Friday, October 21, 2011

Since You Asked...Pablo Solomon

Record-setting dry conditions continue to take an ever-growing toll on landscape trees and shrubs in large parts of the nation this year. So this week, we're having a chat with widely recognized artist and environmental designer Pablo Solomon, who lives in one of the most drought-stricken areas of the country. He has been a prominent figure in the environmental movement since the 1960s.

Break out your copy of Weatherproofing Your Landscape: A Homeowner's Guide to Protecting and Rescuing Your Plants, and you will find Pablo's striking photo of his "tumped tree"—with his wife, Bev—on page 5.

Courtesy Pablo Solomon
Q. Pablo, water has become an urgent global issue. But how much responsibility can and should we as individuals take in conserving water literally in our own backyards?

A. I am a big believer that everything of value starts with the individual taking responsibility for whatever he/she has some control over.

As a well-known artist and ecologist, I travel a lot. I find it annoying when people want these big plans instituted, while doing nothing on a personal level.

So if you want to save the planet, save your backyard, and then move on to bigger challenges.

Q. As outspoken as ever, I see. So what do you think is the most important tool for landscape owners who want to conserve water?

A. The most important tool is actually your mind. You must first want to conserve water. Then you must apply your time, energy and creativity toward that goal.

Q. Do water catchment systems, for example, have to be sophisticated or pricey to be effective?

Courtesy Pablo Solomon
A. The photo at the left shows a very simple water collection system—basically a garbage can collecting runoff from my 1856 long tobacco barn, which I use as a bad-weather workshop.

I also have an 8,000-gallon concrete storage tank which is at the other end of the cost spectrum.

And I put plastic dish-washing tubs in my hand sinks and showers to collect any water I can.

Gray water use can be as simple as using bath water for plants or to flush a toilet occasionally. I run a flexible drain hose out to plants from my washing machine (use biodegradable detergents). Some new and retro-fixed homes have more elaborate gray water separation systems. Just do what you can afford and feel comfortable doing.

[Note: For more rules-of-the-road for using gray water, break out Weatherproofing Your Landscape again.]

It really is a state of mind: if you want to save water and it is part of your value system, you will find ways to do it. If every one in America saved just one gallon of water a day, that would supply a city of one million for five days.

Q. How have you addressed the issue of excessive water usage by your plants themselves?

Courtesy Pablo Solomon
A. I live in the beautiful Texas Hill Country, where drought is recurring. Over the eons, the native plants here have developed remarkable tolerance to crazy, extreme weather conditions.

So we use native plants: cacti, mesquite, live oak, western juniper, wild flowers, wild grasses, wild shrubs, etc.

I love to shape plants—it's like doing giant bonsai trees. I studied Japanese flower arranging to understand Zen concepts of balance and harmony—the principles are the same whether doing a miniature tree or a complete landscape.

A. As an environmental designer, what does your crystal ball tell you about water conservation systems becoming standard equipment in new residential and commercial construction?

Q. Amazingly, my crystal ball readings have been somewhat accurate over the years. Unfortunately, the most accurate readings have been the most negative. People continue to waste water...continue to use drinking water to flush toilets...continue to plant Hawaiian gardens in Phoenix.

However, I think that separation of usable gray water from sewage water; rainwater collection systems; runoff retention systems; etc., will be standard features very soon. I am encouraged by how many commercial developments are doing very creative things in water collection, conservation and retention. As we improve desalinization methods, they will become standard for beach houses, resorts, seaside towns, etc.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Honoring The Old Ones

In the world of trees, this past year has been a giant-killer. In Amsterdam, the iconic chestnut tree that young Anne Frank gazed out upon from her attic window during World War II was toppled by a storm. Hurricane Irene brought down a 220-year-old tree that had stood over John F. Kennedy's gravesite  for almost half a century. Even "movie" trees took a hit, as the grand old oak that was seen in a closing scene of the film, Shawshank Redemption, was split in half by yet another storm.

Each year, tens of thousands of people travel great distances to visit historical trees. These Old Ones can hold special meaning to people who might not otherwise consider themselves to be sentimental. And if you stop to think about it, that stands to reason.

