Pink Trumpet Tree

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This is why I do not often use pictures that my colleague, Brent Green, sends to me. He frequently tells me what I should feature in my gardening column, and sends me what he considers to be good pictures for such topics. This picture would have been good for writing about the sky over Los Angeles, or the neighbors’ driveway, since those are two of the most prominent features here. Where did all the smog go?

Chimneys in Los Angeles seem silly to me. Even if the weather got cool enough for a fire in a fireplace, there is no firewood to burn. The chimney to the far right certainly seems to be original to the house, but how did it survive all the earthquakes since the house was built, probably in the 1940s or 1950s? There have been a few moderate earthquakes since then.

Those signs that warn potential criminals of non-existent home security systems are even sillier, and just cluttering otherwise nice landscapes. There is nothing official looking about them. There are bins of them for sale in the local big box stores. Shouldn’t we all assume that since the home on the left is in Los Angeles, that it is outfitted with home security system that is more impressive than that silly, irrelevant and unwelcoming sign?

I would guess that what Brent really wanted to send a picture of was the big pink trumpet tree, Tabebuia heterophylla. After all, it does happen to be sort of in the middle of the picture. It really was spectacular while blooming late last winter. However, even if Brent had sent a good picture of it, I would not have featured it. Most of those who read my gardening column are not within regions where pink trumpet tree blooms like this.

Trees Do Not Like Chimneys

P71027There are many reasons why fireplaces and their chimneys are not such a safety concern like they were decades ago. Only a few modern homes are even equipped with them. Installation of a new fireplace is outlawed in many municipalities, even if a fireplace gets damaged by an earthquake, and should be replaced. Urban sprawl has replaced almost all of the orchards and woods that once supplied affordable fuel.

Most of the few fireplaces and wood stoves that still get used are safer because their chimneys are outfitted with spark arrestors. Also, most combustible cedar roofs have been replaced by non-combustible roofing material. Nonetheless, chimneys can sometimes get overwhelmed by potentially combustible vegetation. Trees, large shrubbery and vines might need to be pruned for adequate clearance from the heat.

Vines like ivy, Boston ivy and creeping fig are sometimes allowed to climb chimneys because they do not damage bricks as easily as they damage painted surfaces. However, they can easily grow over the top of a chimney. Aggressive vines generate significant volumes of vegetation, and can accumulate even more from nearby trees. Because they are directly over chimney exhaust, they ignite as soon as a fir is lit below.

Trees that reach over chimneys take a bit more time to burn because heat dissipates somewhat in the space between the top of the chimney and the higher vegetation. Cypress, pine, eucalyptus, cedar and big junipers are very combustible. If they get close enough, ungroomed palms and yuccas can be even worse! Deciduous trees are mostly defoliated, and less combustible while it Is cool enough to use a fireplace.

Regardless, all chimneys need adequate clearance from vegetation. Trees and vines that were allowed to get too close while fireplaces were unused through summer will need to be pruned back before the first fire is lit to take the chill out of cooling autumn weather. Debris that collects behind (upslope from) chimneys should also be removed. It can be combustible while dry, and once dampened by rain, it can cause rot.

This is also a good time to start cleaning eaves-troughs (gutters) and downspouts. Yes, it may need to be done more than once if enough deciduous foliage continues to fall through autumn. Debris is easiest to clean out while dry (before it needs to be cleaned out), but unfortunately becomes messier with rain.

Firewood

P71027Heating homes has certainly changed. It has gotten much more efficient and less polluting. Homes are much better insulated than they were only a few decades ago. Heating systems use much less fuel, and produce much cleaner exhaust. That is partly how more than a million people who live in San Jose now make less smog than when there were half as many.

The unfortunate part of that efficiency is the decline in popularity of traditional fireplaces and stoves. Burning wood is now politically incorrect, and at times, even illegal. ‘Spare the air’ days are strictly enforced when air quality gets unpleasant.

In San Jose, building codes do not allow fireplaces to be build into new homes. Only homes that were build with fireplaces or stoves prior to the ordinance are outfitted with them. Fireplaces that are damaged by earthquakes are often removed instead of repaired.

Tending a fire does not fit into modern lifestyles very well anyway. If someone stays home long enough to do so, he or she is too busy with other work. Tending a fire simply is not considered a common household chore anymore. Fireplaces do not have thermostats, so do not maintain the sort of consistency in temperature that so many of us have become accustomed to.

Those of us who still use our fireplaces (when permitted) must procure firewood. There are no more deteriorating orchards to supply it. We can not grow our own because permits are needed to cut down trees that are big enough to make firewood. Permits are only granted for trees that must be cut down for other reasons. The need for fuel is not good enough.

Consequently, it becomes necessary to purchase expensive firewood. To some of us, it is still worth it. We can either purchase mixed firewood from a tree service, or get it from a firewood cutter in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There always seem to be more trees that need to be cut down than are needed for firewood.

Gutters And Chimneys Need Attention

71101thumbThere is no time that is best to clean the gutters on the eaves. They should probably be cleaned early before the debris within them gets dampened by the first rains. However, they will only need to be cleaned out again after more foliage falls. If cleaned only after all the foliage falls, they will be grungier, and there will be potential for some of the debris to flow into and clog the downspouts.

Most of the fresh leafy debris that fell recently is relatively easy to clean out. Debris that has been accumulating through the year will be more decomposed and settled in. Evergreen trees are somehow messier than deciduous trees. They drop smaller volumes of debris in autumn, but they drop the rest throughout the year. Deciduous trees drop all their foliage within a limited season.

That certainly does not mean that deciduous trees can not make a mess. All that foliage has to go somewhere. If the weather gets cool slowly, foliage falls slowly, and for a longer time. Some deciduous trees innately defoliate slowly, and may even wait all winter to finish. Fruitless mulberry, tulip tree and poplars typically defoliate efficiently, making a big mess that gets cleaned up once.

Flat roofs that lack gutters collect debris too. So do the spaces behind chimneys and in roof valleys (where the slope changes direction). Even if this debris does not interfere with the function of gutters and downspouts, it promotes rot in roofing material. Trees and vines that touch a roof are likely to be abrasive to roofing material if they move in the breeze, or hold debris against the roof.

Trees and vines must be kept clear of chimneys, not only because they can interfere with ventilation, but also because they can be cooked by exhaust from the fireplace below, and ignite! Fan palm beards (dead foliage that accumulates on trunks), pine, cypress, spruce and cedar are particularly combustible. Clinging vines can separate brick from mortar, which is another fire hazard.

Working on the roof and gutters is of course potentially dangerous. It might be best to get a professional for these sorts of jobs, especially if trees need to be pruned. While that is being done, there is plenty of raking and other gardening for us to do (without a ladder). Raking leaves is an important job too, since fallen leaves can shade out lawn, ground-cover and flowering annuals.