The Easiest Way to Help a Tree

A tree hacked back so hard, its identity is difficult to ascertain

Tree pruning, admittedly, can be complicated. Usually, if I speak more than two sentences about it to my clients, their eyes glaze over. There’s lots of info about heading cuts and lateral buds and cambium layers, so I want to share the one, most basic way that homeowners can help their trees stay healthy without needing a degree in forestry: don’t leave stumps.

The sawed off tree branch is blunt and round and easily recognizable. It juts out and suddenly ends like an unfinished sentence or song on pause. (A topped tree is the king of stumps.) I see them often, whether driving through my neighborhood or consulting with a client on their property. Many homeowners don’t realize that a tree can actually heal its wounds if you cut a branch in the correct place. There are generally two correct places where a tree can be cut in an effort to preserve its health: at the “branch collar” where the branch meets the larger tree branch or trunk, and the nearest bud. If you cut at the branch collar or bud mark, little hormones kick in and begin the process of creating tissue, tissue that eventually envelopes the cut and covers it. It’s amazing and awesome when it works. The tree’s tissue surrounds its wound, just like healthy human skin creates new cells to consume, shrink, and eliminate a scab. Unfortunately, some homeowners don’t know this and randomly cut branches as if a tree doesn’t care. A tree does care. It has a logic to its growth patterns. It can not speak but it communicates by doing tree things.

Looks like a healthy dogwood, most likely never pruned

Imagine a fresh cut on your hand. Now imagine that instead of allowing dry air to help it scab over, you put the wound under a faucet every few minutes. What would happen? It would swell and inflame, maybe become infected. Maybe turn to mush and rot. This happens with tree branches as well. Rain wets the branch’s cut end, whose vascular system (a feeding system akin to our veins) has now been exposed to moisture, bringing on rot and disease. That rot streams through the plant’s vascular system, traveling through the plant and weakening its health.

When I lay it out like this, it sounds depressing. And yet trees with stubs stand helplessly on lawns and parking strips all the time. They can’t run away from their errant owners. So this spring I urge everyone who owns or cares for a tree to get outside and cut off the tree’s stumps. For easy directions on finding the proper place to cut, click on this sheet from the Arbor Day Foundation. It’s very possible you can transform an unhealthy ugly duckling into a fairly healthy swan again.

By the way, if you’d like an in-person consultation, contact me. If you have a quick question, I’m happy to help via email.

A Remembrance of Cass Turnbull, Seattle Horticulture Icon

cass-pruning-bookCass Turnbull was an imposing figure, and I was a little afraid of her. She spoke in a point-by-point, professorial way, half-tongue-in-cheek, half-seriously, but never aggressively. She seemed comfortable in her own skin and secure in her mission. In fact, she wasn’t interested in apologizing for who she was though she liked jokes and had a heart of gold. She was kind of like the Carrie Fisher of Seattle horticulture.

Cass worked in the Seattle parks department while doing pruning consultation for years, progressively frustrated by the ignorant things she saw homeowners do to their trees and shrubs. Shearing, sawing, and topping their way into a yard of sick and sad plants, committing what she called “Crimes Against Nature.” Seeing a tree or shrub with branches cut bluntly and randomly motivated her to found, arguably, the most famous, horticultural non-profit organization in the Northwest: Plant Amnesty. It was a name she’d chosen because she knew better than to publicly whine about well-meaning homeowners who indiscriminately went at their plants in the name of reducing height or making a plant behave. Cass wanted to reach as many regular, tree-owning folks as possible to change their ways and save plants from suffering. She knew humor would do that more effectively than ranting.

I only knew Cass through my half-year in the Plant Amnesty Master Pruner program. After working a dozen years as a certified horticulturalist and having taken a few years off to raise kids, I wanted to formalize my pruning skills.

In class, Cass would stand beside the slide screen, remote in hand, showing before and after photos of trees that had been hacked at and then later grown hundreds of water sprouts. She’d talk the straight botanical knowledge about selective heading, auxins, and lateral buds, but then she’d also talk about “the Medusa effect,” and “chicken on a stick” and “leaf crud,” creating her own unique language for the common issues known to longtime gardeners and gardening professionals. She liked to slip some kind of lozenge or candy in her mouth every twenty minutes or so, probably dry at having to lecture for two and half hours at a time. That she often opened the floor to hear from gardening professionals on their approaches and experiences made me warm to her as a person.

fullsizeoutput_17cfI don’t really need to list the enormous amount of work she put into educating the public about appropriate pruning practices or her time at Plant Amnesty. Anyone can google the organization, her book, or the many interviews she did on radio and other media. There was no denying her extreme, lifelong dedication. Volunteers who worked with her for years can better speak about her interpersonal style and sense of humor. But what I can share is my memory of how Cass, on the day of the Master Pruner graduation, after leading the audience in a rickety version of Pomp and Circumstance with a knowing smirk as we students stood in goofy graduation caps, beamed a huge, loving smile as she announced each graduate’s name and shook each of our hands, reassuring us that we had nothing to fear from her one-of-a-kind, sharp-minded, and radiant personality.