The tree that stood over JFK's grave, for instance, was a young sapling when George Washington and our other founding fathers were old men. It had grown to maturity by the time the country was nearly torn apart by the Civil War and the Virginia estate where it stood became Arlington National Cemetery. As the 20th Century rolled through war after war, the tree added 100 more rings as thousands of soldiers and sailors and marines and airmen arrived at their final resting places.

And then, as suddenly as a lightning bolt, the tree was gone.

The Survivor Tree
Oklahoma City National Memorial
Many Old Ones, such as Anne Frank's much beloved chestnut, fall to extreme-weather events because they were already in failing health. Still others get a new lease on life with well-deserved special care—the Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial is an example.

Defoliated, broken, and badly charred by the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, the century-old American elm has been lovingly nurtured back to robust health by a team of dedicated state foresters. Today, the Survivor Tree casts a giant shadow, both physically and in a spiritual sense. When I first stood beneath its broad boughs, I couldn't help but feel humbled by this grand symbol of quiet endurance and strength.

Whether they are in the public domain or grow in your own landscape, Old Ones have earned the right to special care. The big oak in my back yard has been carefully manicured by a certified arborist. When its roots were damaged a few years ago, it received additional treatment that could keep it thriving despite last summer's deadly heatwave and drought.

As a property owner, I have become the designated steward of my Old One's life. It is a responsibility that I don't take lightly.

Do you know of an Old One in your community...or your own backyard? I would love to hear about it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hello...Are You Dead?

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration/
Department of Commerce
Exceptional droughts are always a tragedy for someone or something.

In the normally deer-friendly woodlands surrounding the lake near where I live, struggling whitetail does have been forced to abandon their fawns, which roam the park in confusion with their ribs showing. My friend, artist and environmental designer Pablo Soloman, reports that the fawns around his home in the Texas Hill Country have already died.

The trees are going too. Besides vast stretches of woodlands that were charred by the summer's wildfires, significant numbers of trees that have so far remained untouched by flames are dying of thirst. Throughout the exceptional-drought region of Texas and Oklahoma, forest ecosystems—and residential landscapes—are undergoing forced change.

Sometimes, that change can be for the best. Large numbers of invasive eastern red cedar trees are dying of thirst or going up in flames, which will allow native trees, grasslands and wildflowers to resurge. Likewise, the loss of a tree in your yard can present landscaping opportunities that didn't exist before, such as enabling you to plant a more drought-tolerant species or "rearrange" the living furniture to better suit your needs.

But dead, dying, and damaged trees are also prime targets for pests and diseases, which can spread like—well, like wildfire—and compound the loss. So if your valuable trees have suffered visible drought damage such as foliage loss/discoloration, this might be a good time to have them checked out by a certified arborist.

Whether or not the damage is visible, most drought stressed trees have probably suffered at least some root loss. To keep that loss from worsening during continuing dry spells, trees need to be deep-soaked weekly (1 or more inches of water) at least to the outer edges of their drip zones. And they need this supplemental moisture through winter as long as the ground is unfrozen, because while treetops go dormant, tree roots do not.

After one of the most brutal summers ever recorded, I groaned when I heard climatologists warn that the drought still being experienced in the Southern Plains is "just beginning." That's a disturbing prospect, but one for which every property owner should be preparing. [Drought-mitigating measures are covered in some detail in  Weatherproofing You Landscape: A Homeowner's Guide to Protecting and Rescuing Your Plants.] Why should you care if you aren't living in a drought zone now? Because you very well might be living in one in the future, since these unforgiving conditions do "migrate" as complex triggering mechanisms such as La Niña come and go.

Unfortunately, for many trees in this "just beginning" drought, it's already too late for even the most urgent rescue measures. While driving through my community yesterday, I counted scores of obviously dead pines, oaks, and other species. Many others were prematurely dropping their leaves, and we won't know until spring whether these were just packing it in for the season and going dormant, or if they too were in the process of dying.

As for my own little corner of the urban forest, I'll continue deep-soaking the big, drought-stressed oaks in my backyard through the coming dry winter. And when the cold season finally draws to a close, I'll hold my breath, waiting—hoping—for the first green buds of spring. Because if you ask a dormant tree if it's dead or alive, that's the only way it can answer.