On the feasibility of a Toomer’s tree transplant

If You Plant It, They Will Roll: One of the zillions of successful tree transplants (this one at Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas) conducted by Environmental Design. Members of the Toomer's Task Force have been in contact with the Houston-based company about the possibility of planting new trees at Toomer's Corner.

This is how David Housel put it in “Down Through The Years,” his regularly allotted space in Auburn Football Illustrated, the week of the Florida-Atlantic game:

There is apparently some idea or proposal going around that we should put artificial trees or, worse, metallic treelike sculptures at Toomer’s Corner. That cockamamie idea sounds like something dreamed up by a well-meaning fan of another school trying to be helpful or a member of Academe, either way someone who doesn’t understand what Auburn is all about.

Artificial trees or metal trees at Toomer’s Corner? Bah. Humbug.

But then, should the trees die, what—if anything—should replace them? Housel has an answer.

“Anything less than planting trees—real trees—big trees—at Toomer’s Corner would be an insult to our mission and to all who have gone before.”

Judging by several emails we’ve received, and comments left on our post investigating the possibility that the heart of downtown Auburn indeed might soon feature some sort of structure built specifically to be rolled with toilet paper, he isn’t alone in his thinking.

“Artificial trees of treelike sculptures at Toomer’s Corner would make us the laughing stock of the nation,” writes Housel, “and rightly so.”

The question then becomes whether a tree transplant in a space as restrictive—and in soil still as poisoned—as that in the Toomer’s oaks plaza is even possible.

According to the one man who should know, yes it is.

“If the Toomer’s oaks were to die and the decision made to replant, the University would have several options,” says Dr. Gary Keever, an endowed professor in Auburn’s Department of Horticulture. As point person for the Toomer’s Task Force, Keever has almost become a household name in Auburn since news of the oaks poisoning was announced in February.

Once the trees and soil were removed, he says that small trees could be planted in the existing planters since their roots “wouldn’t reach the contaminated soil until after the tebuthiuron [the active ingredient in Spike 80DF] had degraded.”

But the viability of smaller trees wouldn’t be guaranteed.

“A potential problem with this (planting small trees) is that even though herbicide concentrations outside the beds are low, the herbicide could still move into the beds from the surrounding plaza before it degrades,” Keever says. “Another potential problem is that smaller trees, while they establish quicker than larger trees, are more prone to vandalism. In that location they would have to be protected and respected for at least a few years.”

And likely kept free of toilet paper; fans wouldn’t be have to be as mature if more mature trees were planted.

“[Planting mature trees] would require removal of the plaza and contaminated soil,” Keever says. “Tebuthiuron has a half-life of 12-15 months in our climate and could adversely affect vegetation for five to seven years otherwise.”

Keever says that planting mature trees at the current Toomer’s Corner location would require a complete overhaul of the plaza at the entrance to Auburn University and require solutions to major logistical issues “such as transportation and planting.”

“Yes, it is doable but it would not be easy or inexpensive.”

How in-inexpensive?

“Well, it’s kind of all over the Monopoly board, so to speak,” says David Cox, a partner with Houston-based tree transplanting specialists Environmental Design. “The high side of going with the exact same size trees would probably be in the the $75,000 to $100,000 range. But when you go to bring in an 18 to 20 inch diameter trunk new tree, it’d probably be in the $35,000 to $50,000 range.”

In business since 1977, Environmental Design transported and planted the 437 custom-grown mature trees at the World Trade Center Memorial grove and have handled numerous jobs (many of them oak transplants) on university campuses. According to the company’s website, its tree transplants have a 98 percent success rate.

Cox, an avid college football fan, has kept up with the Toomer’s oaks story from the beginning.

“I picked up a newspaper or something about a month ago and saw photos of the trees and to me it looks like they’re really struggling,” he says. “If I were the man in charge at Auburn, I’d say at the end of this football season, we’re getting it on. We’ll have two brand new beautiful trees better than before. Because the best time to plant candidate trees in that spot is January, February, March.”

“Discussions can get started.”

Apparently, they kind of already have.

“I’ve talked to Dr. Keever two or three times and he basically told me ‘well cross that bridge when we come to it. Right now we’re trying to save the trees.’”

If the Auburn Family does come to that bridge, Keever says that he would recommend crossing it now with small or mature trees but with one or more large, “4-10 inch caliper” trees.

“Soil beneath the plaza would still have to be removed,” Keever says. “But trees this size are more easily located, transported, and planted than mature trees, and they are large enough to avoid much of the vandalism common with smaller trees.”

“In my opinion, that’s the the most realistic approach if the decision is made to replant.”

For David Housel, if that’s not the decision, “the tree killer will have won.”

“There will, no doubt, be many voices come forth to support and promote this idea of artificiality,” Housel writes. “Some of them, perhaps, respected voices. Their arguments about cost and security may be sound to them—but not to the Auburn people. It’s just not Auburn.”

“Give us trees at Toomer’s Corner. Real, live trees. Big trees.”

Related: Toomer’s Corner rollings didn’t start with Punt, Bama, Punt, says History / Auburn fans start “Unrolling Toomer’s” tradition. / Did Auburn students celebrate Bear Bryant’s death by rolling Toomer’s Corner?

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