Sunday, July 8, 2012

I Am My Garden's Biggest Pest, Apparently

Almost ten years ago my wife and I started looking for our first home.  It was a frustrating experience because it occurred right in the beginning of the housing boom in California.  Home prices were increasing on a weekly basis and even though we were offering more than the asking price we were getting outbid.  Our poor agent (who deserves nomination for sainthood) wrote something like 25 offers on houses for us.  At the time she said it was the most she’d ever had to write for a client. 

Depressed by our lack of success, we started grumbling about giving up and finding an apartment to rent.  But before we got carried away with our Plan B we decided to spend one more weekend checking out open houses.  And that is when we discovered our house.  I was immediately enchanted.  Although I was not yet a gardener, I had grown up under the shadows of trees.  And this house had trees. 

Well, it had six trees anyway.  In the front was a giant fruitless mulberry tree which cast a luxurious canopy of shade on the front of the house.

As I walked up to the front door that first time I remember the feeling of comfort that shade provided.  It felt almost like I had wandered into a forest.  In the back yard there were 3 aspen trees (or were they birch trees? I had no idea), some kind of palm tree, and a white peach tree.  I hated the palm immediately and never changed my opinion.  

This is what the corner garden looked like when we moved in.  
I loved the others.  It felt like home so we made an overly generous offer and, miracle of miracles, it was accepted.

A decade later there are now about 30 trees on my property.  The Aspen/Birch trees didn’t make it.  They were planted in the lawn and the grass grew right up to the trunks.  I don’t think the roots ever had a chance to get established so that first winter the trees bent to 45 degree angles after a few rain storms and some wind.  I tried propping them up and staking them but it was clear that they were the wrong trees in the wrong spaces.  The hated palm tree eventually started rotting.  I imagine it knew I didn’t care for it and decided to make it easy on me.  I spent a weekend cutting it down and digging out its roots.  There was never any manual labor I enjoyed more.    

Of the original 6 trees, only the Mulberry and Peach tree remain.  But I’m seriously considering changing that.  I will miss the size of the Mulberry tree but you know what I won’t miss?  I won’t miss the leaves clogging the gutters.  I won’t miss the roots coming to the surface and ruining everything in its wake.  I won’t miss how the roots occasionally crush the PVP sprinkler pipes.  And I won’t miss the annual bill for having the branches trimmed back.  Left to its own devices, the branches quickly grow to the point of touching our roof and extending over the neighbor’s yard.  The other day I watched from the window as the garbage truck lifted our can to dump it in only to have the can whack a bunch of gangly branches on the way up.  It’s only a matter of time before the county sends me a form letter saying they won’t pick up our trash unless we do something about that tree.  I will feel bad about seeing the tree go, but I think a smaller tree will eventually provide the kind of shade I first fell in love with without the unruly roots and annual costs associated with maintenance. 

As bad as I feel about the Mulberry, I feel terrible about the peach tree.  It’s not a tree I would choose to get rid of and the fact that I’m now faced with that possibility is an indictment on my early days as a homeowner.  The peach tree originally was a multi-stemmed specimen.  Someone once told me that trees only have one trunk.  So, I guess the correct way to say this is that there was one trunk but three main stems.

Here is the peach tree from "back in the day."  

Initially the tree gave us buckets and buckets of peaches.  For years I would spend a few minutes each August night picking up the fallen peaches before the ants and rodents could get to them.  It wasn’t uncommon to fill up an entire 5-gallon Homer Bucket.  There was so much fruit and I was so thrilled.  I never once considered that there could be too much fruit. 

Not this kind of Homer Bucket

This kind of Homer bucket!

Until it was too late.  The first stem cracked under the weight of its own bounty about five years ago. The crack was probably seven feet long and several inches deep.  At first I thought it would heal on its own but the leaves quickly browned and it was clear that the stem/trunk would need emergency surgery.  So I cut it off at the base.  Sometime later a similar fate happened to the second stem.  Now the tree looks like a traditional tree with just one trunk.  I have spent a lot of time trimming out dead branches trying to improve air circulation and feeding it compost.  It’s the least I can do, right?  I would also be very careful about removing some of the fruit to keep the weight down if only there were fruits to remove.  I harvested a grand total of zero peaches last year.  I figured it was due to the really bad case of peach leaf curl that all of Northern California succumbed to last year.  But here it is late June of the next year and it doesn’t look like there will be anything to harvest this year either.  

