Removing container from Japanese Maple

Catherine2013(8)February 11, 2013


We moved 2 years ago, and I've been trying to figure out what to do with this half-barrel stuck around the trunk of this Japanese Maple tree. Is there anything to wrap around the trunk if it is bark-less when I remove the barrel? Do I need to make some sort of raised bed around it to keep the soil level where the top of the barrel is?

We are going to be tearing up the patio this summer, and would like to have grass under this tree. My 4 year old likes to climb it.


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My apologies, the photo was there when I previewed my post, but it didn't appear. Here is the photo.

    Bookmark   February 11, 2013 at 2:15AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

wow... lol..

first.. i would site and dig a hole for the tree ... no deeper than the barrel ....

i would get a sawzall ... cut and remove all the staves [i think thats the right term] .. by which time.. the iron should fall to the ground...

then i would drag that thing to the new hole [its a maple i would not be concerned about being dainty] .. flop tree in hole.. backfill ... stake it.. and tell junior to stay off of it so he doenst knock it over this year ...

no amendments .. native soil .. PROPER water ... no fert.. etc.. see link

and it should all be done.. 4 to 6 weeks PRIOR to leaf out ...

there are some horrible stumps from prior pruning.. they need to be taken care of... but not now.. lets just get it planted ... [at the link.. look for reference to branch collars ]

whats brilliant about the pic.. perfect drainage for a tree in a pot.. lol .. NO BOTTOM!!! ...

how big was it 2 years ago when you moved it????

clay soil is a problem.. ask if you have it

i would NOT bare root it ... so your question about protecting the bark doenst matter to me ...

as they said in law school 'bad facts, make bad law' .. and there are no good facts in this scenario ... there is a good chance you will lose this thing ... start getting your head around that if we fail.. you wont be totally bummed ....

good luck


Here is a link that might be useful: link

    Bookmark   February 11, 2013 at 8:25AM
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I don't understand the facts given.

Are we to presume that the tree has been in this position for two years - that is: the tree moved with you??

If so, move the tree when dormant so the roots that are in the ground can be ripped up with less damage than in summer, and place in a hole - dug like ken said no deeper than the bottom large root on the patio - with top of barrel as grade. Water the heck out of it for the first year, keep the kid off of it, and see what happens. Might be OK, JMs can often be moved with good success.

    Bookmark   February 11, 2013 at 10:24AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

oh carp .. i didnt notice the giant crack in the cement..

if its rooted in ... i cant even conceptualize the odds of success ...


    Bookmark   February 11, 2013 at 12:14PM
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No, the tree was like this in the backyard when we moved into the house. The house remodel is done, so it is time for us to try to deal with this. The prior owners lived there for 50 years, so no telling how long it was there, but the patio cracks all seem to be caused by the tree. The tree itself has a crown that is over 25 ft in diameter, not sure we could drag it anywhere. I'll send a zoomed out photo when I get home tonight so you can see how big it is.

Thanks for the help!


    Bookmark   February 11, 2013 at 12:24PM
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I was going to comment on how remarkable it seemed that this huge tree was transported in that barrel. Nevertheless, it is still remarkable that it is fighting off that treatment it is getting from the barrel. I'm sure several of us have different ideas on how to deal with the bark underneath that potting soil.

I'm more interested in the patio replacement and survivability. It goes without saying that you will have to be careful and minimize root damage - if you want grass underneath the tree, the soil will have to be amended as it has been sad from being under that surface for so long. Mechanical rototilling can't be good, as many feeder roots will be right under the pavement, as that is where the moisture sits. Putting 2 inches of topsoil is problematic as you will have loose soil over a compacted surface, which will mean poor drainage and lack of grass root penetration.

Think over carefully what you want to do and take your time in the labor. That tree has a great form so far in that pic and you want to keep it. Would that we could have that kind of tree in the Intermountain West!

    Bookmark   February 11, 2013 at 12:38PM
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I understand that you have a JM with diameter of over 25'.
This tells us that over a period of years it is well rooted in with a substantial root system. If it were me I would remove the whisky barrel, and redo your patio. This should include a circular, ornamental raised wall of some sort around the tree, then fill inside with soil the same height as the barrel. From what we can see of it, it looks like a beautiful tree well worth saving. sam

    Bookmark   February 11, 2013 at 1:47PM
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tsugajunkie z5 SE WI

Worst case of a pot-bound plant I've ever seen.

