Saturday, 31 August 2013

Leaf problems with acers

Tree Felling
Sycamore 'helicopter' seeds
      A friend, Ella, asked me if I knew anyone who could cut down a Sycamore tree. It was cutting out light and the seedlings were annoying both her and the neighbours. It turned out that another friend, Monica, had a chain saw, so there was a chance that we may be able to do it ourselves. My wife offered the opinion that the thought of any friend of mine with a chain saw was only one step less frightening  than the doomsday scenario of me with one. This was a misconception based on both my sons' enthusiastic recounting of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and an unfortunate incident when a friend (a trained arborist) nearly removed his thumb rather than a poplar tree that was annoying us. I emphasised the 'nearly' to her but it cut no ice.

      "How big is the tree?" I asked Ella.

       "I'll send a photo", she replied.

      On the basis of the photo, which depicted a fairly small tree, we said we'd do it and, together with my son, Nick (who would agree to anything if a chainsaw was involved) we arrived at Ella's house.

      "There it is", she said in a matter-of-fact voice that implied we may miss it. The tree loomed over us, blackening the sky and bringing to mind that giant redwood in America with a tunnel in the trunk that you can drive a car through.

      "Where did you take the photo from", asked Nick.

      "From the other side of the bloody estate by the looks of it", said Monica, who isn't renowned for wrapping  things up.

      "Well. What are we going to do?" asked Ella. This led to a quick consideration of the technicalities, angle of fall, potential fence damage and safety aspects involved. The unanimous verdict was that we'd have a cup of tea.

      Following the tea break, a set of ladders were produced and extended to their full height of about ten foot. This meant that, if the tree were Jack's giant, we'd have been able to reach his ankle.

      Some years before, I had been told the story about a bloke who'd asked our arborists (I worked for the city council) if they'd do a foreigner for him and cut down a large poplar tree at the end of his garden. When they gave him a price he told them to forget it and went off and got a cowboy willing to do it at much reduced cost. It so happened that the garden was next to the arborists' headquarters and, when the man came to do the job, the whole team were on dinner break in the mess room overlooking the scene of action. Crosswords and page three were immediately forgotten as they crowded to the window to watch the show.

      Normal practise in the felling of a big tree in a confined space is to do it in stages, taking the top off first, then other sections, moving downward. In this case, the cowboy, without protective clothing but armed with a vicious looking chainsaw, thought he'd do the job in one, felling it along the garden towards the house. Remarkably, he got the tree to fall dead centre down the garden - right where he wanted it. Unfortunately, What hadn't occurred to him was that it may be an idea to assess the length of the garden compared to that of the height of the tree. The result of this omission was the demolition of the house extension  to an accompanying roar of appreciation from the audience.

      It was with this story in mind that we decided the job was too big for us. We compromised; just cutting some big branches off and removing a nearby small holly tree to allow a lot more light in. This involved Monica doing the chainsaw work, wearing a protective helmet and goggles and hanging precariously from the ladder like an arboricultural Hell's Angel. We learnt that another imperative in this sort of work is that you go bright red and swear like a trooper.

      We had to fell some of the larger branches into a thicket of nettles and brambles on the other side of the fence and then cut them up so that they couldn't be seen by the owner of the land. This really meant that Nick couldn't be expected to do much here because he'd had the creative forethought to wear shorts and, as he pointed out, bare legs and nettles are not a good combination. Instead, he spent a lot of time watching me through a cloud of  flies misplaced from the sycamore. He watched not because he was impressed by my tree skills, but because he was following the strict instructions of his mother to ring her if I was so much as to look in the direction of the chainsaw. I think he was a bit disappointed with the work because there were no shouts of 'timber' accompanying the creak of  falling mammoths. He'd been humming 'I'm a lumberjack' on the way there.

      A big part of tree felling is the disposal of the resulting fallen wood and, in this, Ella played a major role, cutting up single leaf stalks with secateurs and depositing them in the wheelybin before standing back to admire the result. The bin didn't fill very quickly but she did it with the artistic panache of a flower arranger and a quick calculation brought me to the conclusion she'd easily have it finished  by early 2018.

      All this brought to mind an incident that occurred when a large Beech tree fell down in Didsbury, demolishing a house front. When the police arrived the old Irish lady who lived there was still in bed looking in wonder at the devastation around her.

      "Are you alright love?", asked the constable.

      She looked at him blankly, then "ah", she said philosophically, "two's company, 'tree's a crowd".
Acer palmatum 'Dissectum Atropurpureum' in early summer
The same tree in autumn
      Sycamore, perhaps surprisingly, is one of the Acers. Its Latin name is Acer pseudoplatanus which, as often is the case, is quite descriptive: pseudo meaning 'false' and platanus which is 'plane' - it looks a bit like a plane tree. For a long time naturalists panned it because, based on fossil pollen records, it is an alien and doesn't support much wildlife. However, it's certainly been around since the sixteenth century, so this brings to mind those comments you hear about someone being an 'incomer' to our village' who has 'only lived here fifty  years'. When does an alien stop being an alien? More recently it has become recognised as being an important host for a number of lichens and a provider of pollen for the many insects which frequent it, so attitudes have softened. It is certainly a useful tree in coastal areas, where its resistance to salt spray enables it to grow vigorously.

      However, sycamore isn't usually looked on as a good garden tree because of the density of its foliage - making it difficult for plants to survive under it - and the prolific germination from its helicopter seeds. At this point Japanese cousins step in to steal the limelight. These are have great ornamental value both in shape , size and especially in  autumn colour. This is not to say they are without their problems: in a list of most commonly asked gardening questions, they come somewhere near the top (although slugs always take the number one spot). Sycamore leaf spot can occasionally be a problem on other acers as well. Although unsightly, it doesn't harm the tree and there is little you can do about it other than clearing and burning the fallen leaves.
Sycamore leaf blotch (or tar spot), caused by the fungus Rhytisma acerinum 
      Acer palmatum and Acer japonicum (the Japanese maples) are susceptible to leaf shrivelling due to late frosts  and/or cold winds, so ideally they should be placed in a sheltered position. They don't like extreme cold either, so will benefit from a protective mulch or, if grown in a container, having  bubble-wrap or hessian protection around the pot. Sunburn is another cause and the plant should be placed in a position where the hours of direct sunlight are limited. Dead leaves should be snipped off just to the base of the leaf, leaving the stem (petiole) intact. As long as this is carried out before the end of June, new leaves will appear from the bud at the base within about three weeks. If in a container, always remember that this is an artificial environment and the plant is unable to send roots to explore for water deeper in the soil, so drought can also cause leaf loss and browning problems. With this in mind, keep an eye on the watering.

      If all this fails, grow a sycamore.

1 comment:

  1. You may mock me for being too careful but you know as well as I do that you would have been flat out on the floor at the first sight of any blood!