The Ultimate Year-Round Tree: Stewartia

Stewartia pseudocamelliaSome people buy trees for their cheery blooms or bold fall color or cool, winter bark. Sometimes fragrance. Rarely does a tree have all of these features, but stewartias do. In fact, not only do they have such traits, they also have lovely, tidy forms. Lately, my favorite has been Stewartia pseudocamellia. (Though I also love S. monodelpha in particular.) Stewartia pseudocamellia has a behaved crown, amazing orange and red color in autumn, white, fragrant flowers in June, and groovy, peely bark. The patterns of its branches can be zig-zaggy or a classic V shape.

Stewartias like sun but they don’t really like to bake in it like say, a Lagerstroemia or Albizia. They like a part-shade situation though they can take hot sun in the afternoon if they’re shaded during the morning. When they’re planted in well-draining soil, they grow and are happy. They do get tall, can be up to 25 feet, but they don’t spread wide. Rarely do they catch a disease. Pruning’s only sometimes needed to take out dead, twiggy branches. In summer, new plants need water but not much to produce their sweetly scented, camellia-shaped flowers. All in all, with a little care, you can simply plant a stewartia in decent soil and watch it put on a year-round show.Stewartia pseudocamellia bark

Right now, my stewartia is doing what I love it for best. Darkening into rich magenta and orange color. I cherish this time of year as I get in and out of my car and my baby is there, blessing October. In a few weeks, its leaves will have completely fallen and the delicate branch structure will reveal itself. I have to resist the urge to pull off the strips of grayish, flecky bark. Later, when March rolls around, those slightly corrugated leaves will emerge again and the whole pretty process will begin anew.

Transforming an Old Patio, Totally Worth it

For several years, we were happy enough on our little patio. It wasn’t particularly pretty but not particularly ugly. You know how people say, it’ll do? Well, ours did. For several years. A 10 by 12 foot rectangle with giant concrete tiles and a long, narrow deck. Steps, lots of steps. We spent many warm evenings on the patio, eating and laughing and barbecuing. But we also spent a lot of time dealing with its drawbacks.

Our okay but not-ideal patio

Our okay but not-ideal patio

And it had several. The deck, attached to two house walls, was too narrow to sit on but wide enough to take up considerable space. The area beneath it was adjacent to the crawl space where the dryer wrongly vented. This made the steps rot every other year, which demanded replacement, until we discovered the ventilation problem and fixed it. Also, though metal netting had been installed in all openings, rats burrowed under to get into the crawl space. And that was just the beginning.

The patio floor was made of concrete tiles that were probably poured onsite in a mold made of a brick border and wooden two-by-fours. These two-by-four beams had sunk into the earth as the years passed so that anyone sitting at the table often got stuck in the groove between the concrete. It made for lots of scooting and awkwardness, especially when grandmas were visiting. In addition the beams were sinking and rotting so much that I had to rip them out and fill in the crevices with dirt and lava rock. That gave moles the opportunity to tunnel through the patio and leave their signature dirt hills all over the seating area. Ugh.

The bigger problem was since the deck faced north and east with no western wind, the area was always soaked in winter. It never dried out. Air got trapped under all of the decking, along with leaves and dirt. Moss grew everywhere. I pressure washed every summer but by January that white deck was black with dirt and green with moss again.

The old, rotten deck

The old, rotten deck

Meanwhile, we had lived with a leaky shower for at least a year. We thought we’d need to devote our budget to that. But we couldn’t deny how much we used the patio. Financial expert Suzie Orman recommends spending money on the things you use the most, even if they’re not glamorous. The shower was not glamorous to us. At first, we thought “maybe we can do both!” This was very wrong. Only so much money in the bank account. So we made the hard decision of telling our shower we loved eating outside more than washing and work began.

To save money, we did the demo ourselves. And like many household projects, problems arose and multiplied. When my husband and I ripped off the deck, we discovered just how rotted all of the boards were. We also uncovered cement steps by the dining room door. We learned the cement tiles we thought were two inches thick were four to five inches thick. They weighed at least two hundred pounds each.

With the deck off, a surprise of concrete steps revealed itself.

With the deck off, a surprise of concrete steps revealed itself.

One sledgehammer, a handtruck, a rented jackhammer, and a handful of weekends later, the whole mess was out. We, or really my husband, jackhammered the cement steps and with the kids, we busted up the concrete and hauled it to our holding area in the driveway. But what we found behind the cement steps made the project really fun. An utterly rotted wall beneath the dining room doors. Thankfully our mason knew a good contractor who could help soon. After doing a close inspection, the contractor guessed that one two-by-four was holding up the entire wall.

Every project has its gifts. I told myself this as we estimated how much more money and time it would take to rebuild the wall. But we had no choice there, so rebuild we did. It hurt financially, but I’m glad we did it. We took advantage of the contractor’s presence and removed the extra set of doors, eliminating the need for a second set of steps and giving us more room. Our contractor not only rebuilt the wall but installed special sheeting and flashing and all kinds of contractor magic to button up the dining room wall as well as the area by the crawl space. No more rats. No more openings. The rain gracefully washed down and away from the house.

