Water your Trees with Greywater

Ludwig’s Laundry to Landscape plans.

Root Simple reader MJ pointed out that I neglected to mention greywater as a way to deal with our drought challenged trees here in California. So, on this greywater Monday, I thought I’d round up some previous posts and links on the subject.

Laundry to Landscape
International greywater guru Art Ludwig has a set of free plans on his website Oasis Designs for a laundry to landscape system. I’ve built this system at our house and at a neighbors’ and can attest to its ease of construction and functionality. Make sure you read through Ludwig’s directions in their entirety or else you’ll blow out your machine’s water pump. And note that some California cities such as Pasadena have classes and rebates for greyater parts.

The Confusing World of Detergents
The combination of a dry climate and alkaline soils means that we have to be very careful about the sorts of detergents we use with greywater. Regular soaps and detergents will raise the pH of your soil. Your trees will look great for a few years and then suddenly die. Unfortunately, finding a soil-friendly detergent or soap is more complex than it should be. You can’t trust manufacturer’s claims of greywater compatibility. Here’s what Kelly concluded in a 2015 post:

As of today, we are still only able back three products without reservation for use in greywater:

• Oasis Liquid Laundry Detergent
• Bio-Pac Laundry Detergent
• soap nuts

ETA 8/14: Also, it looks like Fit Organic Laundry Detergent is safe as well. Thanks, Judy!

Sorry folks, I know that’s not a lot in terms of choice.

The following eco-friendly detergents are often listed as greywater compatible, but we have reservations about them. We recommend you research these products more on your own, and consider your own greywater system as well as the specific plants and soil you are irrigating before deciding whether these should be used or not.

Ecos: Contains sodium coco sulfate

Vaska: Has a D+ rating on the Environmental Working Group’s product safety database.

Lifetree: Has a pH level of 7

Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap: Fine for greywater use in general, but it simply is not a laundry detergent–it’s castile soap. You can wash your clothes with it, but the results won’t be spectacular.

The bottom line is that we only trust the detergents and soaps that Ludwig himself designed: Oasis Biocompatible Laundry Detergent and Dishwash soap.

Here are Brad Landcaster’s thoughts on soaps and detergents. Let me also note the utility of Landcaster’s books and website when it comes to all things water conservation related, especially how to grade and configure tree plantings to optimize rainwater irrigation.

One last and rarely mentioned issue, is if “greywater” should be one word or two or, in the neologistic spirit of “apisoir,” perhaps we need to invent a sexier word for reusing our water. Greenwater? Freewater? Leave a comment!

Why You Shouldn’t Grow an Avocado From a Pit

Consider this a brief public service announcement for readers in the tragically narrow avocado growing zone by way of a short review of basic plant biology.

I see a lot of grow-an-avocado-from-a-pit tutorials on the interwebs. It’s a great project for both kids and adults. If you’d like an avocado houseplant, by all means grow one from a pit. If, however, you live somewhere where avocados grow outside (USDA zones 8 through 11) and intend to plant your seedling outside, you should buy a tree from a nursery. Why? Bees love to pollinate avocado flowers. If you plant an avocado seed you’ll get some weird cross between the many different avocado varieties. Odds are it won’t taste good and who wants to water a tree for nine years only to get a bushel of foul avocados?

So to review: if you’d like a houseplant go ahead and plant that pit. If you’d like to keep your hipsters supplied with avocado toast buy a tree from a nursery or learn the art of avocado seedling grafting.

What Tree Should I Plant? Cal Poly’s SelecTree Has the Answer

Screen Shot 2017-07-28 at 8.19.02 AMTree knowledge is not one of my stronger skills. Thankfully Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has us tree ignorant Californians covered with an extensive, searchable tree database called SelecTree that will help you find the right tree for your yard.

Or, let’s say, you’re bored with hours spent adding movies to your Netlix queue that you never plan to watch (one of my vices). How about searching for oddball trees instead? What about a California native tree with favorable fire resistance, low root damage potential that produces edible fruit? The database came up with two options, the hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) and the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea).

Let me also put in a plug for our favorite tree, the Fuerte avocado (Persea americana ‘Fuerte’).

How to kill your palm tree

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Erik and I have been enjoying Dr. Jerry Turney’s Tree Identification classes at the Los Angeles Arborteum. Talk about high tree geekery! The last one was all about palms, and though I know that most of our readers probably don’t live in palm-friendly climates, I’m putting this out there for those of you who do, and for all you random Googlers.

