Saving Sweetgum

Variegated Liquidambar creates a focal point in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Variegated Liquidambar creates a vibrant focal point (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Trials and tribulations are many when you loose your home, and sometimes the least little thing can create extreme joy . . . or extreme angst.  Though it may sound silly, I had this sort of situation with a sweetgum tree.  Yes, a sweetgum tree.  Besides the entire house and contents, we also lost a lot of trees and shrubs from the fire and its incredible heat, so finding any plants that survived became cause for great celebration.  When we discovered that another tree would have to be sacrificed to make room for the relocated septic system, I almost had a nervous breakdown.  Not my beautiful sweetgum (American native Liquidambar styraciflua), a tree we had lovingly placed and nurtured for many years.  A tree that had grown and flourished in its happy location.  Yet, it came down to the fact that sweetgum had to be moved, as there was no other “zoning approved” place for the septic fields.

Digging around sweetgum's wide root base in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Digging around sweetgum’s wide root base (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

The septic installer tried to figure a way to work around the tree, thinking that perhaps we could build a sort of retaining wall around it.  But no matter how we sliced it, there was no option except moving the tree . . . or at least raising it up to the new elevation, which was almost 4 feet higher. To be clear, this isn’t some five foot tree that could be dug by hand and wheeled to a new spot.  This tree was some 15 feet high with a root ball over 8 feet in diameter, weighing well over 800 pounds.  The only way that baby gum was going anywhere was with the assistance of a few big pieces of equipment, and a really skilled operator. Preferably one with a heart of gold and the patience of a saint.  As luck would have it, just such a person stepped up and offered to help us out.

Getting under the rootball in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Getting under the rootball (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Tim Beatty not only has a heart of gold and the patience of a saint, he is an incredibly skilled equipment operator, and the owner of Beatty Construction Company, an excavating company that has been in business since 1984. As he tells it, this was not his first large tree move, but because of sweetgum’s  sentimental value to us, he confessed to having some sleepless nights considering every possible scenario and how he would address it. As it turned out, his planning and knowledge were all that was needed . . .

Lifting Liquidambar from its location in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Carefully lifting Liquidambar from its location (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

The move was planned for 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and our spirits were as high as the warm sun shining in the blue sky above us. Tim started by digging a wide trench around the perimeter of the root system with his smaller excavator, and then brought in the “big gun” to do the actual lift.  It was decided to lift the ball (after securing the trunk with a strap to avoid tipping) in one fell swoop and leave the ball in the bucket while preparing the new location with the smaller excavator. This technique worked like a charm; allowing the tree and root system to rest easily within the strong confines of the large bucket with minimal disturbance to the root system.

Settled in and ready for watering in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Settled in and ready for watering (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

The ground was prepared for this majestic tree, and we carefully measured the height of the root ball to be sure it would not sink below the final soil grade. On a small tree this issue is no big deal, you can easily lift a root ball up if it sinks too deep. But with a substantial tree like sweetgum senior, you only get one chance.  Once the grade was ready, we started preparing to remove the tree down off the bucket.  This is a tricky situation requiring extreme skill on the part of the operator, as one error would allow the tree to topple and the weight of the ball would surely separate it from the trunk-a certain death sentence. Not only did the sun shine on our shoulders that day, but Lady Luck as well, and with caution and patience sweetgum was slowly lowered into her new space.

Sweetgum in New Location overlooking the house in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Sweetgum in new location overlooking the house and yard (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Utilizing two straps to steady the tree, one connected to each excavator, the tree was carefully removed from the bucket.  The final stage of “operation sweetgum” was to transfer its immense root base from the bucket onto the new plateau, and the guys quickly set about adjusting the soil level underneath to avoid any tipping.  Once the roots were securely placed on solid ground, we shoveled soil around the circumference to create a moat and pumped water from the nearby stream to give it a good drink. Stabilized by its sheer weight, the sweetgum stood proudly in her newly elevated location overlooking nearby meadows and our future homesite. As sweetgum’s leaves begin to unfurl and reveal their youthful beauty, so too will our new home as it rises up from the ashes ♥


  1. What a truly inspirational story- you just saved a life, including your own….. May this tree flourish in her new spot for generations to come!

    • Thank you, Patty! I truly appreciate your kind words. Saving this special tree did save a little part of me and will be a constant reminder of our resilience through these difficult times ~

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