Horridculture – “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

The landscape maintenance industry attracts apathetic idiots. There is no nice way of saying it. Those who have flunked out of everything else and simply do not care can push a mower. I can not imagine how infuriating this must be for gardeners who take their work seriously. It must be more difficult for them to observe than it is for me.

More to the point, the jacaranda tree in the median pictured above fell down and stayed that way long enough for the canopy to try to grow into a normal tree. It likely got run over by a car. No one bothered to try to stand it up and stake it, or more simply remove it, and maybe replace it. It just stayed there, for YEARS. So-called maintenance ‘gardeners’ just mow around it, and weed whack the grass that they can not mow below the horizontal trunk. Arborists might eventually groom the canopy. Apparently, they all find this to be acceptable horticultural procedure.

The Brazilian pepper tree pictured below is almost as weird. It is slightly more tolerable only because it has not been in this position as long. Perhaps SOMEONE or ANYONE will realize how inappropriate its horizontal orientation is for the parking lot that it inhabits, and remove it. It had been falling over slowly, which is why the exposed roots are already weathered. No one bothered to prune it for weight reduction or to improve the clearance on the side that it was falling toward. Otherwise, it might have been able to support itself, even with a bit an irregular but tolerable lean. Now that it is on the ground, some so-called ‘gardener’ pruned it around the parking spaces that it fell between. Seriously! The bumper of the pickup is against a now hedged portion of the canopy of the fallen tree. The branches to the left in the picture were pruned between adjacent parking spaces so that they can actually accommodate parked cars as they were intended to. Seriously, rather than simply cut the tree ‘down’ and remove it, someone devoted that much effort into something as crazily dysfunctional as this. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN MUCH EASIER TO DO THIS PROPERLY!


Horridculture – Reading Palms

Few arborists read palms like they should. Most simply do not care like those I worked for so many years ago. Some of their butchery is deplorable, and some even kill the palms that they are paid to maintain.

Fortunately, the first example here might be explainable.

It is not uncommon for palms to wear beards of old fronds. Some beards extend all the way to the ground from the viable tops of the associated canopies.

This beard is very different. The canopy is neatly trimmed, without a bead directly below. However, a portion of beard remains on the middle of the trunk. Why would an arborist leave such an impassable obstacle between the ground and the canopy that will likely need grooming again?

I suspect that the tree had been neatly groomed until it got dangerously close to the high voltage cables. Arborists who are not certified for ‘line clearance’ are not allowed to work so close to cables, so were unable to groom the trunk any higher.

However, with boom lifts to avoid climbing, arborists who are certified for such clearance pruning removed the portion of the beard above so that dead fronds do not fall onto the high voltage cables. Such arborists who perform minimal utility clearance pruning are not allowed to do any more than necessary, so can not remove the portion of the beard that is not a threat to the cables, although it is out of reach for other arborists. Therefore, as silly as this looks, this may not be as egregious as it seems to be.

The second example can not be explained so easily. These three Mexican fan palms are very dead. They have been dead for so long that they are now decaying too severely for arborists to climb them safely for removal. Their death was certainly not natural. They were decapitated. Someone climbed to the tops of each of these three palms and cut their single terminal buds off, but left the trunks to die.

Did someone think that they would regenerate new terminal buds or branches like yuccas? If so, why were the trunks left so high? This really defies explanation.

These dead trunks can not be left here. They are so tall that if one falls, it could damage the apartment building across the street, and anything else that happens to be in between. They could kill someone! There are three of them! They are unsafe to climb, so must be removed by crane, which is very expensive.

Arborists Are Physicians Of Trees

This specimen would be a challenge for an arborist.

(This article is recycled from a decade ago.)

Pasadena sustained the worst of the damage caused by the strongest Santa Ana Winds in three decades. Huge piles of debris from broken trees are much more than can be removed any time soon. Falling debris and trees damaged many roofs, cars and anything else that happened to get in the way.

Other towns and neighborhoods throughout the area, particularly those at the base of mountains, also sustained major damage. At the same time, severe winds ravaged the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Areas as well, particularly in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the hills of the East Bay.

Some of the damage caused by wind in urban areas might have been less disastrous if trees had gotten the respect and attention that they deserve. Some trees develop structural deficiencies that need to be corrected by pruning, either to eliminate the problems, or at least to decrease the strain exerted onto the structurally deficient parts. A few trees that become unstable as they mature may likewise need to be pruned or even removed.