The deteriorated wall that complicated things.

The deteriorated wall that complicated things.

Later, when the mason came, I emphasized the tight seam I wanted around the bluestone tiles we were installing. I wanted no space for moles to burrow. It seems they love the smell of barbecued meat! And since we were reusing brick from an old pathway, we decided to splurge a bit and increase the patio size. We’d have room to put in what the kids had always wanted: a fire pit.

Now, I thank goodness we started this mountain of a project. If we hadn’t, we would have never known the wall was rotting. The higher house walls could have bowed to the point of a more involved, expensive repair. Instead, I have sturdy, sealed walls and a new eating area. What was a headache is now happiness. Transforming an outdoor space is one of those sweet indulgences we often can’t treat ourselves to because we can’t spend the money. And we didn’t, for years. But if you have the money, I encourage you to think seriously about getting the patio or deck you want. There are few more glorious places than Seattle in summer and you will want to enjoy every dry moment outside. Plus, showering with a bulky, temporary valve that stops leaking isn’t so bad…

The after photo

The after photo

Why You Needn’t Plant Bamboo, Ever Ever Ever

Party at the top, business on the bottom

Party at the top, business on the bottom

People often use bamboo to screen out their neighbor’s yard or an ugly building across the street or those lovely, brightly colored recycled bins of Seattle. This is a mistake. Let me repeat: this is a mistake. It is not a mistake to plant bamboo because you’re a bamboo lover and study different bamboos and can think of no other plant you’d rather wake up and see every day. In that case, I say, “Go for it,” because you well know what you’re getting into. But for the more common homeowner who knows little about gardening and just bought a property in which they’re trying to create privacy, I say bamboo is NOT the way to go.

You may be thinking, “Yes, well, that’s because bamboo runs.” And yes, bamboo does run, like crazy. It’s a grass. It will get into the cracks of your sidewalk, it will grow into your lawn, and most annoying of all, it will jump beneath your fence line into your neighbor’s yard. This will make your neighbor quietly sad and/or loudly frustrated. I have seen it happen many, many times. At clients’ houses and at my own. My neighbor, who is a nice enough person, has bamboo alongside her house and our fence line. Every year, without fail, and despite the bamboo barrier I had installed years ago, it comes across where the barrier ends. Give it a teeny bit of light and water, and boom, those goofy, pointy stalks are shooting into pretty perennials.

Does this look like a gardener's dream come true?

Does this look like a gardener’s dream come true?

Here’s another mild horror story. A client of mine, a fine, upstanding guy, must get out his sawzall every year and cut out the stiff, curling starts of timber bamboo that come through his soil from his neighbor’s yard. With not even ten feet between the two houses, there is a huge stand of timber bamboo. It’s super tall. The trunks look like solid stone. It reminds me of the enormous, forest trees they had sword fights in in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The monstrosity tops both my client and his neighbor’s houses, blocks out all sun, and does little for privacy. And did I mention it sheds like an overheated dog in August?

Which brings me to my main point. Bamboo is not a good plant to use for screens, not because it grows in an out-of-control, eerie, sci-fi movie sort of way, but because of these other reasons:

  1. It’s a monoculture.

    Anytime you put multiple amounts of one plant in one place, it sucks the nutrients out of the soil, creates a huge network of roots, and leaves little biodiversity for wildlife. There are no berries breaking up the bamboo, no shrubs for nesting, etc.

  2. It sheds leaves constantly.

    I mean constantly. During springtime the least, but all-year-round it’s letting go of its older leaves and dropping the skinny, papery things everywhere, in your neighbor’s yard or yours, covering the ground with a light litter that requires constant raking. If you don’t rake, guess what, slugs and other critters, like even rats, will use that litter for joyful cover.

  3. It won’t screen in years to come.

    As it loses those papery leaves, the lower part of the stems turn bare. And here, the whole reason you planted bamboo becomes void. Instead of a thick, fluffy screen of greenery, you have a thousand, twiggy, bare stalks to stare at. And through which, your neighbor can stare at you.

  4. It is ridiculously expensive.

    Enough said.

I know I’ve got a bit of an attitude for this post. But it’s a practice I see a lot and it rarely works out. You may say, “But we planted bamboo years ago and we love it.” As I said, if you know what your getting into, you can ignore this post.

Other folks may say, “Not all bamboo runs, you know. We planted black bamboo and it worked out great.” I know black bamboo and other varieties do not run, I used to have a clump of black bamboo that I inherited in a yard at a house I used to own. The same applies. It was a giant clump of monoculture I couldn’t pair any plants well with (in terms of design), it shed constantly, and it only screened the top of my neighbor’s house, not her windows.

If the side of your house sits close to your fence line in the city, I urge you to substitute another plant that can actually add privacy while offering interest: blooms, peeling bark, nuts for birds, fragrance. Oftentimes, people install Arborvitae trees, those cone-like conifers that are highly boring and yet highly puffy and evergreen. I have in mind even better substitutions that I’ll talk about in a future post. Until then, listen to those you know with regrets and headaches about bamboo and please resist the urge to put any in your garden! Thank you for listening, that is all.