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Friday, May 9, 2014

Good Timber Does Not Grow with Ease

Several years ago we got a landscape designer to come make sense of the jungle in our back yard. He drew up a detailed plan, and we set about spending thousands of dollars putting it into place. (Still spending, sadly.)

We built a large deck on the south-facing back of the house. The landscape plan called for four maple trees that would give some nice shade for the deck...some years down the road, since maples are very slow growers.

To get a jump start, we got the biggest trees we could afford on a fall clearance and even then paid about $200 apiece for trees that were a few measly inches in caliper.

Having spent so much, and taking the long view of what the trees would become, Mr. Jennifer wanted to really plant them right. He slaved for days with a pick in the heavy clay soil to dig four of the most beautiful holes I've ever seen, holes that would do justice to those giant burlapped root balls. He left loose soil at the bottom and planted the trees with dirt mixed with organic material. It was by the book. Our grandchildren were going to be climbing these babies in 25 years!

Over these years we have shaped them, given them regular deep waterings, and fertilized to encourage growth. The trunks seemed to grow imperceptibly. But finally, last year, the maples started sending up nice tall shoots.

Again this spring, my lovely trees began leafing out. Would we actually get some shade this year? All that money, all that care, all the time waiting would be worth it!

Well. Three leafed out beautifully. One did not. It sprouted a single branch of green leaves--while the rest of it appeared completely dead. I waited and watched. Surely it would leaf out! Finally we took a branch cutting to the nursery.

Introducing: verticillium wilt, my new mortal enemy.

What the heck is it?
"Verticillium wilt, caused by the fungus Verticillium albo-atrum ...  enters plants through the roots and spreads systemically throughout the water conducting vessels. This plugs the vascular system, resulting in the familiar wilt symptom. Depending upon how much of the root system is infected and where the fungus spreads in the tree, the disease may be very mild or it may kill the tree in one year."
Something I'd never even heard of and still don't completely understand is killing my tree.

How could I have known that verticillium fungus was present in the soil and silently attacking? That it was slowly poisoning the maple and cutting off its food supply, even as the tree looked so healthy and leafy in past years?

How can I possibly save it? Will it heal if we cut off the diseased parts? How will this affect the three other maples, not to mention the other trees and shrubs in the yard?

It brings home with new poignancy the words of the Master Gardener:
And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard wept, and said unto the servant: What could I have done more for my vineyard? 
And now, behold, notwithstanding all the care which we have taken of my vineyard, the trees thereof have become corrupted, that they bring forth no good fruit; and these I had hoped to preserve. ... But, behold, they have become like unto the wild olive tree, and they are of no worth but to be hewn down and cast into the fire; and it grieveth me that I should lose them. 
But what could I have done more in my vineyard? Have I slackened mine hand, that I have not nourished it? Nay, I have nourished it, and I have digged about it, and I have pruned it, and I have dunged it; and I have stretched forth mine hand almost all the day long, and the end draweth nigh.

What more could I have done? I followed the plan, planted with great care, and trimmed and nourished it. Now it seems my grandchildren will not climb this tree--that it will never give the shade it was meant to give. All that care. All these years of anticipation.

My beautiful, strong tree is dying, and it breaks my heart.

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