“It’s like when your shoes feel too small because your feet are growing and it’s time to get new shoes,” I explain to my young gardening students. They look at me with complete understanding, which makes me want to hug them but I restrain myself. We are talking about a problem in our preschool garden.
Set on the second floor deck of a large apartment building overlooking West 42nd Street, our garden is grown entirely in containers, a mixture of raised beds and large pots and planters. Some years ago, I brought the preschool some tiny maple saplings that had sprouted in my own in-ground garden. They were more for show and tell than anything else, but the kids wanted to plant them in the school garden. We did and they grew like nobody’s business under less-than-perfect conditions. (The kids who planted the original saplings with me are now more than halfway through elementary school.) But a couple of weeks before the holiday break, the school’s director pointed out what could no longer be ignored: The poor tree’s roots were growing out of the pot in any direction they could and had fastened themselves to the spongy playground surface. The easiest thing to do would have been to break the pot, but no one could bear doing that to the gracefully shaped (and annoyingly curved) Mediterranean-blue ceramic vessel, so we opted for the more arduous plan B.
Plan B would require some pre-class prep and some tools I didn’t want to take out with 2- to 5-year-olds playing nearby, but I built a little barrier with big wooden blocks—to the kids’ amusement—and got to work alternating unspooling and trimming roots with gently digging in with my spading fork. Director Nancy and I pulled, stopped to dig some more, and then pulled again. We revisited breaking the pot, tried another pull, and out came the tree.
The perfectness of having an entire tree from tip to root to show the preschoolers the next class had been dawning on me, but now I had to protect the tree until then. I lay it on its side on top of the mulched surface of a raised bed and packed the root ball with compost.
We did indeed get a chance to examine the tree from tip to root, but it was brief due to a sudden wintry drop in temperature and icy rain. Just in time, we repotted our tree in its new home, a broader container with much better drainage, and ran back inside to draw a poster of our tree. The kids liked my story of how hard it was for two grownups to pull the tree out of its tight “shoe,” so on the poster it went.
There was a little bit more detective work left to do in understanding our tree. What kind of a tree was it anyway? We knew it was a maple, but which one? Not a sugar maple (much disappointment on the faces of the kids) but still something very interesting. We remembered its leaves which we had tried to trace and draw back in the fall—spread out like fingers of a hand and deeply toothed, the very top looking like the turrets of a castle. The big clue was in the fact that the tree was stuck in the too-small pot with a too-small drainage hole for a long time and didn’t seem to mind when the water built up around its base. There is a native maple that likes water a lot: Acer saccharinum, most often called silver maple, but sometimes swamp maple. It’s a tree that will break the sidewalk and grow into pipes in its hunt for water and in the wild will grow in and around creek beds. Likewise, our tree had found its way out of that tiny drainage hole and was feeling its way into the cracks and crevices of the playground. Its love for water makes it hospitable to two rather spectacular moisture-happy creatures both of which we witnessed on our tree, Rhytisma acerinum, the tar spot fungus, and eriophyid mites, which surprised us last spring with the coral-colored leaf galls they made the leaves develop. To celebrate everything we now knew about our tree, along with relief that it was now upright in a new container, we decorated it, of course. More on that project next time.