Palo verde removal and replanting: no lollygagging here!

This is the continuation of Monday's post

Sunday morning, 7:00 am. The dog has been fed, coffee is brewing, the house is quiet because the dog and I are the only ones up. Waiting for the coffee, I look out the dining room slider. Something isn't quite right, but it takes me a few moments to realize what it is. The tree aloe, which was getting close to touching the palo verde branch above it, is standing proud and tall, silhouetted against the morning sky. Unobstructed. Wait, where's the palo verde it was about to bump up against? No palo verde in sight.

Dread is mounting as I rush outside. This is what I see:

For a heart-stopping second I'm not sure if anything is trapped under the fallen tree. Fortunately, not.

But the tree does block more than half of the street. That's a problem, even on a quiet weekend on this quiet cul-de-sac in our quiet neighborhood.

What the $*%§ are we going to do now? To my surprise, I'm worried more about getting the street cleared than trying to rescue the tree. Which, as it turns out, is a moot point because the tree has literally been uprooted, the root ball sticking out of the ground at a 90° angle.

I hurry back inside to wake up my wife, call the tree service and leave a message, and then get out the electric reciprocating saw and heavy-duty loppers.

The sky is heavy with rain, and we have barely begun to work on the tree when the clouds begin to leak. Getting wet yourself is uncomfortable but not dangerous. Using an electric power tool in the rain, on the other hand, is asking for trouble, so the reciprocating saw goes back in the garage. Fortunately, we have two pairs of loppers that are able to cut through fairly thick branches. 

Heather and I work for a good hour until we feel we've made enough progress for the time being. I'm soaked all the way through—unlike Heather I didn't have the foresight to put on a raincoat. And I still haven't had my morning coffee. The prospect of putting on dry clothes and finally enjoying a hot cup of Kona blend is so tempting, I don't even try to resist.

Later in the day, after the rain has moved on and the sun has come out, a neighbor lends a helping hand. After seeing how beautiful the bark of the palo verde is, she decides on the spur of the moment to build a privacy screen with some of the wood. After consulting with her husband, she hauls away a good number of branches for her project. This is what's left at the end of the day:

Heather adds a few brightly colored objects to alert people in the street to the hazard:

It's a small miracle there's so little damage. Two aloes are trapped under the trunks, but they're not squished.

It's astonishing how shallow-rooted this palo verde is:

I eventually hear back from the tree service. They've been slammed all day with emergencies; apparently our tree isn't the only one that decided to fall. They promise to come by as soon as they can, and they do—but not until Tuesday morning.

To remove the tree carcass, they use a winch to pull out the root ball and then a stump grinder to chop up the bigger roots that are left behind in the ground. In less than two hours, they're done and gone.

The only indication that something has happened is the bare spot you see in the photo above and the remaining pieces of wood for our neighbor:

Before I show you what I've replaced the 'Sonoran Emerald' palo verde with, I want to briefly revisit its short history in our garden:

March 4, 2014: I brought the palo verde home in our minivan. It was in a 15-gallon can, and I received a discount because the top of the root ball was exposed.

March 15, 2014: right after planting.
Orange arrow: 'Sonoran Emerald' palo verde
Red arrow: 'Hercules' tree aloe
Purple arrow: Aloe ferox

May 13, 2014: two months after planting
August 14, 2014: five months after planting

May 9, 2015: 14 months after planting

May 18, 2018: last photo, taken literally one day before the tree fell over

As you can see from these photos, this palo verde (like virtually all palo verdes) grew incredibly fast. We'd planted it on a freshly created mound (garden soil and pea gravel) on top of a layer of chopped pieces of trunks and roots from the Pittosporum tobira hedge that had been there before. While the palo verde itself didn't receive direct irrigation, the other plants near it did, so its roots didn't have to travel far or work hard to find moisture. In addition, we didn't have any experience with desert trees and took a much too conservative approach to structural pruning, especially during the all-important first year.

What have we learned?
  • Palo verdes, and similar desert trees, should be confined to an area that is not irrigated. Planting them in a mixed bed (like we did) is not ideal because the roots have no incentive to go deep. This, in turn, results in a shallow root system that may not be strong enough to hold up the tree as it matures.
  • Fast-growing trees need to be pruned vigorously—not only to shape them, but more importantly to create a balanced structure that distributes the weight of the crown as evenly around the tree as possible. Our palo verde was front-heavy, and you saw what happened.
In a rare display of swift decision-making and speedy action, I started to replant right after the tree service had finished. The weather was still cool, and there was a slight chance of another rain event (which in the end amounted to nothing more than a drizzle). In addition, I had a decent inventory of plants to choose from—proof that plant hoarding collecting has tangible benefits!

