Dig and Sell Native Trees

You can spread a lot of beauty—and bring home more than $100 a day—when you dig and sell native trees.
By William Ruttencutter
March/April 1979
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Having selected his sapling, Bill clips away ground brush and prunes any unnecessary or awkward branches
PHOTO: MIKE BENSEN
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What's that? You want a homestead, an alternative energy source, or a unique, low-cost house that you've just designed, but you don't have the bucks to make it all happen?

Well, chin up and chest out! 'Cause I may have an idea that can help alleviate your financial dilemma and open up doors to the development of your project or dream. You see, I've found that I can dig and sell native trees, and that this occupation allows me to beautify the homes of other folks while I build up my bank account! Furthermore—once you invest in a little knowledge, a bit of practice, and a few tools—transplanting trees isn't a tremendously difficult task, and  in most areas you'll find an eager buyer for every sapling you can dig!

Before you grab your shovel and head for the woods, however, you should know that the "do-it-yourself tree nursery" business is definitely a seasonal occupation because the weather plays a vital part in the lives of your growing "stock." You see, trees should—if they're to have the best possible chance of survival—be transplanted when they are at least partially dormant. In the case of deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in the autumn) this "safe" period runs from just after the leaves fall until immediately before the new buds show growth in the spring.

Now evergreens, of course, don't lose all their needles (unless the tree is so unhealthy that you wouldn't want it anyway), but these pines, spruce, etc. can be transplanted with good success after the first frost and prior to the appearance of the new, lighter green growth that heralds the coming of warm weather.

In most parts of the U.S., this "digging season" will obviously be limited by the fact that the ground may be frozen solid during the midwinter. An industrious digger can, however (as you will see!), put together a pretty impressive income while the weather is "right."

In the Beginning

Probably the best way to get started in any business is with a little bit of self-education. This means that—first and foremost—you should learn all about your native trees, get to know their habits, their good and bad points, etc. And, about the best way to get a "crash course" in these subjects is to locate a retired nurseryman or landscaper. Many of these fine old men and women will be genuinely pleased to discover that you're interested in the knowledge they've picked up over the years.

In the meantime, research your state's regulations to see if any licenses or inspections will be required. Such legal "catches" are usually easy enough to comply with or at least to "adjust to."

Of course, you'll also have to locate a source (or sources) of trees. This may well be the most difficult part of the job, but available saplings can be found in most any locale. Basically, you'll need to look for well-balanced, healthy, proper-sized trees of a marketable species. But don't be too reticent about collecting clumps with multiple trunks, and unusual or what may seem to you to be "ugly" trees. I've been surprised—more than once—by what my buyers have found attractive.

Trunk diameter is one of the most important factors to consider in tree selection. In most cases, your best choice will be a tree with a trunk from one inch to three and a half inches in diameter. Anything larger than this will probably require machinery to lift and move, although conifers (which have prodigious but shallow root zones) can sometimes be handled when they're a little bigger than these guidelines specify.

Of course, you'll need permission to move the trees you choose, but landowners will often give 'em to you if you ask in a friendly way and promise to fill up the holes afterwards (which should be done as a matter of course anyway). Otherwise, $2.00 to $3.00 per tree seems to be an acceptable price to most of the people I've contacted.

Before You Dig

Okay ... let's say you've found some trees. Now, for the "how to do it".

You will, of course, need some basic equipment: a standard shovel, a mattock, a pair of long-handled pruners (to cut stubborn roots), a pair of hand pruners (to trim back branches), a long, narrow tree spade (your main tool), and some burlap sacks and heavy twine. (As for the last two items, old feed sacks and used baling twine can often be had for free from friendly farmers and mills.) These few tools—along with a good wheelbarrow and a pickup truck—are about all the supplies that are necessary.

The actual digging procedure is relatively simple, too. First—after you select a tree—clear an adequate working space around it and trim back any unnecessary or awkward branches. (You may also find it necessary to temporarily tie up some of the limbs to keep them out of the way.) Next, clean the leaves and debris from the area to be dug and check for any surface roots (they can help you estimate the width of the underground root structure).