It is not always possible to prune trees to remove all structural deficiencies without damaging the affected trees more, or causing more structural problems to develop. For example, major pruning to remove all parts that may get blown down by wind, such as pollarding or ‘topping’, may seem to be effective for the short term, but actually stimulates the development of vigorous secondary growth or watersprouts that are disproportionately heavy and even more likely to tear off from the older limbs.

Structural pruning more often involves thorough reduction of weight and wind resistance. Weight of foliage and stems directly applies leverage against unions where smaller stems are attached to the larger stems from which they originate. Wind resistance adds more leverage as foliage gets blown about by wind. Thinning obviously removes significant weight, and also decreases wind resistance to allow wind to blow though the affected canopies.

Besides helping to compensate for structural deficiency, structural pruning is also beneficial to potentially unstable trees for the same reasons. However, unstable trees typically need even more reduction of weight and wind resistance. Some of the most unstable trees and those that are deteriorating need to be removed because their instability cannot be accommodated.

During winter, while deciduous trees are bare, evergreen trees are more susceptible to wind damage, obviously because they retain their weight and wind resistance through winter while the weather is the most severe. Unstable trees become even more destabilized as rain softens the soil. Regardless of the potential for susceptibility to wind damage, this would be a good time of year to get any needed tree maintenance done, prior to any more windy and rainy winter weather.

Arborists certified by the International Society of Arboriculture are the most qualified to identify potential structural problems or instability, and to prescribe corrective procedures. A list of certified arborists can be found at the website of the International Society of Arboriculture at http://www.isaarbor.com.

Vegetation Needs Clearance From Infrastructure

There is a chimney under this overgrown vine.

It may not seem like it is so now, but evergreen trees really are messier than most deciduous trees. They probably do not produce any more debris, but they drop their debris over much longer periods of time, or at various times, or simply ALL the time. Yet, at this time of year, it seems like the deciduous trees that mostly have dropped nothing or very little since last year, are making most of the mess in the garden as they defoliate for winter.

Defoliation is only beginning, and will continue for a while. Ironically, the most impressively colorful deciduous trees happen to be those that hold their foliage for a long time, making their defoliation process linger over a few months. Even the most efficiently neat trees that defoliate in a few days tend to do so during windy or rainy weather, when we are not so motivated to go out into the garden to clean up their mess.

As the rainy season begins in a few weeks or so, the gutters on the eaves should be cleaned of debris that has accumulated since last year. This can sometimes be delayed until all deciduous trees that contribute to the accumulation of debris are completely defoliated. Generally though, homes with many or big trees (or many big trees) may need their gutters cleaned more than once as they continue to collect debris through autumn and perhaps into winter.

Any debris that collects behind chimneys, in valleys (where roof slope changes direction) or anywhere else on the roof, should also be removed. Even without gutters to collect debris, flat roofs collect whatever debris that does not get blown off by wind. Only parapet roofs that are common on so many homes of Spanish architecture collect more debris, since they are sheltered from wind.

Trees and vines should never be allowed to lean onto roofs. Vines and some densely foliated trees tend to accumulate all sorts of debris that rots and then damages the roof below. Trees that touch roofing material are abrasive as they move in any breeze.

Obtrusive trees and vines are also a serious problem for chimneys. Cypress, cedar, pine and the beards (accumulations of dead foliage) of fan palms are particularly combustible. Even after they get soaked by rain, they can quickly dry if heated by the exhaust from a chimney. Maple, ash and other trees with open canopies may not be as combustible, especially while defoliated, but can get roasted by chimney exhaust, and can interfere with ventilation.

Tipu Tree

Sidewalks and curbs prefer tipu trees.

It may not get too tall, but with appropriate pruning, the tipu tree, Tipuana tipu, spreads a broad canopy high enough to be a good street tree. A mature tree is not much more than thirty feet tall and at least as broad. Roots are not too aggressive. A slight bit of mess is rarely but actually more likely to be a problem. The pale yellowish flowers that fall early in summer are followed by a few seeds. Not too long after the seeds stop falling, the deciduous foliage starts to fall. The soft green leaves are pinnately compound, with eleven to seventeen leaflets that are about an inch and a half long. Tipu tree is still uncommon, but really should be more popular than it is.

Taking It To The Streets

Tipu tree is the topic for tomorrow.

No matter how unique the individual gardens are, conforming street trees really unify a neighborhood. Streets of tract homes are typically planted with a common street tree that is complimentary to the architectural styles of the homes, and is complaisant to the difficulties of life at the curb. Neighborhoods of mixed architectural styles sometimes have difficulty finding a tree that suits every home, so often select two or more options. Older neighborhoods are not quite as selective about conforming street trees because so many various trees get mixed in over the years.