My take away from the talk is that most of the horticulture problems involving palms rise from poor practice and bad information. If a palm gets enough water, doesn’t freeze, and doesn’t get hacked up by us in misguided attempts to prune them, they are stately, beautiful, easy care trees.

So these are 4 good ways to try to kill your tree:

  1. Never Water It.  Palm trees grow in the desert, yes, but they are oasis plants. They grow by open water, or above underground water. They are tough, but tough is not the same as invincible, and they don’t show stress as clearly as other trees do, so you may not know that it is thirsty until it is too late. If it gets no water, one day your palm may just droop over, like a spent flower, and that is that. As the drought in Southern California continues, I’m beginning to worry about our iconic street palms. We tend to give them no thought whatsoever, but it may be time to start watering them if we want to keep them.
  2. Over Prune. If you imagine a clock face overlaid on the crown of a palm, never cut above 9 and 3 o’clock. And never, ever, opt for the heinous and misguided extreme pruning called the pineapple or hurricane or candle style cut, which leaves just a few fronds poking out at the top. Pruning a palm this way will only stress the palm and stands a good chance of killing it. Here’s a quick photo reference.
  3. Prune your palm with dirty tools. Diseases are carried on chainsaws and the like. Poor pruning hygiene has infected the stately 100 year old Canary Island Date palms in our local Elysian Park with deadly Fusarium wilt. Simple carelessness destroyed this beloved local landmark.
  4. Climb the palm with spikes. Those spikes leave holes which do not heal. They become portals for various sorts of fungal infections. These infections can be as dangerous to you as the plant, because if the crown rots from the middle, you may not notice it is even sick until the entire crown just falls off and plummeting down, all two tons of it. Falling palm crowns smash cars and kill people.

All in all, most of the problems palms suffer come from us pruning them. The simple solution is to leave them alone. Don’t prune it if you don’t have to. Don’t be fetishistic about tidyiness. Let the palm be its natural self. It knows how to grow, it knows where it wants its fronds and boots– after all, palms are much, much, much older than us as a species. They know what they’re doing. You’ll save money and the palm will thank you if you leave it alone. If you do prune your palm, hire a company that knows what they’re doing, or research the topic well before doing it yourself.

One final fascinating fact: you can read the history of a palm in its trunk.  When it undergoes stress from extreme drought or bad pruning, the trunk contracts. If you see a trunk which has pinched areas, you know that something bad happened at that time.

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Attractive Ornamental Flowering Trees

As I mentioned yesterday, I attended a class a tree identification class at the Arboretum taught by LA County plant pathologist Dr. Jerrold Turney. During the course of the lecture Dr. Turney recommended a number of striking, flowering ornamental trees. I thought I’d list a few of those remarkable trees in case you’re considering planting one. While this list is Southern California-centric, many of these trees can be grown in other climates. All images are courtesy of Wikimedia.

800px-magnolia_stellata_in_the_jardin_de_plantes_de_paris_001Magnolia stellata (Star Magnolia)
Small trees go with small houses like gin goes with tonic water. Small trees are also easy to maintain and don’t break the bank when it comes time to call an arborist. This tree is from Japan and will grow all over North America and Europe.

754px-cornus_florida_02_by_line1Cornus florida (flowering dogwood)
One catch with this pretty tree is that it’s susceptible to anthracnose.

800px-ipe%cc%82_roxo_ype-tabebuia_impetiginosa_cemiterio_sa%cc%83o_paulo_brazilTabebuia impetiginosa (pink trumpet tree)
A tough and beautiful tree that’s great for urban locations.

tabebuia-chrysotricha

Tabebuia chrysotricha
Of all the trees Dr. Turney showed, I think this one was my favorite. The yellow flowers really pop out against a blue sky.

848px-illawarra_flame_tree_brachychiton_acerifolius

Brachychiton acerifolius (Australian Flame Tree)
Speaking of popping out, red flowers are also really dramatic.

chionanthus_retusus_-_chinese_fringetree_-_3Chionanthus retusus
Another good urban tree.

To these suggestions I’d add one of my own that also produces a tasty fruit:

redbaronRed Baron Peach
Plant one of these as a bare root tree this spring and you’ll have an attractive small tree and peaches!

Thanks to Dr. Turney for a great lecture. If you’d like to attend the other three parts of his tree identification class you can sign up here.