can scout for Lo moth caterpillars, one of this tree's unique guests. Lo moth caterpillars are covered in clusters of bright green spines that sting like hell. If I am lucky enough to find one I will have a strong urge to touch it. Heck, it can't be more painful than having no fingernails.


Carol Gras said...

The tree looks great, fingernails grow back but it takes a long time.

stirthepotgr said...

Hooray for idealists... may we prosper just like the plants at merkebee...

Peggy Jo said...

I want to live long enough to see it become this.

Shane VanOosterhout said...

Oh, I hope so. We'll sit beneath and have some iced tea. Hopefully our vision won't be too poor to enjoy its splendor.