Before selecting a street tree, it is best to inquire with the particular municipality about designated street trees. Home owners associations generally install their own trees where needed, with little or no regard for the preferences of individual residents. Some urban neighborhoods (that are not home owner associations) are nearly as selective, requiring individual home owners to maintain a specific street tree or trees. Others do not require street trees, but limit selection for those who desire them. Selection is very often limited to only a single species.

There are of course many rural and unincorporated neighborhoods without limitations for street trees, and neighborhoods where limitations simply are not enforced. However, selection should still be limited to trees that are appropriate for curbside planting. Such trees should have high branch structure so that they can be pruned for clearance above the largest of trucks that can use the roadway. They should be reasonably clean, and not produce anything that could be messy on cars parked below. Roots should be complaisant with concrete curbs and sidewalks, particularly where space is limited. Foliage and bark must be resilient to harsh exposure and enhanced glare (from surrounding pavement).

London plane (sycamore) and crape myrtle trees are the two most common street trees planted by landscapers, and are the most commonly pre-designated street trees, but are actually not the best of choices. London plane is popular among landscapers because it can survive the neglect that landscapers are notorious for, but has aggressive roots that eventually damage concrete, especially since landscapers waste so much water and keep the soil saturated. Crape myrtle is remarkably colorful both in bloom and with fall color, and has remarkably complaisant roots, but does not get tall enough for adequate clearance, and often gets infested with insects that drop sticky honeydew on parked cars.

This was the topic for yesterday.

Streets Might Benefit From Shade

Proportion is important for street trees.

Shade has become less of a priority for modern urban gardens than it still is for older and more spacious suburban gardens. Significantly less sunlight reaches the ground of such confined gardens among taller and shadier homes and fences. Even where shade might be desirable, space for shade trees might be minimal. Streets are the primary exception.

Streets, and associated curbs and sidewalks, are generally the sunniest situations within modern urban neighborhoods. They collect and radiate ambient heat that warms nearby homes and gardens, even if the weather is already unpleasantly warm. Cars that park on pavement without shade are vulnerable to the most heat, which accelerates weathering.

It is an unfortunate waste. Sunshine that is useless and undesirable on streets would be useful within gardens. Although sunlight is not transferable from one situation to another, it might be partially abatable with shade. Streets are certainly no place for gardening; but the space above them may have potential to accommodate the canopies of shade trees.

Street trees are simply trees that flank streets and other roadways. Most are shady. A few are merely visually appealing. They may inhabit parkstrips, treewells or gardens that are adjacent to sidewalks. Many municipalities prescribe street trees for most of their streets. Conforming street trees are standard accessories for streets within new residential tracts.

Of course, street trees must be appropriate to their particular applications. They must get tall enough for clearance above the largest of vehicles that use the roadways below. For commercial districts, some must also stay above storefront signs. Contrarily, a few street trees must stay below aerial utilities. Street lamps, high or low, require clearance as well.

Size and form are not the only considerations. Roots of street trees must be complaisant with infrastructure. Mess should be as minimal as practical. The most complaisant street trees might stay too small to attain adequate clearance or provide much shade. The most visually appealing might be too messy. Selection of appropriate street trees necessitates significant research regarding every potential option.

Sudden Limb Failure Jeopardizes Safety

Entire trees can also fall unexpectedly.

Windy weather sometimes breaks limbs from trees, or blows entire trees over. Evergreen trees are innately more susceptible to such damage than deciduous trees are. Wind can blow more easily through deciduous trees while they are bare through winter, when most wind occurs. However, deciduous trees are now more susceptible to sudden limb failure. 

Sudden limb failure, or spontaneous limb failure, is a result of gravity rather than of wind. It is actually more likely without wind, during mild or warm weather, particularly with high humidity. It consequently has potential to be more hazardous than limbs that blow down. More people go outside among trees during mild weather, and fewer expect falling limbs. 

Sudden limb failure occurs if limbs become unable to support their own increasing foliar weight. Warmth accelerates vascular activity, which sustains foliar growth. High humidity and a lack of wind inhibit evapotranspiration (evaporation from foliage), which otherwise helps to alleviate excessive weight. Developing fruit can also cause sudden limb failure.

In the wild, willows, poplars, sycamores, and perhaps a few other riparian trees regularly and naturally exhibit partial sudden limb failure. Limbs that fracture and sag onto soil, but remain partially attached to their original tree, can generate roots and grow as new trees. Although their strategy is practical for them, it is unacceptable within refined landscapes. 

