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The California Juniper Spring Dig

Please note that in order to participate in a Club Dig on the Hansen Ranch you must be a paid member of the Club and have signed the Insurance Waiver.   Also, be aware that digging trees in the Sierra Mountains involves dangerous activities including driving on unimproved dirt roads, climbing on steep and dangerous terrain, and possible encounters with snakes and other predatory animals in the wild countryside.   A very helpful Article was written by Jerry McNey providing first time tree searchers with valuable information including what tools are required, what clothing is important, and other hints regarding how to prepare, and what to do while there and then how to care for your tree after you get it home so that it will survive to become a beautiful show tree.  



Let's Dig California Juniper


Jerry McNey

From November through April, the weather cools, and after winter rains, soil is usually damp enough that many weekends are spent digging California juniper. Once the necessary approval and permissions are granted to enter on the property, then the need for the right equipment becomes the issue. Here is a list that may ease your concern about what is needed. The first items are required. Without them it's unlikely you'll be able to dig the tree. The others make the job easier, not always fun, but easier.


Shovel Long pointed posthole shovel is heavy and digs well. Others use smaller and lighter shovels. Because you're usually on your knees, a short handle works best.


Mattock or Pick There are several small or lightweight mattocks or picks that will help open up hard ground.


Lopper A lopper that can cut branches 1 inch or more thick is best. Some have a ratchet or gear that gives added leverage to the cutting blades.


Tree Saw A folding tree saw is needed to cut heavier branches and the taproots beneath the tree. Some folks take two; one for the tree and one that may get dull in the dirt when cutting roots.


Wet Sphagnum Moss. Wrap the moss around the exposed roots when the tree is out of the ground. The wet moss is soaked with vitamin B1 or Superthrive® and carried in ziplock bags. It's best to prepare the moss before you leave home.


Sphagnum Wrap Cloth strips of burlap, old tee shirts, 2-inch to 4-inch wide Mylar self sticking plastic wrap. The Mylar can be found at U-Haul® in the moving supplies. A roll of black electrical tape wrapped around the cloth or Mylar will help keep it in place.


The first four items get the tree out of the ground; the sphagnum and wrap will help keep it alive until you can get it home. The following items will make it easier and reduce the pain and sore muscles that may accompany the dig.


Backpack With all this stuff, you need something to carry it in and to get the tree back to your vehicle. This is not a book bag borrowed from the kids. You need a pack with an aluminum frame, shoulder straps, and a hip belt to distribute the load. Plastic garbage bags might work, and they might not.


Rope or Bungi cords Often the best way to get the tree back is to tie it onto the backpack.


Hand pruners Trim the small branches and open up the structure of the tree.


Spray Bottle Wet the roots while digging and wet the tree foliage when back to your vehicle. A little bit of B1 or Superthrive® wouldn't hurt.


Toilet paper Besides the obvious, use it to wrap around a branch on a tree that you may want to dig, while you're looking for your masterpiece. It will help you relocate it and will blow away, if you find a better one and don't go back.


Miscellaneous Things that you may want to add are extra garbage bags to wrap around the roots; gloves to protect from nicks and scratches; a steel digging bar for very hard ground; a tarp to cover trees in an open bed pickup; a sieve and 5-gallon bucket to collect DG.


Now for personal comfort. You'll need the right transportation, food, clothing, and even some first-aid gear.

Transportation A good reliable vehicle. The sites are some distance from a garage and telephone. Don't plan to rely on a cell phone. There is not always good coverage. Good tires, a shovel, extra water for the car, and perhaps a chain or tow cable in the event you need to be pulled out. Four-wheel drive is usually not required, but it may save some walking and has increased reliability in soft sand.


Food Take a lunch. You know what you like, but if you throw it in your pack, it should be durable. And take some extra to share with friends during lunch. Throw some snack bars, apples, or oranges in the backpack, and a quart or two of water. After _ hour swinging a shovel, some drinking water goes a long way. A gallon of water per person for the day is suggested.


