Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Apple Tree Killer

Two summers ago, my husband and I planted four dwarf apple trees in a neat little row across our back fence.

We had just been forced to cut down an ailing elm tree, repeatedly damaged in recent ice storms, that had twice dropped large branches directly on the power line to our house. It seemed like the right thing to do to plant some new trees in its place.

But they had to be trees that were destined for shortness, so that they wouldn't grow into our power lines the same way the elm had. And I wanted something that would flower and smell nice, and not drop nuisance seeds all over our yard like our neighbors' silver maple, or our own towering sweetgum. And what a bonus it would be if our new trees also made something we could eat, right?

So apple trees seemed like a good fit.

What I did not understand at the time, as a novice fruit tree gardener, was that apple trees are susceptible to several airborne diseases, including cedar-apple rust and apple fire blight. Nor did I realize that many common surburban animals, like rabbits, raccoons, and squirrels, consider apple tree bark to be a delicious winter snack.

In other words, these were no plant-them-and-forget-them trees I'd ever so carelessly plopped into my back yard. These were veritable garden divas. Getting young apple saplings to healthy maturity requires some pretty serious vigilance, effort, and luck.

I've sprayed my little trees with diluted copper to kill cedar-apple fungus. I've cut off fire-blighted branches and leaves. I've sealed injured bark with wax, with tar; I've wrapped injured branches trunks in fabric and aluminum foil and plastic animal guards. I've checked them and rechecked them for infections and infestations and animal damage at least once a week since we planted them. For years.

The first summer, the trees were hit with cedar-apple rust; the first winter, we lost one that was girdled by a rabbit or squirrel, despite my efforts to protect its bark. The remaining three fought through a three-punch combo of bark damage, cedar-apple rust and a bout of fire blight to produce a few perfect fruits, which were promptly eaten, while still green, by squirrels.

This past winter, determined to protect my three remaining trees, I wrapped the bark thoroughly in special fabric designed for bark-wrapping and put sturdy plastic guards around each trunk.

But as the first hints of spring began to show in my yard, something was eating the tree bark above the guards. Stripping whole lower branches, in fact. I was perplexed. Rabbits can stretch themselves pretty high, but a rabbit standing on its hind legs would not have much leverage to rip off whole strips of bark. A squirrel could have done it, but in order to get the undersides of the branches, it would have had to be hanging upside-down as it chewed.

Then, one day, I came out to the yard to discover that one of my trees' trunks had been bitten (snapped? cut? sawed?) cleanly in half. No gnaw marks. Just a clean, almost surgically precise separation. The inverted crown still lay in the yard, many of its branches stripped clean.

What could have done this?

My husband was convinced it was the rabbits.

"It couldn't be rabbits," I insisted. "Rabbits don't bite trees with three-inch trunks in half."

"Maybe we have big rabbits," he said ominously.

For weeks, the mystery persisted. Had a raccoon or a stray cat climbed into the tree and snapped it with too much weight? Had a neighbor child broken our tree in the middle of a the night for a prank? That didn't seem likely. I know most of the kids in our neighborhood, and they're nice kids. Besides, as far as they're concerned, I'm the Cool Mom Who Lets Us Play Soccer in Her Front Yard and Always Has Lemonade. And you don't go snapping trees in the yard of the cool mom who gives out free lemonade.

Could it really have been the rabbits?

Might we have acquired . . . some Rabbits of Unusual Size?

Just the mental image of gigantic, sap-thirty rabbits devouring my trees had me eyeing even the most adorable lagomorphs bouncing through my yard with suspicion. Then, one day, as I was out adding mulch to my new raised vegetable garden bed, a neighbor I rarely see much of, one whose backyard just touches mine at the corner waved me over to talk. She said:

"You know there's a beaver living in your storm sewer, right? About this big?" She spread her arms to indicate a beaver roughly the size of a small human child. "Looooong tail on him."

"No," I said. "I didn't know that." No, in fact, I had not known that there was a beaver living miles and miles away from the nearest river, lake, creek or even crick in my suburban storm sewer. I had not known, and had I known, perhaps I might have taken appropriate action to contain said creature before it ate my apple tree.

I'm actually glad, though, that it turned out to be a Mutant Ninja Beaver eating my apple trees. Because before I knew the tree-killer was a beaver, I was really starting to develop a pretty strong streak of paranoid anti-rabbitism.

And I just wasn't comfortable with hating baby rabbits. Baby rabbits are ridiculously cute.

As for the beaver, well, you can't really hate a beaver that lives in a sewer. I mean, it's a beaver. In the sewer. That there is some pretty hardcore urban habitat reclamation action.

I did put a sturdy grate in front of the storm sewer drain in my yard, though. Sorry, Mr. Ninja Beaver — you'll have to use another exit from your secret underground lair from now on. I'm sure there's one that opens onto a park with lots of non-native invasive Japanese honeysuckle, just waiting for you to rip apart with your sharp, sharp teeth.

(What's next? Alligators? Maybe I need a stronger grate.)

2 Comentários:

KBO said...

I'm sorry for the loss of your trees, but relieved it was a beaver. Ever since I saw this crappy D-list horror movie called Night of the Lepus, I'm terrified by any rabbit, let alone those of the ginormous variety.

Awesome Mom said...

Your poor trees! I hope you can find replacements that are heartier and more beaver resistant.

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