Tag Archives: Digging out tree roots

Plumb Crazy

Due to ignorance and a lack of landscape planning, I make lots and lots of mistakes when it comes to gardening.  Most are small, vexing ones that only waste my initial investment and time.  But lately, I’ve had to deal with some big gardening mistakes—the kind you have when you’re a master procrastinator, rather than a master gardener.  You see, plant mistakes can’t be hidden in the back of your closet like a hideous, ill-fitting blouse or stored in the garage like a gouged, watermarked end table.  If you ignore bad plant decisions, they keep getting larger, growing from little mistakes to really big ones.

My latest big mistake is my dwarf plum tree.  The main problem with fruit trees is excess fruit, which has a nasty tendency to fall to the ground, creating a huge mess and providing a lovely breeding environment for fruit flies.  Even “dwarf” trees like mine produce an overwhelming amount of fruit.  Of course, “dwarf” is a relative term when it comes to trees and essentially means “not humongous.”  I foolishly thought it meant “small” when I bought my dwarf fruit trees but have since learned otherwise.

Getting rid of a tree, even a so-called dwarf one, is not a small job.  I know this because this past April, I finally finished dealing with another major mistake—a dwarf apple tree.  It was an easier decision to get rid of the apple tree because most of the time I don’t use any chemicals, so all it produced was a whole bunch of wormy, scabby apples.  At first I tried to get away with just cutting the apple tree down to a tall stump (which I then used to hang a garden hose on so I could pretend that I wanted to leave the stump there, right in the middle of my yard).  Unfortunately, it insisted on sprouting new little tree-lets all around the trunk and up from the roots.  So I broke down this spring and dug it out.  It was a tough job, involving a shovel, a hatchet, multiple saws and loppers, nasty thoughts, and many bruises over an extended period of time.  When I finally succeeded, I swore, “Never again!”

That was less than six months ago—which is irrefutable proof that time really is speeding up.  It used to be that “never again” lasted a minimum of several years, which is usually long enough for the worst of the memories to fade.  And as long as you can’t remember just how horrible the experience was, it’s not totally idiotic to do something that you swore you’d never do again.

But the apple tree experience was still fresh in my mind.  And the plum tree was four years older with a trunk that was three inches larger in circumference than the apple tree was when I cut it down.  So I tried really hard to convince myself that the plum tree wasn’t a problem.  After all, I did want a small tree in that general location.  And although the tree wasn’t as healthy as it should be, it still produced plenty of usable and tasty plums.  I even thought I might try to make jam with some of the excess fruit.

This convincing worked until the ripe plums began to drop.  It was jam time.  So I looked up jam-making instructions on the Internet.  ACK!!!  I don’t know what I was thinking.  I do NOT like cooking, and I certainly don’t want to invest money in jam jars, lids, a large pot, and miscellaneous recommended supplies in order to do even more cooking than what little I scrape by doing—just to make something that I may not like or use.  I repeat, what was I thinking?  I dropped the idea of plum jam almost as fast as the plums were dropping.

Spending more time and money on something just to avoid admitting it was a mistake is plumb crazy…or in this case, plum crazy.  But I confess if I could have come up with something to replace the plum jam idea, I’m sure I would have jumped on the new justification for keeping the plum tree, just to avoid cutting it down and digging out the roots.  However, no brilliant new rationalizations occurred to me.  Meanwhile, the plums continued to ripen.

I’m not sure what pushed me over the edge.  It was probably a little thing—like noticing the first arrivals of the annual fruit fly convention that is always held inside my house or finding out the person I gave bags of plums to in the past didn’t want any this year.  Whatever it was, I just suddenly cracked.  The plum tree had to go, even though I was dreading the ordeal.

Once the decision was made, I started immediately so I couldn’t back out of it.  The first step was to strip all the plums off it, saving the good ones and discarding all the unripe, the over-ripe, and the buggy or blemished ones.  Picking them went faster than normal because I didn’t have to worry about damaging the branches.  And if a branch got in the way, I simply lopped it off.  But it still took hours.