Clothing If you don't like the weather, wait a little while. This is the desert in winter. Take clothing that can be layered; sweater, sweatshirt, fleece or wool may be best, particularly if it rains. A windbreaker or parka to cut the cold wind, and a hat--it will help keep you warm all over. If rain is predicted, step it up a notch and add a raincoat, gloves, and even a dry change is reasonable.


Boots Some will come in tennis or walking shoes, others will have some level of boots. Those with boots will probably have fewer problems with stone bruises, footing on rocky trails, and walking across slopes. By definition, tennis shoes are meant for paved areas; so are most walking shoes.


First Aid There have been very few accidents on the digs, a skinned knee or cut, sunburn and windburn, perhaps a sprained ankle. This level of injury doesn't require a corpsman and his equipment. It does take common sense, some band-aids, disinfectant, an elastic wrap, some tape, sunscreen, and someone who knows how to use them. You can put these things in the pocket of your cargo pants right next to your whistle and compass, and they are always with you.


Where are you? Don't be out of reach from someone. Notice where the highest peak is, the sun, and if you have a compass, the direction of the road where you parked. Is it trending north? To the south? Is it on a ridge? Can I see the car from where I am? Take a whistle; it's louder than your voice in the wind, and the sound carries; be aware of where you and your friends are digging. This is what a reasonable person would do.


Well, after you have been on a dig or two, you may want to change this list, add some, delete some, but you will have the experience to guide you, and you can share it with your friends when they go on their first dig.

You're Finally There, Now to Dig

After driving for several early morning hours, having breakfast, then driving again to a place known only to the leaders, and finally arriving near some mountain where the California's are growing, it's time to get out the equipment you have put together and try to find a tree. When you get out of the car, you understand why you brought the jacket and sweatshirt. Desert mornings are cold. Grab your shovel, mattock, strap on the backpack and you're ready. You did pack some water, snacks and a lunch. Look around, and see where the cars are parked, and the direction of the hills or ridges. Now's the time to check that compass; it'll make finding your way back easier. It's time for you and your buddy to start walking.

You'll notice that the old timers have disappeared. Some have a favorite place, others may have staked out a tree on an earlier trip. But it's not likely they're down in a gully where the lush trees are growing. The desert wind and harsh weather conditions create the best trees on or near ridges or on the slopes facing into the wind. Trees with good movement in branches are seldom found on the shady slopes; they're usually spread along a ridge and down the sunny side. Take out the toilet paper and wrap a piece around a branch on the tree you think you may want to dig. Some folks believe the female tree, with small cones or seedpods are strongest and most likely to survive. Look for trunk caliper and movement of the branches. Are the branches straight and uninteresting, or are there bends or curves that create interest in the tree? Is the foliage near the trunk, or far out on the end of the branches? If the branches are too long, it may be difficult to create a good style. Talk to your buddy, get another opinion, and move on until you select one that you can style and create into your own masterpiece.

Now the work begins. Shake the tree to see if it's loose in the ground. If it moves around, it may have poor root structure, and probably should be left alone. When you have made your selection, take the loppers and cut off the lower branches that won't be used in the final design. This will give you room to start digging. Scratch a circle out about a foot or so from the trunk, and dig a trench around the tree, cutting the roots as you go. The trench will probably be a foot or more deep, creating a ball of soil around the trunk of the tree. If the tree is small, cutting under the soil and collecting the whole ball and tree is the best approach. That requires cutting beneath the ball, finding the taproot, and cutting it with the saw, pruners, or loppers. Work the plastic or cloth beneath the tree and wrap the ball, if possible, before you lift it out. With real skill you will have the entire root ball and most roots undamaged. What usually happens to small tree and essentially the entire larger tree is the ball breaks up, exposing the roots. Brush off the pieces of dirt, exposing the rest of the roots; it will get rid of the excess soil, and make the tree lighter to lift and carry. Use the pruners to make clean cuts on the end of the exposed roots. Lift the tree out of the hole. Take particular care of any white fine, soft roots. These are the active roots that are feeding the tree and should be protected. Spray them and wrap them immediately. Wrap the white fine roots with the sphagnum moss being careful not to break or damage them and wrap the moss with Mylar plastic wrap or cloth; secure it with some electrical tape. Spray all the unwrapped roots periodically with water to keep them from drying out. Continue wrapping the roots until all are protected. When the tree is out and all the roots wrapped, set the tree in the shade and spray with water.