This is what the area looks like today, Thursday, May 23:

The replacement tree is a Eucalyptus macrocarpa, or Mottlecah, a slow-growing mallee from Western Australia with an adult height of 6-10 feet. It has large powdery blue leaves up to 5" in length and spectacular flowers, the largest of the entire genus (up to 4" in diameter). 

Here are all the plants, both old and new:

1 – Agave ocahui [replanted]
2 – Eucalyptus macrocarpa [new]
3 – Grevillea lavandulacea ‘Tanunda’ [new]
4 – Aloe capitata var. quartziticola [replanted]
5 – Yucca ‘Bright Star’ [new]
6 – Eriogonum umbellatum var. aureum ‘Kannah Creek’ [replanted]
7 – Hechtia argentea [new]
8 – Aloe pratensis [new]
9 – Veltheimia capensis [replanted]

1 – Alyogyne ‘Ruth Bancroft’ [new]
2 – Eucalyptus macrocarpa [new]
3 – Arctostaphylos auriculata ‘Knobcone Point’ [replanted]
4 – Gnidia polystachya [new]
5 – Grevillea lavandulacea ‘Tanunda’ [new]
6 – Yucca ‘Bright Star’ [new]
7 – Aloe capitata var. quartziticola [replanted]
8 – Grevillea aquifolium [replanted]
9 – Eriogonum umbellatum var. aureum ‘Kannah Creek’ [replanted]
10 – Hechtia argentea [new]
11 – Aloe pratensis [new]
12 – Veltheimia capensis [replanted]
13 – Agave ocahui [replanted]

1 – Agave ocahui [replanted]
2 – Alyogyne ‘Ruth Bancroft’ [new]
3 – Eucalyptus macrocarpa [new]
4 – Arctostaphylos auriculata ‘Knobcone Point’ [replanted]
5 – Grevillea lavandulacea ‘Tanunda’ [new]
6 – Gnidia polystachya [new]
7 – Aloe capitata var. quartziticola [replanted]
8 – Yucca ‘Bright Star’ [new]
9 – Hechtia argentea [new]
10 – Aloe pratensis [new]
11 – Veltheimia capensis [replanted]
12 – Agave ocahui [replanted]

Hechtia argentea, arguably the most spectacular hechtia species. This is one two Hechtia argentea I got from Greg Starr when I visited him in Tucson in December. I'm hoping that over time it'll develop the typical silver coating, especially given that this spot receives full sun from mid-morning on.

As I reread this post, I can't help but chuckle at the unpredictability of life as a gardener. As recently as Saturday, I had no idea that this part of the street-side bed would receive a major makeover, and yet here we are. Be prepared really is a good motto!

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  1. Useful lessons, if also hard to swallow, especially on what started out as a peaceful Sunday morning. At least the Eucalyptus (and several other plants) found a good home!

    1. I try to learn from mistakes and not dwell on what could have been if only I'd known better.

  2. Plant hoarding, er, collecting to the rescue! It looks great Gerhard.

  3. You are so lucky to live in Southern CA! Here in Phoenix, if the tree fell, everything that was under it would burn to a crisp from the sun exposure without the tree!

    1. Northern California--well, north of Central California at least. It gets hot here, too, but the weather is still wonderfully mellow, which will help the plants adjust to the new light levels.

  4. A great example of how to make a silk purse from a sow's ear.

  5. It's a good thing you had so many plants waiting in the wings. It was fun to see the 2014 version of your streetside garden-how far it has progressed !

    1. 2014! I could have sworn it had been earlier, but no, only five years.

  6. Interesting to see the changes from '14 to now. You did have a whole lot of plants to choose from for reworking that area. The Palo Verde may have been too root-bound from container life to develop a better root system. Now there is more room for 'Hercules'!

    The E. macrocarpas at the Huntington and LA Arb. tend to grow as much sideways as upwards.

    1. Intriguing idea about the palo verde being root-bound. I hadn't even thought of that. There's a lot of talk about growing trees in "air pots" to prevent the eternal circling of roots and improve survival rates after transplanting...

      Thanks for your observation about E. macrocarpa. I'll be ready to prune to shape. I know mallees can be unruly if left to their own devices.

  7. Not the most pleasant way to spend a once-peaceful weekend but you did a marvelous job, the replacement tree and new plants look great. Plant hoarding does have benefits!

    1. Peter, I knew you'd understand about plant hoarding. We're part of the same tribe!

    2. So sorry for your loss. From a gardener.


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