What is earth-balling?

Earth balling is the process of moving a tree by digging out the earth and the roots in a circular shape, leaving most of the root system undisturbed and intact

Anna Isabel Rodriguez
Published 4:04 PM, April 18, 2012
Updated 10:57 PM, June 09, 2012

MANILA, Philippines - “Earth-balling” has repeatedly surfaced in the news recently, but few know what exactly it entails – or why it has been associated with trees and the environment.

SM Baguio started earth-balling trees from a 1,500-square-meter space in Luneta Hall on April 9 as part of efforts to “transplant” 182 trees and make space for a new parking lot.

This has triggered a public outcry even on social media, with many believing that earth-balling is tantamount to killing the pines since chances of survival would be slim. As past experience has shown, lesser trees equate to more pollution, erosion, and worse flooding.

But what exactly is earth-balling?

An alternative

Experts say that earth-balling is fairly common practice when transferring trees. It’s a method that’s more environment-friendly because it provides an alternative to simply cutting down trees.

Earth-balling is usually used in landscaping and urban forestry to save the genetic make-up or the historical value of a tree. For instance, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Makati’s instant forests are testament to the positive applications of the tree-saving process.

As described in most environmental websites and by tree-moving companies, earth-balling is the process of moving a tree by digging out the earth and the roots in a circular shape, leaving most of the root system undisturbed and intact.

This makes it easier for the tree to adjust to a new location. The size of the earth ball to be dug up is directly proportional to the size of the tree: the bigger the tree, the bigger the ball.

The earth ball is then lifted and covered with a burlap cloth then transported to its new location.

Easy? Think again.

What Can Go Wrong?

According to Rappler research, the long, tedious, but successful process of earth-balling a tree requires a lot of components.

The procedure is usually done in the afternoon to late night to avoid loss of moisture due to heat. Pruning is done to balance the size of the tree to the roots lost, though as a rule, not more than one-third of the leaves should be removed.

Complications such as transplant shock and stress may occur after the move. Special care should be given even after planting the trees, as it takes a year for recovery – more as they get bigger. Usual factors such as inadequate water or strong winds can be fatal to a newly-moved tree.

Trees grown in nurseries are easier to earth-ball as their root systems are usually trimmed and are concentrated in one area. Naturally occurring trees, however, have roots that spread out. In some instances, only 25% or less of the roots are left intact.

The younger the tree, the higher the chances of survival.

The Baguio pines are old – at least 30 years, according to Dr Isidro Esteban, a tree doctor and consultant to the DENR and the Manila Seedling Bank Foundation.

Pining for a better chance

Esteban puts the survival rate at 80% for hardwoods and most general species. Pine trees, however, are a different story. He claims there are no guarantees when it comes to this specie.

The pine’s taproot system is less concentrated and therefore more sensitive compared to other tree families. It is divided into fewer main roots that go deeper in the ground. When pine trees are earth-balled, the root system is usually compromised, and the trees are unable to recover.

In Baguio, even the trees’ proximity to each other can become a problem. Having grown side by side with roots intertwining with each other for years, the damage that digging them up undisturbed is easy to imagine.

In the 1990s, only 17% of 475 pine trees transferred from Camp John Hay survived.

In 1987, Esteban successfully earth-balled a young pine that still lives to this day.

Every circumstance is different, he says. As in life, there are never any guarantees. - Rappler.com