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.

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Gardening Wisdom

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Photo of Ian Hamliton Finlay at Little Sparta by Murdo Macleod.

Recent developments in our front yard landscape that will go unmentioned led to an evening of reviewing the works of my favorite poet, gardener and artist, the late Ian Hamilton Finlay. I thought I’d intersperse excerpts from his prose poem Unconnected Sentences on Gardening with a few of my disjointed reactions,

A garden is not an object but a process.

I need this sentence tattooed on my forearm as I tend to want the garden to be “finished”. A garden is never finished, never complete, never the same. A garden is like the ever unfolding novelty of the divine logos; it’s never static; it’s always in motion. As Heraclitis says, “You cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are continually flowing in.”

Installing is the hard toil of garden making, placing is its pleasure.

I think I’ve spent too much time in the installing and not enough time contemplating the placing. In so doing gardening has become more of a chore than a pleasure.

Superior gardens are composed of Glooms and Solitudes and not of plants and trees.

I take this to mean that a garden should express moods and ideas and not be just a collection of plants or a collection of objects set amidst plants. Finlay’s garden is a poem. While it has a lot of sculpture in it, it’s not what you would call a “sculpture garden” which Finlay speaks despairingly of as little more than an “outdoor art gallery.”

A liberal’s compost heap is his castle.

Garden centres must become the Jacobin Clubs of the new Revolution.

Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.

Finlay’s garden became a literal battle ground for his disputes with the Scottish Arts Council and with local town council bureaucrats. At various times his art was seized by the police and he became embroiled in a tax dispute with local officials. In the early 1980s his friends, dubbed the “Saint-Just Vigilantes” after the French revolutionary leader, successfully repelled a raid by the police in an action Finlay dubbed the “First Battle of Little Sparta.” Much of Finlay’s garden serves as a memorial to this personal struggle. But Finlay’s garden (dubbed “Little Sparta” after the conflict) also serves as a broader metaphor for every garden as an act of resistance against injustice, war and the destruction of the natural world.

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The murmur of innumerable bills was known to most great gardeners.

No kidding. As Kelly and I ponder the reworking of our front yard (yet again–see garden as process above), I too am pondering a new set of bills. Finlay being a poet could also be punning on the word “bill”. Perhaps he also means “bill” as in laws, taxes and zoning regulations. Either way there’s always an unsettling worldly threat looming outside the peace of the garden. As Poussin’s enigmatic painting Et in Arcadio Ego hints ateven in paradise death, destruction, credit card bills, tax collectors and building inspectors intrude

To see more of Finlays’ work visit the Little Sparta Trust website.

Admitting Gardening Mistakes

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The unhealthy factor that I bring to our marital garden design dynamic is a resistance to change and a unwillingness to admit mistakes. Take, for instance, the stone fruit trees in our front yard. The “new normal” that climate change has brought to our region–fewer chill hours and drought–has greatly diminished the health and productivity of most of our stone fruit. It’s time for those trees to go and for the execution of a more coherent and attractive landscape plan. As Hermann von Pückler-Muskau advises in his 1834 book Hints on Landscape Gardening,

I know of nothing more pathetic than when a failed detail is allowed to remain as an eyesore in a completed project, rather than being removed and replaced by a better idea, simply because it has already cost such and such in the first place, and changing it might cost again as much. . . Once changes have been found advisable, though, it is also dangerous to put them off, for whatever is incorrect in the current situation will likely show up again in the execution of the new project.

Gardening requires a ruthlessness and lack of attachment that I often don’t have the stomach for. Sometimes you have to embrace creative destruction and curse that fig tree (or, in our case, curse the diseased and unproductive Nectaplum tree; the fig is doing just fine).

Time to get started . . .

Peat Moss is Gardening Crack

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When it comes to potted plants and raised beds we’ve used our share of peat moss.  Many bagged soil providers like to say that their peat is “sustainably” harvested. The image above as well as an extensive list of citations and peat alternatives in the Facebook group In Defense of Plants proves that peat moss is as sustainable as tobacco is safe. Here’s those citations:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090904165253.htm

http://hortsci.ashspublications.org/content/44/2/312.full.pdf+html

cpl.usu.edu/files/publications/factsheet/pub__9468201.pdf

http://puyallup.wsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/403/2015/03/horticultural-peat.pdf

http://flrec.ifas.ufl.edu/Hort/Environmental/Media_Nutrition/COIR%20potential.htm

When I put this article in Facebook, Renate sent a picture of what peat harvesting looks like in Nartum, Germany near where she grew up:

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Leave it to us humans to make a desert in Germany!

We’ve experimented with mixes of coir and compost but still use peat moss occasionally. These images and citations have convinced me to go cold turkey.

What are your feelings about peat? Have you found good alternatives?

057 Winnetka Farms Part 2

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On the podcast this week we continue our conversation with Craig Ruggless who, along with his husband Gary Jackemuk, runs Winnetka Farms in Los Angeles’ San Fernando valley. In last week’s podcast, episode 56, we talked about Italian vegetables. This week Craig tells us about his double-laced Barnevelder chickens, Muscovy ducks and we complain about our mutual problems with rats and racoons.

If you’d like to stay in touch with Craig you can find him at The Kitchen at Winnetka Farms.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

An Open Letter to Our Mammalian Friends

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Thank you Mark Frauenfelder for digging up this image.

I get it. This drought has been hard on you. Fewer resources leads to intense competition. But can we show a little more courtesy?

