Horridculture – Bad Guys

P91211Roots hold up trees. That is part of their job. They grow along with the trees they support, and disperse as necessary to maintain stability. Trees grown within the confinement of cans (pots) or boxes, and then installed into a landscape, are typically staked temporarily until their roots adequately disperse and stabilize. Once unnecessary, stakes and bindings must be removed.

Mature palms that get relocated are supported temporarily by guy wires. They are just too big to be supported by stakes. Because palm trunks to not grow any wider as at they grow taller, they are not damaged by the sorts of bindings that would damage the fattening trunks of other trees. Like stakes on other trees, guy wires must be removed as they become unnecessary.

Although they can be appropriate in unusual circumstances in which stakes would not be practical, guy wires are rarely used on trees that are not palms. Mature trees that get relocated can be guyed if too big to be supported by stakes. Because trunks and limbs of such trees expand (circumference), it is more important for guy wires to be remove when they become obsolete.

As useful as guy wires can be, they are more often used improperly or inappropriately. Firstly, those who install them rarely do so correctly, with the wires or cables as straight as possible between each end. Cabled anchors are usually pounded into the ground perpendicularly to the direction of the cable, so that the cable merely slices through the soil when tension is applied.

Once installed, cables are very often left in place long enough to constrict the growing trunks or limbs that they are attached to. Cables that apply too much tension or limit the motion of the trees they support (in the breeze) for too long will actually inhibit root dispersion. Trees will only become as stable as they need to be. Besides all this, lingering cables are just plain unsightly.

The cabled trees in these pictures demonstrate another set of problems that should be corrected by simple and necessary pruning, and comparably necessary adjustment of the automated irrigation. Guy wires should most certainly not be necessary for such mature trees of this species, and will interfere with necessary root dispersion without remedying the primary problems.

Firstly, the trees are too low and dense. Even if stability were not a concern, they should be pruned for a bit more clearance above the patio to the right of the picture, and perhaps allow a bit more sunlight to the plants below, even if only temporarily. More importantly, pruning would temporarily decrease weight and wind resistance of the canopies while roots adapt accordingly.

Secondly, the landscape is getting irrigated too much, even for the ferns in the background. This maintains soil saturation so that stabilizing roots can not disperse into deeper strata. Roots that might have extended deeper earlier will drown and rot. Until this happens, excessive irrigation promotes heavy superfluous growth that the compromised root system can not support.

Automated irrigation should be disabled for winter, and operated only manually and minimally if the weather stays dry long enough for the ferns to get drier than they are comfortable with. It can be adjusted accordingly when reactivated in spring. Even before that happens, and roots disperse, the guy wires can be removed as soon as these trees get pruned as they should be.P91211+

Italian Stone Pine

P90102Even though it can get about fifty feet tall and wide, Italian stone pine, Pinus pinea, often gets planted as a small living Christmas tree into confined urban gardens. It gets so big so fast that it can get to be a serious problem, as well as expensive to remove, before anyone notices. It is really only proportionate to large public spaces such as parks or medians for big boulevards. The bulky trunks typically lean one way or another. The long limbs spread laterally to form an unusually broad and flat-topped canopy.

The paired needles are about four to six inches long. However, small living Christmas trees are still outfitted with juvenile foliage that looks nothing like adult foliage. Juvenile needles are single, very glaucous (bluish) and only about an inch or an inch and a half long. Adult foliage may not develop for a few years. The four or five inch long cones mature slowly for three years. Squirrels and birds like the big seeds, which would otherwise be known as pine-nuts if people could get them first.

(Apologies for this inadequate illustration of Italian stone pines damaged by traffic. It was the only picture of Italian stone pine I could find.)

Christmas Trees – Dead Or Alive

41203thumbChristmas trees are like vegetables. Really, they are like big vegetables that do not get eaten. They are grown on farms, and then harvested and sent off to consumers. Although they smell like a forest, and they are descendents of trees that naturally grow in the wild somewhere, there is nothing natural about their cultivation. In fact, most are grown a very long way from where their kind are from. Therefore, bringing a cut Christmas tree into the home takes nothing from the wild, and does not interfere with nature any more than eating vegetables does.

Firs, particularly Douglas fir, are the most popular of Christmas trees. Pines are probably the second most popular. Redwoods, spruces, cedars, cypresses or even Junipers can also work. They each have their own distinct color, texture and aroma. Healthy and well hydrated trees that continue to get watered as needed should have no problem lasting through Christmas. Ultimately though, cut Christmas trees are not good for much after Christmas, and eventually get composted or otherwise disposed of.

Living Christmas trees might seem like a better option to cut Christmas trees because they dispel any unfounded guilt associated with cut Christmas trees, and initially seem to be less disposable. The problem is that they have problems of their own. Simply purchasing one is a big expense. Even the big ones are smaller than cut trees, but much heavier and unwieldy. Contrary to popular belief, only a few types that grow slowly, such as some spruce, can actually live in a tub for more than one or two years, and even they can be finicky.

