September 18, 2009

Adjø, Acer platanoides

A few decades ago, the back cover of publications such as ‘Parade’ were adorned with ads for ‘miracle trees’; things that would grow from a four-foot whip into a thirty-foot shade tree in five years. You could buy four of them for $19.95 or some such preposterous figure.

I’d be willing to bet that some of those ‘miracle trees’ were Acer platanoides, better known as the Norway maple. Beloved by developers twenty years ago for their ‘instant neighborhood’ qualities, the tree is today considered an invasive species. It has a thick, shallow, fibrous root system that fairly well sucks out the moisture from everything around it. It is also a brittle tree, given to shedding branches at inopportune times.

Mostly, though, it is a great brute of a shade tree. It gets very large and has a massive canopy that permits no light to get through it. Anything that is planted between it and the sun is doomed to live in eternal shadow. It’s lone saving grace is that it turns a brilliant yellow and gold in the fall.

The builder who put up the ten homes on my street did a fine job with the houses, but his skills ended at finish carpentry. He put a five-clump river birch in the front yard of the house we would buy… ten feet from the septic tank. He dotted the street with now-banned burning bush (Euonymus alatus). And, to shade the sidewalks, he planted a great many Norway maples. Our home was four years old when we moved in and the tree on our property was roughly fifteen feet in height and still reasonably shaped.

Ten years later, the shortcomings of Acer platanoides could no longer be ignored. We had consistently pruned the maple in front of our shrub bed so that it was, at worst, an annoyance. But a second Norway maple on a neighbor’s property - forty feet high and as wide across as its height - was shading our ‘butterfly bed’ out of existence while keeping the soil underneath it as dry as dust.

Last summer, that neighbor’s home sold and the new owners had the property re-surveyed. When they mulched their beds this spring, Betty noted that the line of bark mulch ended abruptly a foot from the Norway maple. She inquired and was told that the new survey showed that the tree was on our property. Seldom has such a proclamation been so joyously received.

Yesterday afternoon, Sasa, the tree man arrived with the biggest Bandit chipper I’ve ever seen. Adjø, Acer platanoides.  In half an hour he reduced both trees to mulch and a stack of firewood. He then, at our request, upended the cart on his dump truck and left us a neat pile of roughly nine cubic yards of well-shredded leaves and wood chips. Last evening, Betty and I began the task of spreading that mulch, three inches thick, onto walkways and open areas.

Over the course of the winter the leaves will decompose and put nitrogen back into the soil. The wood chips – which we know to be disease-free - will remain to keep down weeds and build up the soil. The shrub bed will be slightly enlarged to incorporate the stump of the one Norway maple, the Butterfly bed will likely be replanted in the spring to take advantage of the new, unaccustomed sunlight.

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