To the raccoons of Los Angeles: I thought we had a deal. Like club hopping hipsters, the night belongs to you. So what’s up with the recent daytime activity such as the bold raid on our chicken run that took place on Saturday? I’m not going to apologize for spraying you with a hose. Thankfully you had the good sense to run away. If you had grabbed a chicken I’d be organizing small game hunting trips for dentists. It’s bad enough, because of you and your robust fingers, that I had to build a coop that I’ve dubbed “chicken Guantanamo.” I thought I could have a less robust daytime chicken run. I’m not happy that I had to spend over $100 to beef up that run. My accountant will have to devise an elaborate amortization strategy to keep our eggs affordable. I’m also not cool with the daytime raids on the fig tree even if it entertains our indoor cats.

To the rats of Los Angeles: avocados do not mature on the tree. This is probably why you take a single bite and allow them to fall to the ground. You’ll never get guacamole this way. And can you please not drop half-eaten grapes all over our patio furniture. Not only does it create a mess but it leads to unseemly First World meltdowns, “My Martha Stewart patio set is ruined! How will I survive!”

To the Fox squirrels of Los Angeles: you know you don’t belong here. The residents of a veteran’s home released you back in 1905. From there you displaced your more polite, native cousins. I get that you’re not going away. But can you please leave at least one peach for us humans? Keep this up and I’ll put together an unfavorable social media strategy to rebrand you as “#cuterats.”

To the possums of Los Angeles: I appreciate your freakishness and you’re actually kind of cute up close. But you guys don’t look so good under the glare of an unflattering patio floodlight. We do value appearance here in Southern California. Please consider some better hair and skin care products. Go to the gym. Splurge on a better stylist.

To the skunks of Los Angeles: what’s up with the OCD digging? Please note the comment Brad just left on our blog,

I’m eating skunk right now from the crockpot with brown rice. Tastes fine. I’ve eaten it before, but the crockpot skunk is the best I’ve tasted. Neighbors don’t want them, and it was clean, didn’t see any parasites. Watch for the roundworm.

To the coyotes of Los Angeles: I dig the trickster thing. You’re way better styled then the possums.

To the mountain lions of Los Angeles: maybe it would be best to stay out of our crawl spaces. You’re scaring our plumbers.

To the humans of Los Angeles: you’re mammals too! What’s up with the lawns, corrupt politicians, freeways, ugly mini-malls . . . oh, wait this could go on forever. You drive like a bunch of jerks.

Anyways, I hope you all get this memo. Don’t make me put up signs.

056 Winnetka Farms Part 1

Photo: Lexicon of Sustainability.

Photo: Lexicon of Sustainability.

Our guest this week is Craig Ruggless who, along with his husband Gary Jackemuk, runs Winnetka Farms in Los Angeles’ San Fernando valley. Craig and Gary grow heirloom Italian vegetables, breed standard double-laced Barnevelder chickens, bake bread, preserve food and much more. In the first part of our conversation we’ll talk about Craig’s Italian heritage and heirloom Italian vegetables. In the second part, on next week’s podcast, we’ll discuss urban livestock. During part 1 Craig mentions:

If you’d like to stay in touch with Craig you can find him at The Kitchen at Winnetka Farms.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Kickstart the North Memphis Farmers Collective

Of the many vegetable gardens that sprung up in the wake of the 2008 econopocalypse, more than a few touched off neighborhood aesthetic disputes and visits from code enforcement officials. One such tempest involved Adam Guerrero, a high school math teacher in Memphis whose garden got him in trouble in 2011 (and whose cat allegedly damaged a neighbor’s 1991 Cadillac Seville–the horrors!).

As often is the case in these stories, there’s a happy ending. What began in one yard has grown into an urban farming movement transforming vacant lots into sources of food and jobs. There’s a Kickstarter:

The City of Memphis faces many challenges. Among them are blighted vacant lots, food deserts, health challenges, and unemployment. North Memphis Farmer’s Collective seeks to take these challenges and turn them into solutions by using what others see as waste as the fertilizer for vacant lots, thereby turning decay and blight into blossoming Urban Farms.

As we expand, we need the use of a tractor, chainsaw, wood chipper, other heavy equipment and garden tools to scale our operation and offer more naturally grown healthy local produce.  Currently our Collective grows fruits and vegetables by hand on over four acres of vacant property.

They have just seven days to go towards their $10,000 goal.

Our Grape Arbor is a Stacking Function Fail

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Grapes on an arbor over patio furniture: what could possibly go wrong? It’s the very embodiment of the permacultural notion of “stacking functions.” The grapes provide both shade and food. The fantasy was to spend the summers like a Roman emperor, reclining on a couch and occasionally reaching up to grasp a succulent cluster of grapes.

Let me, however, add a few a few unsavory slices to this permacultural sandwich (in addition to the delusions of grandeur): rats, mice and squirrels. All day and night hungry mammals rain down half chewed grapes. And the freak rain over the weekend, combined with a few days of heat and humidity, got some very funky fermentation going. It’s like something out of my inner Martha Stewart’s worst nightmare.

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A poster by Benjamin Dewey. Available in his Etsy store.

I wish I had a conclusion to this post with a miraculous solution, like say specially trained roof Chihuahuas. I don’t. I do wish that the non-fruit producing Vitis californica vine that grows along our northern fence could be swapped with the prodigious one on the arbor. If fruit grew on the fence vine I could more easily net or cage it, or it least thin it out without having to move a ladder and patio furniture around.

As always, I’m open to reader suggestions or just commiseration . . .