Sunday, 3 October 2021

How to: disguise an intrusive telegraph pole

 This was an interesting question: one of my Clients has a telegraph pole, right slap bang in the middle of part of their garden. 

To be fair, they knew it was there when they bought the house, but they were given to understand that it would be possible to either move the pole to elsewhere in the garden, or to have the cables routed underground, which would allow the removal of the pole altogether.

Alas, neither of these options were viable (or, to be accurate, anything is possible if you are willing to spend huge amounts of money...), so we were left with Option 3, as it were: disguise the thing.

I did a little internet research.

"Grow something up it."

Not possible, the pole has to be kept clear and accessible, for maintenance.

"Plant some conifers in front of it."

Well, that's an option: but did we really want a block of conifers in the middle of the garden?  I can see the idea - plant something around it, and if the planting is intended as screening, then it makes sense for it to be evergreen.

But we didn't really fancy it.

Then I came upon this suggestion:

"Plant just two deciduous trees to make a grove, so it looks like three trunks"

Well, that idea was well received, so Mr Client bought two Weeping Willows, good big ones, with long clear stems. 


1) We had previously had a discussion about where to put them, and had marked out the places where they were to be planted.

2) When the trees arrived, they were watered extravagantly, because nurseries often let plants dry out a bit, before they transport them, to make them easier - ie lighter - to handle. So it's important to give them a good soaking as soon as they are delivered.

3) We checked that there were no underground pipes, cables, irrigation pipes or robo-mower wires in the chosen area.

4) We cut the grass, to make it easier to lift the turf: annoyingly,  the robo-mower had actually died that week, so the grass was a bit longer than usual. Don't try to lift turf through very long grass, it's ludicrously difficult - use shears, if you have to, to shorten the grass.

5) We made sure we had some good strong tree stakes.

6) We checked that we had some sturdy tree ties.

Right! Let's get on with it! First job: lift the turf in a rough circle, quite a bit bigger than you think you are going to need. This will be our planting hole for the tree, and a clear zone around the base of it, to avoid competition from the grass.

You can either use this lifted turf to sort out bare patches elsewhere in the garden, or you can make it into a loam stack.

Then start digging the hole. Put this soil to one side, as you will need some of it for backfilling.

Logically, "one" would think that if we dig a hole that is the same size as the thing we are planting, then "one" would have exactly that much soil left over, but this is, surprisingly often, not the case. 

Soil that has been undisturbed for a long time - and soil under grass is the very definition of "undisturbed for a long time" - is very compacted, so when we dig it out, we aerate it. This fluffs it up, and increased the bulk. Anyone who has ever dug a pond will know what I mean - you end up with a massive pile of earth, far bigger than the size of the hole from which you have just extracted it!

Anyway, on with the plot: dig out the central hole for the tree, reserving the top several inches of soil.

Once you get down beyond the depth of your spade/fork, you are getting into subsoil. This is still soil, but it's not "good" like the topsoil, it's usually anaerobic, very compressed, poor quality, and generally not very nice stuff. So don't put that on top of the nice topsoil which you have already dug out:  put it aside separately.

Here you can see that I have a wheelbarrow half full of good topsoil, and I am starting to hit subsoil, so that is going onto the sheet, beside the hole.

In the background, you can see that I have already planted the first tree, and you can see by the size of the black pot, just how big it was.

It's always easier to dig the second hole, by the way, because you can use the first one's empty pot as a guide, as to how big the hole needs to be. For the first one, you have to occasionally check by measuring: I use my spade, or my hand trowel, to get a rough idea of how deep and how much across the hole needs to be.

Always dig the hole quite a bit wider than the pot, but not much deeper. With big, heavy plants such as these trees, you need a solid bottom to the planting hole, otherwise they will "sink" under their own weight: normally, I insist on loosening the soil at the bottom of planting holes, in order to encourage the plants to get their roots down - but with very heavy trees such as these (it took two of us to lift each tree, and it was still a struggle), it is better to have them sitting firmly.

Why do I say "dig the hole wider than the pot," ? It's really not good enough to chip out a hole the exact same size as the pot, for several reasons.

Firstly, you need some room around the rootball, in order to get your hands down the sides, all the way round, to ensure they are firmly planted with no air gaps. Air gaps kill roots!

Secondly, if you just chip out a hole, that implies that your soil is very firm and solid, and is probably therefore clay, in which case you are digging a sump, which will fill with water next time it rains. This is not good for a newly planted tree.

Thirdly, if you just chip out a hole, your new tree will try to put out roots, will meet the solid barrier of your horrible soil, and will instead retreat into the nice soft compost of its rootball. Instead of rooting properly, the new roots will go round and round inside the soft compost, almost as though it were still in the plastic pot, and it will take a lot longer to get itself rooted.

