The Sapling Maple
By John Clausen
Thirty five years ago I was a young family man. I had a dear wife (May she rest in peace) and two little children, a boy and a girl. Life was good. We were living in a rented home on the corner of spring and Fourth Streets in Gladbrook, Iowa. One spring day as I was mowing the yard I noticed a small sapling tree had sprouted next to the garage foundation. My first thoughts were, “This little tree has got to go, but what a shame to pull it like a weed and toss it in the alley.” Throughout the summer the little sapling sprouted a few more leaves, and I decided the little tree might be a hard maple. I had no experience in planting trees but I contemplated how and where to transplant this little tree. Our home faced south and had only one tree in the front yard located on the southwest corner between the street and sidewalk. Eureka! The southeast corner of the house between the street and sidewalk would be the perfect spot for the little sapling to be transplanted.
The little maple tree continued to grow all summer but I kept forgetting or was too busy to transplant the tree. Summer turned to autumn, and the little sapling had shed its leaves. And now winter was rapidly approaching. The ground would soon be frozen and the little sapling that had now sprouted to about 12 inches tall would be impossible to dig up and transplant. I was unaware that fall is the best time of year to transplant trees. I vividly remember telling my wife, “If we are going to transplant that tree I’d better do it now.” So my wife bundled up our little two year old daughter, Tanya, because she wanted to help Daddy plant a tree.
Hand in hand, Tanya, and I went to the garage to get a shovel. I had no idea how to transplant a tree. My thoughts were: Where do I dig first? Should I dig up the sapling? Or, dig the planting hole? I decided to dig up the sapling first, because I didn’t know how deep the roots of the sapling might be. I was soon working on my hands and knees, with Tanya intently watching and encouraging me, and of course as little children do, asking all kinds of questions to which I didn’t know the answers. I continued to dig the hole deeper and deeper next to the “long root.” (I have since learned the “long root” is called a tap root.) I was astonished because my arms weren’t long enough to dig up the entire tap root and I was concerned that cutting or not digging up the entire tap root might kill the tree. I had no choice. While lying on my stomach and reaching my arm in the hole to my shoulder I cut the tap root with a pair of pliers.
Now it was off to the front yard. Shovel in one hand, the sapling in the other, and Tanya all excited, right beside me. Fate must have stopped me from digging the hole too deep. I carefully stuck the roots of the little maple in the hole and the taproot just touched the bottom of the hole. The “bend of the trunk”—while researching trees I discovered the “bend of the trunk” is called the trunk flare—was slightly above ground. A thought came to my mind that it might be a good idea to pour water into the hole because the loose dirt would allow cold winter air to penetrate and freeze the roots. Oh what fun Tanya had “smoothing out the mud” around the new little tree. Our clothes and shoes were a mess, but the little maple was transplanted.
Winter settled in and I forgot about the little sapling until the following spring when I was mowing the lawn for the first time. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The little sapling had little green buds and soon after sprouted leaves! The little maple had survived my ignorance of tree transplanting and a harsh Iowa winter. Tanya was delighted and with her little fingers very carefully touched the new leaves of our little maple.
I carefully mowed around the little maple for two summers. Then in 1975 we moved several blocks to our new home. I soon forgot about the little sapling we had transplanted. Several years passed. But one day as I drove by our former home I noticed our little tree had grown over ten feet tall!
Tanya had grown too, and would soon be leaving home to attend Northern Iowa University, but we took a few minutes to admire our maple. Now after receiving post graduate degrees in Psychology and Special Education, Tanya has a career as a school psychologist, married a fine man, and is the mother of two boys. Three years ago Tanya and her husband, Tom, built a new home in Johnston, Iowa and on a spring Sunday afternoon Tanya called and asked, “Dad, what kind of trees should we plant in our yard?” By this time I had been the Gladbrook Trees Forever chairman for several years and I emailed Tanya a list of desirable trees for residential homes.
Then a thought ran through my mind. I hadn’t given Tanya and her family a “new home” gift. Why not a tree? A few days later I called and asked if they had decided on which tree species they had selected for the front yard. The family had decided, as you might guess, a hard maple would like nice in their front yard. I didn’t tell them that I was going to buy them a “gift tree”, but explained I might be able to get a better price from the nursery because I was associated with Trees Forever. The following weekend I borrowed a pickup truck from a friend, bought a hard maple tree at a nearby nursery, and took the tree to Johnston. Tanya—almost as excited as she was years ago—her two little boys, her husband Tom and I (also known as Grandpa) planted the maple tree. We have since planted several more trees and their home has a wonderful landscape.
My interest in trees must have taken root (pun intended) on a cold November day in the early 70’s when Tanya was a little girl, and her daddy knew virtually nothing about trees. Since that cold November day, I have gained considerable interest in trees and I continue to learn about the nature of trees and the environment as time passes by.