Learning on the job can yield painful lessons

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  • Post last modified:February 10, 2012
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When I was first starting out as a young tree guy and landscape contractor putting myself through school, I didn’t have much experience, but I certainly had enough drive and energy to tackle almost any job using just plain common sense. But sometimes, a little knowledge can save you time, money and headaches.

At one point, I was hired to remove a row of large eucalyptus trees and their stumps on Lone Jack in Encinitas.

Brian Coen, my partner and college buddy, and I figured we could remove the large trees with our small chainsaw, load all the material in our beat up One Ton International Harvester flatbed and pull the stumps out using the PTO winch cable located right behind the cab on the truck bed.

Everything was going swimmingly as we cut and loaded along the right of way and soon after hours of back breaking labor – we had no chipper – the only things left were the trunks themselves.

At this time in my life I hadn’t even heard of a stump grinder.  But we had a plan.

We would dig out the trunks and with the winch, pull the stumps out and up a ramp we had built onto the bed of the flatbed.

Well, these trees were 2 to 3 feet in diameter at the bases and I soon found out that they weren’t going to come out easily. But, as strong and stubborn and hungry for money as I was, I set to work with a mattock, which is a combination pick and axe (and will chop through almost any wood given enough time and determination).

Typical roots of large trees have three functions. They act as a support and anchor the plant or tree to a substrate.
They are also specialized to search out water, absorbing it while acting as a storage facility for starches and sugars. Roots also host an interplay between the soils bacteria and fungi. In many cases, roots work symbiotically with the soils fauna. Bacteria can live in tumor-like root nodules where they fix atmospheric nitrogen, changing it into ammonia.  This makes it usable for the construction of proteins and new shoot development.

So, as I got deeper into the earth with my mattock, I found root after root. My method was simple, I dug in one place until I discovered a 3 inch to 4 inch root, creating a trench. After chopping it out, I would continue downward and forward, creating a trench around the tree until I encountered another root and so on until most of the roots disappeared two to three feet below grade.

Using this technique, I found that the eucalyptus globulus, the trees we were removing, don’t have one single tap root. In fact, they have multiple branching roots that emanate from the root ball on several different levels below grade, very similar to the branching structure of the canopy. They are an undesirable plant.

We were finally able to break most of the stumps free with the truck winch after cutting the roots but the last tree refused to budge and undoubtedly had some deeper vertical tap roots that were difficult to reach under the root ball.

Wanting to finish the job, I climbed down into the trench and began swinging hard and away trying to get  an angle under the root ball when I was  suddenly splashed with a muddy geyser that covered me from head to toe.

I was already beat from the day and now I was looking down at a broken water main three feet below grade with no way to shut it off.

I just stood there in shock watching the hole around the tree stump fill with water.

Somehow, my partner found the water main before it flooded the street and then a funny thing happened.
All the muddy water in the hole around the tree began to recede and disappeared.

Just before it did, the  biggest badger I have ever seen flew out of the hole and took off like a shot across the field.

He wasn’t any happier than I was, but from that point  on, we used Dig Alert and ground our stumps when they were oversized.