Moving that tree would take a herculean effort as the roots keeping it alive are in the ground and not in the barrel (although there may be some there).

If you can't do as Sam suggested above there is little hope of moving it without 4-5 strong young men with good backs and a good plan.


    Bookmark   February 11, 2013 at 10:47PM
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Well this might explain why I was never able to find anything like this with online searches for 'tree outgrew container'.

Thanks to all of you for your help. I think we will build up a raised wall around the tree. The roots might be all the way under our house, so I don't think moving the tree would be an option.

As you can maybe see from my very blurry photo - the tree also needs a little help in the pruning department. It resembles an upside down cone at the moment. Is there any online guide to how to prune something like this to get it back to a more natural shape?

    Bookmark   February 11, 2013 at 11:12PM
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toronado3800 Zone 6 StLouis(6)

I second the idea of simple being better. That is a good size japanese maple.

While the tree is dormant build the planter box around it and disturb as little as possible.

I mean, wow. Just guessing at what height to replant it if you dig up the tree hurts.

Still not a bad looking tree.

Planter box has to be the way to go for least effort and highest chance of success.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 1:22AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

no.. ignore what i said about moving it ... i thought it moved with you 2 years ago.. i couldnt imagine how you did it ...

that tree has been growing 'naturally' .. above the ground for 20+ years .. i simply have no idea.. why you now say it has an un-natural form ... that simply doesnt make sense ... it is, what it is.. and i dont think you ought to go to town on it ...

my biggest concern.. right now.. is how you get that ugly cement out of there.. its a maple.. and 99 % of its roots are within a few inches of the cement ... if you tear out the cement.. you will be substantially interfering with its roots ... especially if you used any kind of backhoe/machine ... even getting a jackhammer will do such ... and most trees do NOT take kindly to such an insult to its root system .. its akin to peeps building new houses in old forests.. trying ot 'save' all the nice trees .... and within 5 to 10 years.. all these trees are dead .... mostly from the machines driving over their roots ...

on thing for sure ... you arent going to break up old cement with a sledgehammer.. unless it is very thin ... or you are a linebacker for a pro football team ... and would enjoy the workout ...

whatever you decide.. expect it to die.. make you best decisions.. and do the best you can.. and announce.. 'i did the best i could' ... but NEVER feel guilty about whatever happens.. you did NOT create this problem.. so you should not persecute yourself ..

frankly.. very frankly ... hire the backhoe.. dig out the cement and the tree.. and plant your own future nightmare .. and be done with it ... at my first house.. i screwed around with all the prior owners nightmares for 5 years ... and the happiest day of my life.. was the day i 'got over it' .. the history part.. and destroyed the last nightmare .... its been 12 years.. i often think about going back.. and seeing what kind of nightmares i left.. lol ...

you have.. what looks like a nice large yard.. with a giant problem right in the middle.. try to conceptualize your whole yard without such.. perhaps you are focusing on a single part.. rather than a vision of the whole ...


    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 7:43AM
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lou_midlothian_tx(z8 DFW, Tx)

Wow. Looks like the roots escaped through the drainage holes and got itself established in the ground. Good luck. I wouldn't know how to fix that problem like that. That's a pretty good sized JM for sure. That takes forever to get to that size so you're lucky to have that size except for Whisky barrel thing...

    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 7:47AM
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Thanks for the caution. We can lift the cement away from directly around the tree as it has done a good job of breaking up the cement. I hadn't thought of the rest of the patio - didn't realize the roots would be close to the surface. It isn't thick cement, but there is too much for a sledgehammer. But if it means saving that tree until we can get some others established, maybe we will try. We have to go with a jackhammer at the most - the side of the yard is too small to even drive a bobcat through.

If we can get it up without too much damage- would dumping dirt on top of the exposed roots help?

As for the 'natural' shape. It looks as if there was extensive pruning over the years on it. Just wanted to undo that a bit.

Thanks again for all the advice.


    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 10:23AM
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If we can get it up without too much damage- would dumping dirt on top of the exposed roots help?

As I wrote upthread,

Putting 2 inches of topsoil is problematic as you will have loose soil over a compacted surface, which will mean poor drainage and lack of grass root penetration.

