How to Water Trees During a Drought

This is a practical follow-up to my scree last week on trees dying because no one is watering them. Thing is, we should be watering them, even if we’re really worried about the drought, even if we’re doing everything we can to save water. We need to invest in trees because they save more water than they use. They are our allies in this drought, and they are dying.

Now, I thought I was going to have to write up all this tree-watering stuff from scratch, but our friend Richard Hayden, the head gardener of the amazing Nature Gardens at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, sent me a note with links to these videos produced by the Forest Service. I like these videos because they’re concise, and the info is solid.

Thank you, Richard!
Thank you, Forest Service!

The video at the top of the post is on watering mature trees, the one at the bottom about watering young trees–the two techniques are a bit different.

Also, you can find more learning resources at Tree People.

What are trees worth?

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Trees and people, happy together. The Mall and Literary Walk, Central Park, NYC. Photo by Ahodges7.

Trees are dying all over Los Angeles, because of the drought. No one seems to think they need to be watered.

Trees which are not simply dying of thirst are being ripped out and replaced with “water saving landscapes” of succulents, cactus and gravel.

Both of these trends are disturbing, and are the result of ignorance more than bad intent. Our culture as a whole is green blind if not outright biophobic. I’ve come to understand that most people don’t even really see plants, except as a vague green background to their busy lives, and even fewer people understand plants and the value they bring to our lives and the world at large.

I’ve been traveling a lot this summer, taking refuge in green places which restore the soul. Returning to LA has been hard, because all of the plant life here is so very stressed. When I’m outside, it’s almost as if I can hear a constant, low-level cry of misery from the land, and that pain resonates in me, creating a deep sense of helplessness and sorrow. My strategy for dealing with this for the past couple of weeks has been to hide indoors and bury myself in books–to just shut down.

But I seem to have run into the limits of self-pity, and now I’m trying to figure out what I can do to help the situation. This post is a small gesture in that direction. I’m beginning with trees, because they are the lynchpin of the loving landscape.

In defense of trees

Shrubs and annuals come and go. Trees are long term residents of the landscape, surveyors of our lives. Above and below ground they knit together communities on many levels. They deserve special attention. They deserve to be valued and cherished for what they are, more than simply what they do for us. That said, they do a whole heck of a lot for us:

  • In mercenary, real estate terms, trees create street appeal and bump up property values by thousands of dollars. This, though, is the least part of their true value.
  • Trees cast shade, which cools the ground, which cools the environment at large, countering the urban heat island effect. They also cool the air by passing water through their leaves. A healthy urban forest makes for a much more liveable city for us all.  (The city of Melbourne understands this.) And trees clustered around your own house make your home cooler in the summer, reducing your energy bills. Low lying cactus and succulent plants do little or nothing nothing to cool the city, while gravel, concrete and artificial turf make your yard a blistering heat trap.
  • Trees help the land absorb rain, increasing ground water levels and preventing destructive run off and storm flooding. (See this and this.) A single tree can absorb thousands of gallons of rain water as it falls, like a giant sponge. What will happen to the dry slopes of California this winter, when the winter rains come, and our trees are gone, from stress and fire? Mudslides my friends, and lots of them. I’m already dreading it. But this isn’t just a California problem. Crazy weather is the norm the world over now, and trees are one of our best buffers against the worst of it.
  •  Trees don’t only hold water in the ground,  they share it with other plants. Having a big tree in your yard is like having a pump and well which you don’t have to maintain.
  • Trees make for clean water. By absorbing all that storm water, they pull the filth from our streets into the soil, and the soil cleans it, pro bono. (This is one of the many benefits of healthy soil, another important player in environmental health.) If that storm water runs unchecked, it just dumps all of the oil and fertilizer and insecticides and poo straight into the nearest waterway.
  • Trees absorb and store carbon, directly mitigating climate change–and they indirectly mitigate the change as well, by helping to temper the effects of storm water, high winds, high heat, etc.
  • Trees create food and habitat for birds, insects and mammals. We humans don’t like to share resources with the rest of creation, but trees support life of all sorts, with no trouble to us. Or maybe not, if squirrels are stripping your fruit trees clean! So we might have a vested interest in fruit trees–but all trees are beneficial to other life, above and below ground. Think of each tree as a city, teaming with life which is mostly invisible to us, but vitally important to the world.
  •  Trees heal the soul. They give us shelter from the sun and the rain. They give us a place to read and dream.  A place to hide and climb. An anchor in a shifting landscape of time and movement.  We’ve known since the 1980’s that they even speed our recovery when we’re sick.

These points just scratch the surface of what trees do for us. For more, see Tree People’s Top 22 Benefits of Trees.

Trees don’t ask much of us, but offer so much in return. I feel the least we can do is treat them well. They are valuable, long lived, complex entities. It is worth calling a professional arborist to give them a proper pruning, or to consult if they look stressed. Yes, this costs money, but removing a mature tree once it has died from neglect, disease or bad pruning is a much more expensive proposition.