Last night I spent some time inspecting the tree to see if there was any hidden fruit.  I couldn’t find any but I did find some hidden problems.  Most notably, I found a couple holes which appear to have been made by insects.  Termites?  Carpenter ants?  I really don’t have a clue but I can’t imagine that this is a good sign.

And then I found this huge fungus growing at the base of the tree where the other stems had been cut off.  Clearly, there is rotting wood here providing this fungus with a steady diet.

I thought about calling in an arborist but then I thought it might be pointless.  The tree seems beyond hope now and that makes me want to kick rocks sullenly.  Ten years after moving into this house and I’ve gotten to the point where I’m about to either kill or remove all the trees I inherited.  That seems wrong to me.

What feels right to me, however, is the thought of picking new trees to take the place of those trees that will soon provide us with the fuel for S’mores. 


  1. great post very interesting background story....thansk

  2. Chad, I don't think you need to feel too bad; after all, you've increased the number of trees on your property by a factor of five. I know very little about fruit trees, but it might be useful to remember that trees have a natural lifespan, and some of them only live for decades, rather than centuries. When I moved into my house (which is at the edge of a woodland in the most heavily forested state in the nation), there were a lot of paper birches, which I loved. And then, about 8-10 years after I bought the place, the birch trunks started snapping off and crashing to the ground (fortunately, mostly out in the woods, away from the house) whenever there was a strong wind. It turned out that all these trees had seeded themselves at about the same time (probably when the land stopped being grazed or maintained by haying) and they were all reaching the end of their natural lifespan. I still have one birch tree left at a corner of the blue and yellow border, but I can see that its days are numbered; each year, it has more dead branches, and it keeps dropping these into the flower beds. The question is whether I'll have someone come in and cut it down before it becomes some kind of emergency. -Jean

    1. Jean, thank you for your words of wisdom. I tend to forget that plans are living organisms too and that like everything (other than jellyfish apparently) they will die someday too.

  3. At least there's S'mores! Actually, looking at your peach tree, I think it's time for it to go. There are many other varieties to choose from, some of which are Peach Leaf Curl resistant, like Q-18, Indian Free, or Frost. Or maybe not a peach as its successor. I remember Blenheim apricots doing fantastically well in the Central Valley, and they're every bit as versatile as peaches. Even our young tree at 3 years was producing enough fruit to keep us busy. By 5 years we were drowning in fruit! No PLC either, and I love apricots because the pits just fall out when you slice them. Sadly, I can't grow them here. They resent all this wretched summer fog. The truth is, even though we like to think so, even trees aren't permanent. Besides, trees should give you joy, not headache and frustration. I say break out the marshmallows, grab some chocolate, and be happy while shopping for new trees that might be even better suited to the space.

    1. This is why I love blogging! Your counsel is very much appreciated and I hadn't even thought of replacing it with apricots for some reason but that's a great idea.

      I can practically smell the peach wood burning already.

  4. I second the other commenters here, you have nothing to be ashamed of, Chad. When we built our home in 1978 (gasp!) there were no trees on the acre. Then we planted 450 of them and as they grew we realized gosh, well, that was a tad too many. Out came the chainsaw. Every year we prune, saw down or yank out a tree or five. In fact, two trees bit the dust last night and are waiting to be S'mores fodder this coming weekend.

    I am a great admirer of Adrian Bloom of Bressingham Gardens whose own 'Foggy Bottom' garden is a tree lover's paradise. In his excellent books he has often admitted to mistakes he'd made in tree selection and placement and states the chainsaw is in use in his garden every year, too. When I felt bad about sawing down two very large spruce trees which were eating our house, it was his book that comforted me. Loosely quoted, Mr. Bloom said that when a tree has outlived it's purpose or outgrown the space, we gardeners should look upon the removal as an opportunity for change and renewal in our gardens.