For all these reasons, dig your hole a bit bigger than the pot!

If you look at the photo again, you can see that my planting hole is in the middle of a bigger circle of bare earth: as I said at the beginning, you lift an area of turf that is somewhat larger than actually required. Why? You are going to need to ram in some stakes for support, once the planting is done, and we don't want to ram those stakes clean through our tree's rootball, do we? Once the stakes are in place, you won't be able to mow around them, so it's better to have a clear area around the tree trunk and the stakes. This makes it easy to mow, and easier to keep the planting holes clear of weeds.

It also, as a side benefit, allows you to dig the central hole without getting mud and earth all over the grass: and if you suddenly realise that you need it a bit bigger, you have space in which to expand the hole, without having to stop, and lift another few inches of turf.

Ten minutes later, the hole is big enough to take the empty pot with a hands' width of space all the way round: the bottom is firm, you have the soil ready to backfill: if you have some good organic matter to hand, you might like to mix a bucketful of that in with the reserved topsoil, to enrich it.

Bring the tree over to the hole, and remove the pot. This can be tricky with a big, heavy tree, and is a lot easier to do with two of you. Normally, we would lift the whole plant off the ground, and bang the rim of the pot with the heel of our hand, to loosen it: this is simply not possible with big trees, so you have to carefully and gently lay them down, and roll the pot slowly, pressing down on the sides, to loosen the rootball within.

Then try to wiggle it down, a small amount at a time. Don't just grab the trunk and pull - damp soil has an amazing amount of friction/suction grip inside a plastic pot. Take your time, don't be rushed, keep wiggling it down, and be careful not to damage the upper part of the tree: again, this is where having a second person is extremely helpful, as they can support the upper part of the tree, and make sure it is not in danger of being damaged.

Eventually, the pot will come loose, and the rootball will emerge.

Put the pot into your hole, just to check that the hole is big enough and deep enough (bearing in mind that the surface of the rootball is usually an inch or more below the rim of the pot), and adjust it if necessary. Generally speaking, we don't like leaving the rootball exposed, as we don't want the roots to dry out, but a couple of minutes won't hurt it. 

Remove the pot from the hole......*laughs*

Tip the tree into the hole - again, much easier with two of you - and wiggle it more or less into the centre, bearing in mind that the trunk of the tree may not be in the exact centre of the rootball. Don't worry too much about getting it central - you can always re-cut the grassy edges later.

Check the level - lay the handle of your spade across the hole, to check that the top of the rootball is level with the top of the earth, ie a little bit lower than the grass height. If necessary, add or remove soil to the base of your hole, to get the tree in the right position. 

Once the tree is in, and upright, kneel down and pack several handful of the "good" soil around the very base of the rootball. It can be handy to have the other person hold it upright at this point. If you are working alone, pack down enough to hold it in place, then step back a few paces, and check it from all sides to ensure it is more or less upright. Adjust as necessary, by leaning it, and packing more soil around the base.

All trees will re-orient themselves once they get growing, but it's good to start with them as close to upright, as you can...

When you are happy with the verticality (is there such a word? Well, the spell-checker didn't helpfully underline it in red, so I assume that word exists), kneel down again and pack more of the good soil round it, firming down each layer as you go, to ensure there are no air gaps. Don't ram it down - use your hands, but push firmly.

Normally,when teaching students and Trainees how to plant, I say "think about tucking in a small child" ie firmly enough to keep their arms inside the covers, but not so firmly that they can't breathe. With a big tree, you can be a little bit firmer - but roots need to breathe, too, so don't use bits of wood to ram it down, just use your fingers.

Continue adding soil until you are up to the top of the rootball, which should be perfectly in line with the soil level. If it isn't... oh dear, you know what I am going to say, don't you? Well, if it's "nearly but not quite", then you are probably ok, but if the tree is a couple of inches too low, or a couple of inches too high...well, you'll have to carefully loosen all your carefully packed soil, and do it again, paying more attention to getting it at the right height in the hole, before you start backfilling.

When this is done, you can hammer in your stakes, apply the tree ties, water them well (the trees, not the tree ties), add a mulch of chipped bark if you wish, then make a note to give them at least a watering-can full of water ("all together now!") once a day for a week, then once or twice a week for a month, regardless of how much it rains. 

And if you are doing this in the early part of the year, then continue watering it once a week all through the first season. 

Here is our finished "grove":  it doesn't look much now, but in a year or two, hopefully that wretched telegraph pole will be a lot less noticeable!

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