The main problem is where to plant a living Christmas tree when it outgrows its container. Conifers innately do not like to be confined for too long. Yet, in the ground, most grow into substantial trees. The common little Christmas trees that are already decorated are actually the worst since they are juvenile Italian stone pines or Canary Island pines, which grow big and fast. Potted trees can not be planted out in the wild because their confined roots need to be watered until new roots can disperse. Even if they could survive, non-native trees should not go into natural ecosystems.

Deciduous Evergreens

P91201Well, that is certainly a contradiction of terms. One might say it is an oxymoron. Decades ago, it really was how we classified what we now know more simply as ‘deciduous conifers’. There are not many of them. Ginkgo is a gymnosperm like conifers are, but is not really a conifer. Otherwise, there are only five other types of deciduous conifers, which defoliate through winter.

Laryx is a genus of about a dozen species that are known collectively as larch. Taxodium includes two species known as bald cypress, as well as a third evergreen species. Pseudolaryx amabilis, known as golden larch, Glyptostrobus pensilis, known as Chinese swamp cypress, and Metasequoia glyptostroboides, known as dawn redwood, are all three monospecific genera.

Some species of larch are common within their respective natural ranges. So are the bald cypresses. The others are quite rare. However, dawn redwood became a fad decades ago, so is not so rare in landscape situations. To those of us who expect all conifers to be evergreen, deciduous conifers seem to die suddenly in autumn. To some, it is not exactly a desirable characteristic.

The dawn redwood above lives in our landscapes. The tall evergreen trees behind it are native coastal redwood. Obscured by the yellowing birch to the right, a small giant redwood (another oxymoron) represents the third and only other species of redwood. The fall color of this dawn redwood appeals to some, but to others, it looks like one of the native redwoods abruptly died.

Our bald cypress below does not look so much like a dead redwood. The foliar texture and branch structure are quite distinct. The cinnamon brown fall color is actually rather appealing.

Of course, these pictures are nearly two weeks old. By now, both trees are likely bare because of the rain.P91201+

Street-Smart Gingko

P91124Much of my work involves street trees. They need more of my kind of attention than most other trees. They must conform to more restrictive limitations. They endure more abuse. They are the most prominent trees on urban properties. Because some are assets of their respective municipalities, they are more stringently protected by local ordinances than other trees are.

I planted quite a few street trees too. While selecting trees for the medians of San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles, we considered the clearance of the lowest limbs above the highest truck traffic, the docility of roots under curbs and pavement, the potential for foliar debris, the resiliency to neglect, and the resistance to pathogens. Those were just some of the major concerns.

We sort of wanted them to look good too.

Ginkgoes, at least modern (fruitless) cultivars, work well as street trees. They are tall and slender, and can be pruned for clearance above streets and sidewalks. Their roots are reasonably complaisant, and take many years to displace concrete. ginkgoes defoliate neatly in autumn, with no debris for the rest of the year. They are resistant to pathogens and tolerant of neglect.

They also look great in their monochromatic but brilliant yellow fall color. (Try to not notice all those utility cables.)

This pair of ginkgoes is in front of an old home in town that was formerly the office of the Los Gatos Weekly Times, before it expanded into the larger Silicon Valley Community Newspapers group. Two decades and one year ago, this was where I dropped off the first of my weekly gardening columns, first as hard copy on paper, then on floppy discs. The trees were smaller then.

One day back in about 1999 or so, I stopped by on my way back from delivering rhododendrons and other horticultural commodities from the farm. I was driving the big delivery box truck. I realized how important adequate clearance is when the truck tore a significant limb from the tree on the left. The tree and I both can attest to the resiliency of the species to such abuse.P91124+

Six on Saturday: Stumped


Stumps are mostly left to rot after a tree gets cut down in our unrefined landscapes. Only those that are in the way get ground out. Some that remain probably would have been ground out if they were accessible to a stump grinder, because they are so unbecoming. Burning them out in winter is impractical for those that are close to buildings, and is no longer socially acceptable.

1. This one was nearly four feet high and nearly five feet wide! No one knows why it was not cut lower to grade. It was an unappealingly prominent feature of its landscape for several years.P91123

2. Mushrooms around the base indicated that it was quite rotten. A lack of stubble or stumps from secondary growth indicated that the tree was likely dead before it was cut down years ago.P91123+

3. It was rotten enough to be inhabited by rodents. It looked like a duplex. Alternatively, the holes could have been excavated by skunks pursuing grubs. They did not seem to be very deep.P91123++

4. As big as it was, the stump was not quite big enough to become a hot tub as the rotten guts were removed. Besides, it was already an unsightly focal point without steam coming out of it.P91123+++

5. What remains is a low pile of pulverized rotten wood with leaves from nearby dogwoods and a sweetgum tossed about on top to make it look less like a low pile of pulverized rotten wood.P91123++++

6. There was a slice part way into the stump near grade, as if someone tried to cut it properly when the tree was cut down. This old bent horseshoe was found about where the slice stopped.P91123+++++

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:


California Sycamore

41119Out in rural chaparral regions, where water is scarce, the big and bold California sycamore, Platanus racemosa, somehow seems to find the spots where groundwater is not too far below the surface of the soil. It is technically a riparian tree, that is just as comfortable competing with cottonwoods and willows along forested rivers and floodplains. It eventually get too big and messy for refined urban gardens, but is somewhat popular nonetheless.