    I can't wait to see what you plant for a replacement!

    1. Thanks Karen. It is really encouraging to me that so many others have had to turn to the chainsaw. It's strange to feel guilty and excited at the same time but that's where I'm at.

      The thing is, I've gotten used to killing plants and I have enjoyed change and renewal that occurs as a result as Bloom suggested. But I will (literally) be breaking new ground with this approach when I apply the same approach to my peach tree.

  5. Throwing in with the rest of your readers, I think you need to go easy on yourself. Stone fruit trees can be finicky, I hear, and trees die. To make yourself feel better, here is your plan: read 'The Soul of a Tree' by George Nakashima. Suitably inspired, you will then hire an arborist or forestry service with the ability to mill lumber out of your Mulberry tree (use the Google image machine to look up 'mulberry slab.' This is wood with interesting grain and figure.) Having the trunk/crotch portions of the Mulberry milled into slabs about 1 1/2" thick, you will then choose the best one and make a table or a bench. Sand it to 220 grit and then finish with hand-rubbed tung oil or a wipe-on poly. If you are not confident in your fine Japanese joinery skills, order a set of hairpin legs from and just screw them on. Trust me, it will look awesome. Then you will have a fine piece of handcrafted furniture for your family to enjoy for generations, and your tree will have its second life. THEN: take the second best piece and ship it to me UPS because I gave you this great idea, I'll pay the shipping. THEN: sell the rest of the slabs on ebay to dolts like me who overpay for crotch slabs with interesting grain and figure and then make stuff like this. THEN: remove your dying peach tree and replace it with a new tree of your choice, or a tiny orchard of fruit trees on minidwarf rootstock. Make pie, because pie is good and all fruit aspires to be pie.
    P.S. I really wish I could meet and talk to a person who would want to look out their window and see roses, a palm tree, and aspen/birches all together. Whoever came up with that planting scheme is a true iconoclast. To say the least.

    1. Calvin, you've got me intrigued. I searched the internet and found an arborist that says they can mill trees to specifications so I called to set up an appointment for an estimate. When I asked the lady in the office about milling she said they can only cut it "like firewood". I plan to ask the guy that comes out tomorrow though since their web site talks about milling wood into fences, gazebos, and even play structures.

      Also, I literally laughed out loud when I read your "P.S.". I had to show my wife and she laughed too. I don't mean to be too snarky, but the previous homeowner had a similar design approach with the interior of the home as well . . .

  6. Chad, I am excited for you. I hope you can find someone who can mill the Mulberry into usable lumber--I think building anything with it that is useful is a great memorial to a favorite tree. Up here, salvaged wood and the furniture made from it is BIG business: look up,, or my teachers/mentors, If you do an ebay search for 'crotch slab,' you will also find that merely milling wood and selling it is a lucrative hobby. There is a specific woodworking term for milling timber this way, I can't think of it now but will look it up when I get home so you will know what to ask for if slabs are what you want, and pictures might help, too. I kid, of course, about sending me a slab (but would take one if offered, no pressure). I never, ever kid about pie, however.

    I am picturing the interior decor of the former gardener, and my mental image includes big-eyed children and crying clown art, and cats.

    Do acquire a copy of 'The Soul of a Tree,' or see if they have it at the library. George Nakashima is one of my heroes--you'll never see Coast Redwood or a 2x4 the same way again. Sorry for hijacking your blog!

    1. Calvin, after just having met with an arborist, it doesn't look like I will be able to afford getting the wood from my mulberry tree milled. I asked him about it and he said they used to offer that service before the economy turned sour but now they find that the work involved is not worth the money to most of their clients so they don't offer those services anymore. I suppose I could keep checking around but it doesn't seem to be part of the normal service offerings - at least not one that gets listed on company web sites.

      I think I will still try to get that book though (it appears to be a collector's item based on the hardback's price on Amazon) because it sounds like an interesting read. Part wood-working and part philosophy!

  7. The sawing term is 'milling across the crotch,' which configures the lumber into those cool "Y" shapes instead of surfboardy ends. Best, Calvin