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Hamptons Life

Dec 11, 2017 11:32 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Beech Tree Planting

A view of the
Dec 11, 2017 12:03 PM

About six years ago, I began to notice that a very large and very old maple tree at work was showing worrying signs of age. It already had been cabled in several places, but the dropping of some upper limbs and the appearance of some rot nearly 20 feet above the ground heightened my concern. In the spring of 2014, an entire section of the south face of the tree never leafed out. The tree might have been over 100 years old and a major landscape feature of the property. As much as it was a beautiful specimen, it had now become a liability and it was time to get an expert opinion.

I was able to have Dr. Christopher Luley, a noted arborist and plant pathologist, come over for a consultation and give us a report. He found a number of issues and said that within a year the entire south side of the tree would be dead, and that there was ample evidence of wood decay, root decay and a host of secondary infections.

It was his opinion that the tree presented an imminent hazard to the nearby house, and it was his opinion that the tree would be dead within two years.

I gave the owners the choices: leave the tree up and take the chance that, when it fell apart, the limbs and branches wouldn’t strike the house, doing tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage; or take the tree down and consider a replacement.

They weren’t ready to give up the tree, in spite of expert recommendations. We did some safety pruning and, two years later, a very large limb came down, shaking the house and adding some stark reality to the equation.

Our arborist came over and deemed that the tree was now so precarious that he wouldn’t take the chance in trying to do any further work on it. The next day, three men with ropes and chainsaws began to take it down. It took three long and sad days to dismantle the maple. At the end, a stump grinder was brought in, and the last visible remnants of the tree were ground into splinters, chips and sawdust.

If the tree had been planted when the house was built, that would have made the tree more than 70 years old—but I suspect that the original owners had chosen the house location because of the huge Norway spruces on the west side and this maple on the east. And while it was impossible to count the tree’s growth rings, I suspect that the maple stood nearly a hundred feet tall and maybe just as wide. Possibly, it had been around during World War I, the Great Depression, Word War II, the Vietnam War, and right into the 21st century.

And now all that remained was an empty space and several cords of firewood.

The spot remained empty for nearly a year, and then one day, while I was walking the property with the owners, they asked me to find a replacement, and did I have any suggestions?

For some reason, I remembered two weeping copper beech trees that I had planted at another estate where I worked 30 years earlier. The pair had cost well over $100,000, and they were indeed beautiful specimens that were very difficult to establish but, after several years of critical care, they began to thrive.

Weeping beeches wouldn’t work at this location, but I began to imagine a standard copper beech where the maple had been taken out—and, days later, the search for candidates began.

In about two weeks, we were able to find more than a dozen candidates from as far away as Vermont and New Jersey, and right nearby in Bridgehampton at Marders and in East Hampton at Whitmores. The prices ranged from around $15,000 to $89,000—and that was just for the tree. To that number we would add the shipping charges and the installation costs.

In October, the decision was made, and it was the most expensive and largest of the group. But by the time we made the call to buy the tree, it had just been sold two days earlier.

Back to a new group of candidates and, finally, a second choice was made. I flew from upstate to East Hampton, made the short drive to Whitmores nursery, where I met Mariah Whitmore, and she introduced me to the tree.

It was more than 25 feet tall and nearly as wide, with a root ball measuring 11 feet in diameter. Since it was already dug and the ball burlapped, we could still plant it, and we thought we had a planting window of nearly a month.

I spent some time evaluating the tree’s formation, looked for any signs of disease or damage, and was told that it had been growing in old East End farm soil, which was a good omen; because had it been growing in a sandy local soil, the root ball would have a tendency to fall apart in transport. I took pictures from the ground and from a drone, and the next day we began to make plans to get the tree upstate.

I had always marveled at the tractor-trailers that I’d seen bringing huge trees down Sunrise Highway in the spring and fall, destined for the estates of Southampton and farther east—and, now, here I was about to have one shipped from East Hampton up into northern Westchester. Would the tree survive the trip? How in the world were we going to get it to the planting spot, where there was no truck access and just a narrow dirt road leading to the property where it was going?

Our landscape contractor, Nick Brighanti, was in a slight panic because of my planting schedule, but we made the transportation arrangements, Nick set the time aside for his equipment and crew, and at 1 a.m. on Monday, November 27, a tractor-trailer with a 25-to-30-ton copper beech left East Hampton and headed yonder for the hills of northern Westchester.

The truck arrived at 4 a.m. and pulled to the side of the road, where the driver slept for the next four hours. By 8:30 a.m., the truck was backing down the lane-and-a-half dirt road, where the unloading crew and a huge front-end loader met up, and the unfurling and unblocking of the beech began.

Within an hour, the tree was off the truck and headed to its new planting spot. That journey of maybe 2,000 feet took seven hours—down a paved driveway, across an old pasture, down an old farm road, through an old cattle grate and stone wall, around a septic field, then over a drainage swale and up a magnificent bluegrass lawn. Seven men constantly moving 2-foot-wide-by-8-foot-long rubber mats to keep the loader and tree from sinking into the fields and lawn.

And then—trouble.

As the loader tried to make the passage through the old cattle grate in a passageway through a stone wall, the beech simply wouldn’t pass through the overhead opening. Luckily, we had a tree crew doing pruning nearby and, with some trimming of the maple, we ever-so-gingerly maneuvered the beech below and through the overhanging maple limbs.

But the transit was only half over—and the planting and other surprises were still to come.

More next week. Keep growing!

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