A couple years of freeze-thaw cycle in colder zones could break up the compacted soil if there was enough early snow. Otherwise in your climate zone you are looking at damaging a lot of surface roots to put down grass in a decent soil environment.

As to the pruning: from the one foto, looks like someone butchered it very well, maybe even with a hedge shear or similar at one point. Impossible to point out individual branches to take out, but that fixing project is a multi-year endeavor. Fortunately, JMs are pretty tough plants when happy. Proceed slowly with caution with the pavement removal and pruning and you have a good chance.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 10:33AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

put simply.. you can not bury existing roots ... to any great extent ...

what is your native soil ... clay???


    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 11:18AM
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Okay, I was going to say that I was more concerned with protecting the roots than with getting grass to grow, but Ken just answered my question on that.

The soil is pretty easy to dig up/crumbles easily. It is not clay. We live in North Seattle if that helps at all.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 11:22AM
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botann(z8 SEof Seattle)

Use an iron bar to lift the concrete just a bit and then hit it with a sledge hammer. It will break very easy. Wear protective eyewear!
I have taken out sidewalks and patios that way many times so I know it works.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 4:07PM
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Thanks for the iron bar tip. My concern now is what to do with the exposed roots once the patio is removed. And the patio needs to be removed, it is in sorry shape.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 4:24PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

IF... if you can handle that ...

you can add an inch or two of topsoil .. to grow grass on ...


    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 5:16PM
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Once the concrete is removed from around the base. (I have use the bar method above with success) then treat the roots.

Could you use one of those air excavation system to loosen the dirt around the existing root, and basically replant the tree in the area where it is? You said the soil was easily dug and crumbly, so it should be easy to loosen the dirt around the roots down 12 to 18 inches. This would be an nice spring Saturday and you may save a very nice tree.

If you replaced a tree with one like you have you would be looking at a cost of $500 to a $1000. If you remove it and then plant something else the cost will be comparable.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 5:18PM
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It is definitely worth trying the digging in of the roots. Thanks for the tips! I'll repost when we get it done. It is a pretty big job including removal of a sorry looking shed with a pad that was poured into the top of the sorry patio, so it'll be a while before it is all done. We might try leaving the barrel on for this season and tackling the patio/root issue first. What is an air excavation system?


    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 5:45PM
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This is one of those situations that all of the general accepted advice doesn't really apply.

Were it me, I'd advise taking a lot of pictures as you go through the process. This is not a normal situation, and you are going to learn a lot as you go through it. (including what free advice is worth).

There is a local nursery that has a couple of trees planted in the parking lot; at first glance, it looks like they started out much like what you have. They solved their problems by using stone steps, placed on edge, forming a box, essentially a very large planting bed, perhaps 10' square and about 20" tall.

And to be honest, I'm not sure if this was planned; ie, the stone box was created and the tree was placed inside of it, or if a slow selling plant became rooted in place and was then made a part of the permanent landscaping.

The first question I would have is how important it is to save the existing tree. It sounds like you are trying to do this yourself?

If the goal is to keep the tree, this may be more than you want to tackle yourself. If you would like to keep the tree but realize the tree may not make it and are okay with that, knock yourself out. If my parents were to call me with a similar situation, I'd suggest they locate a local landscaper who could at least be available for assistance.

Were it me, I'd take the barrel off and clear the patio for a few feet around it. What you see there is going to determine everything else.

BAck to the generally accepted advice bit: Typically, you'd be loathe to recommend to add soil to the surface around a tree. Part of the problem is that the tree has created a root system at a certain depth, and adding soil above that makes messes with a lot of stuff about roots and water absorption. Given the fact this is basically (albeit deteriorated) an impermeable surface, once you take the existing patio out, I really don't think I'd have any qualms about putting soil back, even a little high than current grade. Which takes care of all the problems with digging roots down, air spades, etc.

There is a machine called a dingo. If you have a 40" wide gate, you have the clearance to get it back there. Unless you prefer the wheelbarrow brigade.

As far as the shape, time will solve all your issues. Just can't say how much

    Bookmark   February 17, 2013 at 8:28AM
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We're youngish and we have limited $$ = DIY'ers. We'll give it our best shot and hope for the best (and start a few other trees elsewhere in the yard).


    Bookmark   February 17, 2013 at 12:25PM
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