I ended up with over fifty pounds of good plums that I was able to donate to the local food bank.  That was the best, most rewarding part of this whole experience.  And having to deliver them also gave me a good excuse to avoid working on the plum tree on the second day.  Not that it took that long to find the food bank warehouse and drop off my five small boxes of plums, but once out and about, I was in no rush to return home.  I knew what was waiting for me.

The third day was devoted to cutting down the tree.  Everything that was lop-able was cut off using my long-handled pole tree pruner—a recently acquired gardening tool that I now can’t image living without.  A bow saw made quick work of the larger branches on the trunk.  And in a relatively short period of time, I had the tree cut down to a tall stump.

Day four was spent cutting some of the longer branches into shorter pieces, then moving and stacking them in another area to get them out of the way.  Smaller branches will eventually get cut up into small pieces for mulch (by hand since I don’t have a wood chipper).  Larger branches will be cut up for firewood.

At that point, I actually felt worse, not better, because the hardest part—digging up the roots—still needed to be done and the area was now visually unappealing.  Instead of a lovely tree in that part of the yard, I had an ugly stump.  And even when the job was done, it would only restore the area to its original unsatisfactory state—a bare spot that desperately needed a nice, little tree in it.  So basically, I was going to have to start from scratch, planting a new tree and waiting several years for it to get big enough to start filling in that area.

I tried to raise my spirits by telling myself that I’d feel much better after I got the roots dug out and that it’d be easier this time because I had learned so much from digging up the apple tree roots.  And amazingly enough, as I started digging, I realized that I had learned a thing or two.  The most valuable information was that it wasn’t the roots that were the biggest problem.  It was the dirt right next to the trunk and underneath it.  And the more of that dirt I could remove, the easier it would be to get the tree roots out.

Also, with the apple tree, I had been too quick to cut the roots.  This time I used the roots for prying.  A crowbar would have been handy, but I didn’t have one and ended up using a couple of thick wood poles.  By digging the roots out just enough to slip a pole under them and pry them up, it loosened the dirt in both directions and made dirt removal much easier.

So on day five, I focused on prying up on the roots to loosen the dirt and digging as much of it away from the trunk as possible.  When the roots under the tree was partially exposed, I used a sharp spray nozzle on my hose to wash away even more of the dirt.  The water also softened the clay dirt around the tree, making it easier to dig out, but heavier to lift.  This is what it looked like at the end of the first day of digging.

The next day I continued digging dirt from around and underneath the tree and prying up on the roots, but I also started cutting some of the roots, starting with the smaller ones, just to get them out of the way.  Eventually, I reached a point where I had removed enough dirt and only had a few large roots still attached.  And prying those no longer accomplished anything worthwhile.  So I cut them with a saw and was able to push the tree trunk over, snapping a few remaining small roots on the bottom that I hadn’t been able to get to.

It was done!  And it had only taken me two days to dig out the roots, compared to the two weeks it took for the apple tree.  Wonder of wonders, I had learned something from my previous experience that resulted in a lot less work and a much smaller hole for the bigger tree.  The first picture is the apple tree with the giant hole I ended up digging.  The second picture shows the more efficient, smaller hole I dug to get out the bigger plum tree.


And like I had told myself earlier, I did feel better, in spite of having wrenched my shoulder, strained my wrist, crippled my fingers, scraped up one leg, and acquired a whole butt load of other aches, bruises, and cuts.  Actually, now that I think about it, my posterior was the only part that wasn’t hurting, even though I fell on it several times during my struggles.  But at least the worst part was over.

You’d think after all that, I’d take a break the next day to recuperate (or even an entire week since I don’t bounce back as quickly as I used to), and I did plan to, but when I went out to marvel at what I had done and take pictures, I somehow ended up finishing it by filling in the hole.  Naturally, I couldn’t use that hole for my new tree because it was a little too close to both the house and the fence, since dwarf trees turned out to be bigger than I expected.  And I definitely didn’t want to plant a new big mistake.  So next time I need to make sure I pick the right tree and plant it in the right spot.  Fortunately, tree planting season is still months away, which will give me time to think about it…and time to recover.