If you live in a drought-stricken area, water your trees--even if you’ve never watered them before. They don’t have the resources they once had, and while they’ve been hanging on like champs for four years, they are beginning to give up. I see it everywhere.

Watering trees in a drought is a long-term investment. It is even reasonable to plant a new tree, as you would light a candle in the darkness. Don’t water anything else in your yard, if you must, but save your trees.

Minimalist Shoes, 1915

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In light of Erik’s continuing struggle with plantar fasciitis, and my own neverending search for shoes which fit my monkey feet, we found this 1915 handbook on military footwear, The Soldier’s Foot and the Military Shoe, by Edward Lyman Munson, a fascinating read.

Seems that way back in 1915 we knew that arch support created weak arches, and that thick soles impaired foot dynamics.

The principle message of this book is that if you want your soldiers to able to march long distances, and arrive at their destination in any shape to fight, you have to give them flexible boots which do not squash the toes or impede the natural movement of the foot. Simple as that.

So why, exactly 100 years later, are we still debating whether the foot needs lots of external support and cushioning? Why are overbuilt athletic shoes and supportive inserts still favored by mainstream opinion?

Minimal footwear enthusiasts may find the language below eerily familiar.

You can read the whole book at the invaluable archive.org.

(o) The shoe should not support the arch of the foot in the sense of lifting it up or buttressing it from below. This fact is opposed to common belief, but the latter is based on lack of knowledge of the anatomy of the foot and misconception as to its function. Rigid support of this region weakens its intrinsic muscles by favoring their non-use, and thus tends to directly cause the condition of flat-footedness which it is attempted to avoid. Barefoot peoples have no such arch support and flat feet are practically unknown among them. . . . In the new shoe, the purpose is to have the leather accurately follow the outlines of the average soldier’s foot arch, but without compressing the sole muscles to such an extent that their function will be interfered with and their development and strengthening be impaired. Every structure of the foot concerned in marching should be left free to function to the best anatomical and mechanical advantage. For this reason, the new shoe has no metal shank as stiffening under the foot arch.

(p) The sole should be sufficiently thick to prevent injury by inequality in the ground. But if too thick, planter flexion of the foot is lost and dorsi flexion much reduced. The foot is thus reduced to the condition of a solid block, hinging at the ankle and simply furnishing a solid support for the leg. Moreover, with thick soles, the leveraging function of the great toe is interfered with…

(p. 51, The Soldier’s Foot)

Bird’s Nest

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I’ve been wishing I would come across an abandoned bird’s nest for a while now. They’re just such marvels, so clever, so sweet–one of my favorite things in nature, and that’s saying a lot. I imagined how I’d display a nest if I had one, how I’d keep it safe from the cats.

Then, the other day I found this one sitting on the coffee table on our back patio.

Just sitting there, right in the middle of the table, as if someone put it there on purpose, all strange and gorgeous. I assumed Erik had found it. And since the table sits under our grape arbor, and a few grape skins were in the nest, I figured the nest had been up in the grape vines, and Erik had discovered it whilst up on the ladder, trying to defend our grapes from sundry critters.

Nope. Erik knew nothing of the nest.

Logic tells me it must have jiggled out of the vines on the arbor — perhaps a rat dislodged it?– and it happened to land face up on the center of the coffee table.

But my heart tells me that it was a present.

I’m particularly fond of this nest because it is made up from pruned materials from our yard. In fact, I think most of it was filched from the greens bin that I let sit on the back patio for far too long this spring.

I see bits of twine from our bean trellis in there, and some grasses which look familiar. That ferny stuff around the perimeter are clippings from this asparagus fern that I’ve been trying to eradicate for fifteen years. (At this point, I admire its persistence so much that I can only bow to it as a respected enemy.) The fern is beautiful in this nest. The soft fluff in the middle may have been sourced from a silk floss tree about a block away.

The grape skins in the nest are interesting. Could be that the birds were eating grapes, but I doubt it. Instead, I imagine a lazy mouse lounging in the nest, sucking on our grapes in luxury and spitting out the skins.

Or the skins may have fallen into the nest once it was already on the coffee table. There is, unfortunately, a rain of grape skins onto our patio every night, as we steadily lose our war with the nocturnal creatures for our grapes. But that is the subject of another post.

Anyone have any guesses about what kind of bird made this nest? The bowl is about 3 inches (7.5 cm) across.

ETA: I’ve been looking at this great page of bird nests–it’s heaven for the bird nest enthusiast. So many types of nests! Wee little eggs! Baby birds! One bird even made its nest in a sweatshirt hanging on a laundry line. (That’ll teach you to bring in your laundry promptly):

http://www.thebirdersreport.com/egg-and-nest-identification

And as of now my uneducated guess is that it is the nest of a house finch.