Friday, September 2, 2011

Tree of Infamy

As if I needed a reminder of how bad the Eastern red cedar invasion has become in the Southwest, this week brought that problem front and center. The prolific tree is taking over millions of acres, crowding out native oaks and just about every other species as they spread. And that isn't all.

When wildfires occur, volatile Eastern red cedars ignite like torches, creating raging infernos. A case in point: in Oklahoma City, the invaders fueled wildfires covering 18 square miles last week, burning dozens of  houses and scores of vehicles...and the fire danger continues. Just yesterday, a wildfire came disturbingly close to us (see yesterday's post).

Ironically, fire once controlled the pest, as ranchers (and before them, Native Americans) periodically burned off vast expanses of grasslands in an annual rite of renewal. In these conflagrations, cedar seedlings didn't have a chance. But as small farms and ranches have gone by the wayside, seedlings have been the millions. After seven years or so,  young trees are mature enough to cast their own seeds to the wind, so the problem keeps growing exponentially.

It's hard to say how this invasive genie is ever going to get put back into the bottle. The numbers of Eastern red cedars have become so astronomical over the past several decades that the cost of irradicating them boggles the mind. Meanwhile, a growning number of cities are banning the buying, selling, transporting, and planting of the plant.

Recently, entire new industries have begun popping up, aiming to take advantage of what some see as a rich new source of raw materials. Eventually, Eastern red cedars could become an important energy source, turned into fuel for power plants. But Eastern red cedars are like used tires (which are already used as fuel), in that it will take a lot of power plants to use them up faster than they can reproduce.

For my part, all I can do is make sure the trees don't get a toe-hold on my property. And when it comes to store-bought mulch, I stick with cedar, doing my small part to help turn back the Great Eastern Red Cedar Invasion.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

BLOG EXTRA!! Wildfire

A huge wildfire ignited about 20 minutes ago, due south of us, eating rapidly through red-cedar choked woods. Winds are blowing it this way. The leading edge is still three miles distant...but this week's wildfires have been traveling for miles, so we're watching it closely.

For a fire that's just 20 minutes old, it's already huge. Noble High School, directly across the street from the fire's starting point, has been evacuated.

We've learned to "interpret" smoke, this week. Light brown is brush; a quick puff of black is a red cedar; a substantial amount of black smoke is a house or other structure. We did see one big black cloud of smoke erupt, so that's bad news for someone.

The wildfire is still building. Fire crews are being dispatched from other communities, including possibly pulling some crews off the fires in OKC.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Going Topless

Months ago, a truck pulled up in front of my house, and a worker hopped out. As he approached my front door, I noticed the sign on the side of the truck advertised "floor bracing" and "tree service." Right away, that combination gave me pause. When I noticed "tree topping," my hackles rose.

If a so-called tree expert recommends that you top a tree, I have just one word of advice: DON'T!

Topping a tree—even an injured one—only compounds the damage. The tree can never again branch normally. And though eager "tree toppers" might claim that if you engage their services, your tree will never again suffer damage from, say, the type of ice storm that caused the original damage, the opposite is more likely to be the case.

Tree branches are firmly anchored extensions of the trunk or larger branches from which they grow, much like fingers growing out of a hand (only without the joints). Once that natural growth pattern is lopped off, normal branching can no longer take place. Instead, the tree can produce only weakly-connected sprouts (that can actually be rubbed off by hand in their early stages). This epicormic growth is easily disconnected from the tree when burdened by ice or snow. Also, the tree takes on a dense "lollipop" shape that is highly  susceptible to wind damage.

As if that weren't bad enough, topping is a severe shock to the plant—the blunt ends of limbs cannot callus over, so they remain inviting entry points for pests and disease organisms—and the mutilation can severely shorten the lifespan of a tree.

So when the worker knocked on my door and handed me a business card that—again—advertised topping, I couldn't resist. I politely informed him that I would never use a tree service that advocated topping, because that was a practice that no respectable arborist would ever recommend.

My brief lecture didn't send the tree service scrambling to change its ways. Last week, I found another of its  business cards tucked into my door jamb, still advertising tree topping. This serves as a reminder that there are always inept "experts" (and even outright charlatans) out there—I can't help calling them arboreal quacks—ready to do more harm than good.

Let the buyer (or in this case, hirer) beware.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Killer Salt Water

If you're thinking wind and flooding are the only threats to your landscape by a big coastal storm such as Hurricane (then Tropical Storm) Erin, you're wrong.

                                                                                 Fema News Photo
Coastal storms can present property owners with a third threat as they send surges of sea water onto coastal landscapes, leaving behind sea salt on foliage (from spray) and in the soil. And while sea salt goes great on popcorn and corn chips, trees and shrubs do not like it. Most, in fact, would rather die than tolerate salt.

When Hurricane Katrina collapsed levees in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2005, vast areas were inundated with salt water. The salt, as much if not more than the water itself, wiped out seventy-five percent of New Orleans's urban forest, including the grand old live oaks and sweet-scented magnolias for which the city is famous.

So what does salt do to a plant? Think of the reason you gargle salt water when you have a sore throat: it  draws out inflammation. Well, salt has a similar (though wholly negative) influence on plants: instead of drawing out inflammation, it draws out moisture. It also burns foliage.

If salt spray can be hosed off foliage soon enough, damage can be minimized. On the other hand, if the soil itself has been saturated by salt water, the only remedy is a thorough flushing (after it has had time to dry out), either with irrigation or as a result of heavy rains. This process can take weeks or months. Only then is the soil suitable for replanting.

If your landscape's anchor plants succumb to a high-salt diet, you can help save yourself from a repeat performance in the future by opting for replacement species that are relatively salt-tolerant. After all, the storm that killed your plants won't be the last.

And speaking of salt-tolerant plants: what are the favorites in your locale?