Look at the tree and cut back excess foliage. Think about the trees you have seen in a show and remember that there aren't a lot of branches. For the freshly dug tree, it will take a while for the roots to develop and support the foliage, and the roots won't be able to feed all the foliage that is now on the tree. Talk to your buddy, or a more experienced member, and they will help trim back your prize. Before you leave backfill the hole with soil and the cut branches. Now you can break out the rope or bungi cords and tie the tree to the frame of the backpack. You may wind up having to sit down, slide on the shoulder straps, and then stand. The tree is likely to be heavy and awkward, but with patience and care, you will get it back to the car. Now you have dug a California juniper. What's next?

Leave the tree in the shade; don't put it in the car. It will likely be too hot and start drying it out. Spray periodically through the day to keep the foliage damp. When you're ready to go put it in the car or truck; if you're driving a pick-up, the tree will need to be protected from the wind on the drive home. Driving at 70 mph on the freeway with your tree in the exposed bed of a pick-up will turn your masterpiece into firewood real quick. If it's too late to pot your tree when you get home, soak it in a tub of water with some Superthrive® until the next day. That's a California juniper dig.


We Have it Home

The tree soaked overnight in a tub of water and Superthrive®, and now it's time to get it into a pot. If you washed the agricultural pumice before you left, the work is pretty straightforward. If not, now is the time to get out the sieve, tub and hose, and wash the fine dust out of the pumice. The fine dust has a tendency to retain too much water and occasionally clump up into clods, with the potential to prevent air from circulating around the roots. Once the pumice is washed, find a plastic pot or wooden box large enough to hold the tree easily. Often a 15-gallon nursery container is used, and it can be cut in half for smaller trees. If the roots are irregular and you need a very deep or wide container, Rubbermaid® has a variety of plastic containers that may work, or you may build one.

Put some sphagnum or screen over the drain holes and pour in the pumice about half way; then carefully take the wrap off the roots and put the tree in, holding it upright, while pouring in additional pumice. Try to put some poultry grit or turkey grit around the roots. This is fresh crushed granite, often similar to the rock found where the trees grow, and it will provide nutrients to the roots. Continue to add pumice and poultry grit to the top. Tap the side of the pot or container to settle the soil and try to move the tree to see it the tree is stable. If it wobbles, use some wire to tie it in until the roots develop. Move the tree to a shady location, away from hot afternoon sun and out of wind. Water it until water comes out the drain holes and then let it rest. The tree and pot should be able to remain there until new growth starts to push and the tree has recovered.

The tree leaves or needles open at night and absorb moisture. Try to water the foliage late in the evening, or with a timer that will water during the night. Heavy watering should be limited. The turkey grit and pumice both will retain some moisture, probably enough to satisfy the tree for a day or two, providing the leaves are healthy. Fertilize after the tree starts pushing new growth, and then very lightly, perhaps using diluted Miracle Grow® or other weak low-nitrogen fertilizer to start with. When the foliage pads are healthy and new shoots are popping out along the branches, you can start thinking about repotting and some styling. A successful tree makes a beautiful addition to a collection, and when finally in a show pot and styled, will make you proud.

The California juniper has really been challenged. Brought from an elevation between 3,000 and 4,000 feet, with hot dry summers and cold windy winters, to your backyard nearer to sea level, higher humidity, and lots more water. Quite a change. It will take several months to a year for the tree to become established enough to consider putting in clay pot and doing any styling. If the tree fails, don't be discouraged; survival rate is often 50% and frequently less than 10%. Be patient.

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