The bulky trunks and limbs are just too striking to ignore, especially as trees defoliate to expose the mottled beige and gray bark. Trunks are typically leaning and irregularly sculptural. Many trees have multiple trunks. The biggest trees are a hundred feet tall. The big palmately lobed leaves can be eight inches wide, but unfortunately do not color well in autumn. The foliar tomentum (fuzz) can be irritating to the skin when leaves need to be raked. Athracnose causes much of the early spring foliage to fall, and sometimes distorts and discolors later summer foliage.

Arborists Specialize In Tree Horticulture


Why is it so difficult to believe that there are so many different kinds of horticultural professionals? No one is ever surprised that surgeons, cardiologists, dermatologists, ophthalmologists and pulmonologists are all physicians. Yet, those who do not know better consider all horticultural professionals to be ‘gardeners’. This is actually more insulting to real professionals than outsiders can imagine, because the gardening industry is more dominated by non-professionals than any other horticultural industry.

Nurserymen, landscapers and florists are also horticultural professionals. Each of these basic categories can be divided into more specialized professions. For example, production nurserymen grow nursery stock or other horticultural commodities, while retail nurserymen maintain plant material only long enough to sell it. Maintenance gardeners are probably the most familiar of horticultural professionals because so many of us use their services around our home gardens.

Arborists are the horticulturists who specialize in trees, and really should be more familiar than they are. The only landscapes that have no possible use for their services are those that are devoid of trees. Even the most proficient of maintenance gardeners should not be expected to maintain large trees or diagnose potential arboricultural problems, not only because arboriculture is so specialized, but also because maintenance gardeners have their own specialties to be concerned with.

Because trees are the most substantial features of a landscape, and they have the potential to cause proportionate problems if not maintained properly, it is very important to have them maintained by qualified arborists. Those who are certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, or ISA, have passed an exam of their expertise, and maintain their certification with regular involvement with the ISA. Such involvement includes attendance to arboricultural seminars and classes.

It is ironic that some of the least familiar of horticultural professionals need to stay so dedicated to the maintenance of their credentials. Certified arborists can be found at the website of the ISA at isa-arbor.com.

European White Birch

91127Like a flower girl scatters rose petals ahead of a wedding procession, European white birch, Betula pendula, tosses its small deltoid leaves soon after turning soft yellow with autumn chill. Color may not last long on the trees, but becomes a delightful mess for those who appreciate such assets. The primary allure though, is the slender strikingly white trunks, accented with black furrowing.

European white birch is very informal, but also elegant enough for formal landscapes. To best display their gently leaning white trunks, they are popularly planted in relaxed groups. Their canopies are neither broad nor dense, so a few fit together nicely. As lower branches get pruned away, pendulous upper branches sway softly in the breeze. Mature trees are mostly less than fifty feet tall.

Himalayan birch, Betula utilis or Betula jacquemontii, which has become more popular than European white birch since the 1990s, has a completely different personality. Its strictly vertical trunks and upright growth are appealing separately, but incompatible with European white birch. When adding trees to an established grove of any birch, it is very important to procure more of the same.

Keep Vegetation Clear From Chimneys

51028thumbFireplaces simply are not what they used to be. Building regulations in many municipalities do not allow for the construction of new fireplaces, except only for pellet stoves. Fireplaces that get damaged by earthquakes are commonly removed instead of repaired. Now that urban sprawl has replaced so many of the rural areas and defunct orchards, firewood is more expensive, even if purchased from a tree service. When a tree needs to be cut down, no one seems to have the time to cut and split the wood.

Modern heating systems are so much more reliable, efficient and just plain easy. Their fuel can actually be less expensive than firewood, and is not nearly as polluting. There is no smoke to offend the neighbors. There are no potentially dangerous sparks. There is no dirty chimney that needs to be cleaned. There is no need for firewood occupying space in the garden. Yet, with all the advantages of other heating systems, many of who still have fireplaces like to use them now that the weather is getting cool.

Because so much heat and a few sparks go out through the chimney, it is extremely important to keep trees and vines away from the top of the chimney. Cypress, pines, cedars, large junipers, eucalypti and fan palms that are not groomed of their dried old leaves are very combustible. Vines like wisteria, bougainvillea, creeping fig and Boston ivy are not unusually combustible, but have a sneaky way of overwhelming chimneys and accumulating debris (and sometimes rat or bird nests!). Any vegetation will be combustible if it gets hot enough. Sparks from burning foliage above can easily ignite old fashioned cedar shingles.

Trees should also be pruned away from roofs, gutters, fences and anything else that can be damaged by the abrasive motion of the stems and foliage in the wind. Stems of deciduous trees lose weight as they defoliate, and may even lift off of roofs that they had been leaning onto just a few weeks ago, but should be pruned accordingly anyway. Branches that have been leaning on a roof for quite a while may have accumulated a bit more debris than would be expected. Gutters and downspouts should be cleared of debris before the rain starts, and may need to be cleared again later where deciduous trees fill them up through autumn and winter.