Several native and exotic trees of chaparral climate are quite susceptible to sudden limb failure within or adjacent to irrigated landscapes. Since they are not accustomed to such abundant moisture, they overindulge. Mature wild trees are more likely to exhibit sudden limb failure after an unusually rainy and warm winter, or if rain continued late into spring.

All native oaks, particularly valley oak and coast live oak, are susceptible to sudden limb failure. So are Monterey pine and Monterey cypress. Carob, sweetgum, various elm and various eucalypti are exotic species that are notorious for such behavior. Evergreens are more unpredictable, since their new growth is less obvious among their lingering foliage. 

The Stakes Could Be High

Some unfortunate trees become so reliant on staking and straps that they are never able to support their own weight.

The irony of landscaping and gardening to bring nature closer to the home is that it is so very unnatural. Plant specie are imported from all over the world, grown in synthetic environments, and then expected to perform in unfamiliar climates and soils far from home. Most plants have been bred for optimal retail appeal at the expense of their natural adaptations.

Trees grown in nurseries need to be staked tightly to develop the sort of straight trunks that branch at just the right height to be marketable. In the landscape, trees need to be staked because they have become so dependent on the stakes that they grew up with. Eventually though, trees need to learn how to carry their own weight.

When new trees get planted and staked loosely with heftier stakes that stand up to wind, old tightly bound nursery stakes should be removed since the tight binding interferes with trunk development. By the time trees gets planted, the nursery stakes are probably nearly rotten through at the ground anyway. The new heftier stakes should not hold trees tightly in place, but simply be there to keep them from getting blown over.

Straps should likewise not be tightly bound, but instead allow for a bit of motion with the breeze. Straps should cross over in a ‘figure eight’ pattern between trees and their stakes, so that trunks do not rub so abrasively against the stakes. Most trees need only two straps each, or two pairs of straps if two stakes are used, with support up high, and lower support to prevent outward bowing. If there are no branches to hold straps in place, straps must be nailed or otherwise attached to the stakes.

Some sturdy trees, like well developed redwood trees and small magnolias, may not need stakes. Palms and yucca certainly do not. However, limber trees like the various eucalyptus may need more support than just two straps. The problem is that many trees become dependent on their stakes and will not develop strong trunks if they do not need to.

It is better to prune maturing staked trees to limit weight and wind resistance (that might cause them to blow over) than to provide more support with heftier stakes. If a maturing young tree is relying on stakes and straps for support, it needs to be pruned. A young unstaked tree that begins to lean from the weight of its canopy should likewise be pruned until it regains its posture without getting staked and bound. Trees should never be tied to other trees, buildings or anything else that can be damaged by the tension.


With all the cables coming and going, this unfortunate tree does not have much room to grow without causing trouble.

Since I did not make the drive up or down the coast very often, the rare silvery-gray Bismarck palm that I could see slowly climbing into the skyline near the edge of Highway 101 through Santa Barbara seemed to be slightly taller every time I saw it. It grew slowly, but enough to notice since I only saw it less than annually. Then, when I drove by about a month ago, it was gone.

This exemplary specimen had been quite healthy and happy (even though Bismarck palms are not supposed to be happy on the coast). There was only one problem. It was under high voltage utility cables. As it grew, it got too close to the cables, so needed to be removed in order to maintain the minimal clearance required for high voltage.

Unlike other trees, palms have only single terminal buds that grow upward. They can not develop branches to grow around cables, so only die if the single bud needs to be pruned away. Complete removal is therefore the only option when palms begin to grow into high voltage cables.

Sadly, palms often get planted under utility cables. Many Mexican fan palms grow under cables because birds that eat their fruit drop the seed there. Queen palms are popularly planted around the perimeters of back yards, and along the back fence lines that are very often directly below and parallel to high voltage cables.

Trees that are not palms can get disfigured by pruning for clearance around high voltage cables, but generally survive. Trees with central leaders (single trunks) and strict form, such as spruces and redwoods, can get be so disfigured that removal may be more practical than pruning. Trees with more irregular form, like sycamores and elms, are somewhat easier to salvage. Unfortunately, crews hired to maintain clearance are unable to prioritize the health and structure of trees that get too close to high voltage cables.

Lower cables for telephone, television and house-drops (lower voltage cables that extend from utility poles to homes and other buildings) do not often justify pruning for clearance like upper high voltage cables do. However, these lower priority cables can still be damaged if too many limbs sag onto them or become abrasive as they blow in the wind. Really, it is best to avoid problems with utility cables by selecting and planting trees that are not likely to become too obtrusive. Palms, large trees and trees that are likely to be severely disfigured by pruning to maintain clearance should be kept at safe distances.