Before you start to dig, however, you'll need to determine the size of the ball of roots and earth to be removed. A left-handed rule of thumb is to figure on one foot of "real estate" for each inch of "lumber." For example, a three-inch-diameter tree should have a three-foot-diameter ball. Notice, however, that this is the horizontal measurement only. The ball depth can usually be a lot less than the width, though it should always be deep enough to catch the all-important feeder roots (the small ones) and most of the major roots as well. After you've ascertained the proper ball size, add about three inches of "safety zone" (which will be shaved off later).

Dig You Must!

Now that you're ready to remove the tree, and here's how to do it: With the tree spade, dig—vertically—around the ball's circumference. A "chip-chop" digging method is usually best. That is, sock the spade down with its "back" toward the tree first (chip!) and, on the next downward swing, turn the spade 180 degrees to throw the wedge out of the hole (chop!).

In effect, you slice and throw the soil out of a vertical trench all the way around the tree. (Just be sure to make this ditch wide enough so you can reach under the ball with the spade later on.)

The trench will usually have to be dug from one to two feet deep in order to avoid cutting most of the feeder roots. Then—with the back of the spade still toward the tree—you can begin to chip-chop under the ball.

After you've cleared a space beneath the ball as far as you can reach, use the edge of the spade to cut the taproots and to dig out the remaining soil. (At this point, the tree should be totally severed from the underlying earth.) Now—very carefully—trim the ball of any excess roots and dirt, and shape it to the size desired.

Ready to Move

The next step is to wrap the root ball in burlap so it won't disintegrate (wrapping will also keep the roots moist... which is important, as dried roots can kill a tree quickly!). To do this, just unravel the seam of one of your sacks and open it up. Then, roll the tree—very gently—onto its side and slip the outspread sack as far under the ball as it will go. With that done, tip the tree in the opposite direction, pull the sack the rest of the way under the root mass, upend the sapling again, and—with your twine—tie the four corners of the sack tightly across the top of the ball. Then, wrap the cord around the burlap several times to keep everything compact and together. And, finally, roll the ball out of the hole and onto a tipped-to-its-side wheelbarrow in order to transport the tree to your truck.

Sound complicated? Well, it's really not difficult at all! In fact, most trees of salable size can be dug and balled in 15 or 20 minutes once you have a little practice. It's pretty easy to replant 'em, too. Simply dig a neat hole, throw in some topsoil (if it's necessary), and add the tree—green side up, of course.

It is very important, however, to avoid piling dirt up around the trunk of the tree ... and don't ever set a sapling any deeper into the earth than it was originally! Either of these mistakes can cause the tree to smother at its base and die. You can, of course, stake the newly planted tree to keep it upright and stable. It's also a good idea, sometimes, to trim back the branches a bit, and mulch the tree with leaves or shredded bark to compensate for lost roots and moisture.

And that, friends, pretty much sums up the whole operation! Except, of course, for the financial end of things.

Name Your Price

The prices that your trees bring will vary widely depending upon species, trunk diameter, availability ... and greed.

I've found that a three-inch tree (sometimes up to 18 feet tall) can be easily sold for $18.50 plus a $4.00 "planting fee." (Professional landscape contractors may charge $50 to $100 for a comparable sapling, but that—at least to my way of thinking—doesn't seem very fair to one's fellow man or woman.)

Just consider: One person can dig and ball, say, six trees in a morning if they're located in an easily accessible area. Then, that same person can turn around and sell and plant them during the afternoon and evening. You figure it out!

And selling the trees is usually fun! Suburban tracts, it seems, are especially in need of natural beauty. Just paint "Trees" on the side of your truck and drive up and down the street, smile, and knock on doors. Retail nurseries are also good markets, and you can put ads in the local newspapers, visit real estate agents and builders, or even try a penciled spiel on restroom walls! Whatever you do, you'll find that tree buyers are definitely around.

And there you have it. Tree digging is good, honest work that can benefit the lives of others and bankroll your own desires and dreams.

So, dear friends, before you begin to fold up the tents and clean out the cages of those ideas for a dome, a solar collector, or a pukka outhouse, consider trees. They might provide just the financial answer you need. Dig?


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