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more tree trouble: crabapple woes

I KNOW MY CRABAPPLES WELL ENOUGH to know that 2 of 10 were not happy this spring at flowering time, and now I know why. My friend Dennis Mareb of Windy Hill Farm in Gt. Barrington, MA, a nurseryman and longtime apple-orchard owner, performed the diagnostics this week: not good. Apple-bark borer has found its way into at least two of the trees, and from the looks of things, they are goners.

Various kinds of borers can impact crabapples, not just the apple-bark borer, I know now after reading the fact sheets from various Cooperative Extensions around the country. Unlike the one in the photo up top, with borer entry points at eye level, one of my trees has damage at the base, more like what you’d expect from a vole, but there’s a tell-tale sign, Dennis explained: the presence of frass, or sawdust-like reddish debris that’s a combination of wood particles and insect wastes. Where you once would have seen cambium, you see frass. Sometimes cracks in the bark will also ooze sap.

If you have a strong stomach and want to see what I am up against, Clemson University and Colorado State have some lovely photos of borers. I would have taken the shots myself had I been able to locate the hideous creatures, but so far no luck. If you are looking for me tomorrow, I will be out there with pieces of wire probing the tunnel system that was once my tree’s infrastructure, to see if I can locate my unwanted roommates.

damage-at-baseWhat could I have done to prevent this? Maybe nothing, as some borers invade even healthy trees, the literature says. But best practices warn to keep the ground at the base of the trees clear of weeds and even turf; to keep trees growing vigorously by providing sufficient moisture and nutrients, especially when they are newly planting or under any other stress; and to keep a watchful eye.

This is not my first borer experience, having lost several of the highly ornamental golden locusts, Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia,’ a few years ago just as they started to shape up into nice trees. It’s always interesting when a creature so small, and unseen, as a borer can fell a thing the size of a tree (not to mention what it does to the gardener’s sense of optimism).

  1. margaret says:

    Dear Ms. Arrow,
    You keep trying to spread rumors that I have an anaconda infestation…when in fact it’s just the occasional large, deadly snake. If you come help mow you will see for yourself. He awaits you in the long grass. Help! Help! (Help with the mowing, not the impending snakebite.)
    Miss Roach, Proprietor

  2. margaret says:

    Well, my nurserymen friends all do the same thing when you say “Such-and-such looks weak this year.” They kneel down, root around at the base with their fingers, poking around and looking for trouble. I’d start there, and work my way up the trunk looking for fissures, cracks, bark damage. Then I’d have a big glass of wine. :-)

  3. margaret says:

    Welcome, Monarda. I, too, was shocked to hear what was going on with my trees. Around the base you will sometimes see rodent damage from chewing the bark, but not the frass left behind by borers. Very upsetting business. One tree gone now, one hanging on by a thread. :(

  4. Daralene says:

    Margaret, This is my first time reading your site and boy do I need help. I want to start gardening this year. I don’t have any equipment so what would you recommend that I use as a surround for soil? I would like organic soil and have been composting but won’t have enough so I need suggestions for where to get everything like seeds, plants, organic soil, above ground gardening. Any ideas for catalogs? Sorry for so many questions.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Daralene. In the right-hand column of the blog (on any page) is a very long list of resources–catalogs, information, etc. Definitely have a spin through those. A great basic catalog loaded with growing information: Johnny’s Select Seeds. It’s in the list. Do you need to raise the beds and add soil because of some underlying problem with the soil on the site or ???? Just so I get the question; happy to try to advise.

  5. Mary says:

    Something stripped the bark clean off my tree in about 6
    different spots. Any idea What? What can be done. Thanks
    to anyone who can answer this

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Mary, I can probably help you if you tell me the kind of tree and describe the pattern better (where on the tree, were there dotted markings or peeled-off horizontal strips or ????)/ Details! WIll try to help.

  6. Kay says:

    I planted a forest pansy redbud late last Fall. It is April 13th and I only see one small bloom on the tree (at the base). I have scraped several branches and do see green but the branches do feel very stiff. My husband thinks the tree is dead.

    What is your opinion?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Kay. Sounds iffy, but I would be careful to wait until the tree expresses itself the rest of the way… I have read that ‘Forest Pansy’ can be finicky about transplanting and have had friends lose them (especially in too hot a spot in warmer zones, but yours hasn’t been through summer yet). Late fall planting is something I do a lot, but if the specimen is in any way dry (not well-hydrated in all its tissues) it can have a hard time. Sometimes nursery things that have been in pots all summer may have been stressed and there’s not much time for them to settle into their new surroundings root-wise with a late planting.

  7. Valerie Gillman says:

    I’ve never been able to find any borers with a wire either. A very frustrating time for a gardener with vengence in her heart.
    So I console myself with killing iris borers. I can always fid those jabba the hut like grossities..shudder.

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