Monkey Business

In past posts I’ve mentioned that the mature Arizona Ash tree in my front garden was permanently damaged by last February’s severe winter storm. After a June consultation with arborist Nevic Donnelly of They Might Be Monkeys (probably the best name ever for a tree company), we opted to have the tree taken down. This is dawn on the Ash’s last day.

Even though we made the decision in summer, I delayed the tree’s removal until fall migratory and blooming season were done–or mostly so–before scheduling a crew to take down this tree. They arrived before 9am on the appointed day of destruction, a week before Thanksgiving. There were three on the team, all ISA Certified Arborists: Zach, Judith, and Candace. They’d actually come by the week before with two other team members, Layla and Eddie (both ISA Certified Tree Workers) and removed much of the remaining foliage which was clustered along the lower limbs and trunk, as well as a couple of the larger limbs. What was left for the final take down day was bulk of the tree: the canopy, which was nothing but dead limbs and branches, and the other main limbs, and trunk.

Only Zach worked up in the tree itself. I noticed that the crown of the tree, where all the dead twigs, branches, and limbs were located, took the longest time to assess and prune.

Candace and Judith manipulated ropes and, as bits and bobs of tree were sawed and pruned, guided those tree parts down safely.

As the crown of the tree was systematically removed, limb detritus ended up terra firma. The crew dragged branches and limbs, large and small, to the long driveway, which served as a staging area. All of the wood eventually ended up in their chipper.

I didn’t observe the entire process, only popping outside from time-to-time to watch and photograph, but it seemed that most of the four hour period was spent pruning the upper canopy. That work was slow. But with each of my viewings there was significantly less woody mass in the tree and more woody brambles clogging the driveway.

Just so it’s clear, I’m not right next to Zach while he works–my camera has a good zoom. Trust me, I would neither want to, nor was allowed to, get close to the work zone.

I was amazed and please at the limited damage to the surrounding garden. Considering that there were large limbs with lots of attached smaller branches and twigs lowered to the ground and then moved to the driveway through the garden, the perennials growing didn’t suffer breaks. My garden certainly didn’t make their work any easier.

Once the upper canopy branches were off, the larger structural limbs and eventually the trunk followed for removal. Zach assessed where to drop the limb/trunk piece and made cuts accordingly.

I think with most of these thicker cuts, he sawed directly, though not completely, through from one side, then swiveled to the opposite side and delivered a wedged cut to meet the straight cut. That allowed the section to be perched on a angle and lowered, ropes attached, carefully to the ground.

Zach used his ropes to move around the tree as each section was pruned, working different sides to get the right cuts. He would make the cut, attach the saw to a carabiner on his belt and assess the work. He’d then remove the saw from his carabiner and make his next cut. And repeat. And repeat. The work was precise, the process patient and deliberative.

Once closer to the ground, the mid-level main limbs and eventually, the trunk, were sawed through, then shoved off with a flourish. Judith and Candace handled the wood pieces as they were lowered and in preparation for the chipper.

All those big chunks fell to the sitting area (where no one was sitting!), landing with a robust thunk.

As I noted, the branches ended up on the driveway. I took a closer look at some and could easily identify the damage from the freeze. The outer bark split during the freeze, destroying the protective layer of the tree. The tree is an older tree, so no doubt there was other damage from other storms, too.

The poor tree had no functional life support in these canopy branches after the week-long deep freeze.

The grinding of the limbs and trunk was dusty, but didn’t take too long.

I dragged off a few branches to pop into my gardens. I leave dead limbs and branches for insect nurseries and natural wood is a nice way to segment a garden. In one part of my garden, I’ve developed a stumpery of sorts.

And the tree is no more.

I’m still adjusting to the open area and full sky. The front garden is brighter and certainly in the summer, will be much hotter. The garden feels exposed and bare.

This tree was never a great tree; it was a poor choice because Arizona Ash is a weak-wooded, disease-prone, non-native tree. It was planted when the neighborhood was built in the early-to-mid 70s and was the developer’s choice because Arizona Ash grow quickly. As well, it was always shaded by the huge Arizona Ash next door (where my SIL now lives). After the devastating winter storm, neither tree will ever be more than shrubs. In many ways, I’m not sorry to see the ash go: I can now grow some plants that I haven’t grown before because of the light and there’s already a replacement tree, a small oak with a nice shape and beautiful fall color which was planted by a squirrel or blue jay. I found the oak a couple of years ago and it’s grown well. With no competition from the ash, that oak will take off.

That being said, the end of a tree is a sad thing. When my children were babies and toddlers, we sat under the tree to read, play, and picnic as the oaks in our back garden didn’t provide enough afternoon shade in those years. The ash was the nursery for countless squirrels, as well as some Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and Mockingbirds. Titmice, Carolina Wrens and Chickadees were always working the branches for the insects they enjoy, chittering their approval of the snacks provided. In the growing season, breezes ruffled leaves, a soft serenade; in winter, the the twigs performed a gentle percussion.

I’ll miss the shade in summer.

The tree is down though and it was a good decision to remove it. I’m glad I hired a responsible, well-regarded company to do this work and I’m already re-creating this garden space. The garden is on to its next adventure–a life in full sun!

Not Lost at All

Recently, the Hub and I spent time in the Hill Country area of Texas. One of the highlights of this mini road trip, and on an especially gorgeous day, we hiked at Lost Maples State Natural Area. Located about 3 hours drive from our home in Austin and located in the Edwards Plateau ecoregion, the state park showcases a “lost” isolated cluster of Uvalde Bigtooth Maples, Acer grandidentatum, recognized for their spectacular fall color. We were too early this year to enjoy the foliage fanfare, but with cooling large trees and shady under-story growth, paired with steep, rocky inclines which challenges hikers, and textured, limestone cliffs with attending pools, as well as plenty of blooming and berrying native flora, the park is stunning even without the color bonus.

The bit of red, courtesy of a young maple, is a hint of the color to come.

Golden highlights from American Sycamores provided a suggestion of autumn, but might have come from summer’s end scorching, rather than autumn’s cooling and waning light.

Mountain Laurel and Evergreen Sumac, as well as a variety of oaks, provide some, though not all, of the fresh green undergrowth.

One of the striking things to me was the beauty of the American Sycamores in the area. I saw some of the tallest, most robust that I’ve ever seen, as well as slender, graceful saplings. Topped by their yellow-to-green leaves, the white bark bisects the colorful brush; ivory lines, vertical and zig-zag, contrast in geometric form with the leafy backdrop.

It was a full day of hiking and some segments of the trails were rigorous. As always when I venture into natural areas, I enjoyed seeing many plants that I grow in my own garden thriving in their true, native habitat. Along with early (and somewhat limited) autumn red provided by Virginia Creeper and a smattering of maple leaves, and the golden-green foliage of sycamores, fall flowers were generous, providing sprinkles, and sometime splashes, of red, white, and yellow, tempered by some blues.

Fragrant MIstflower, Eupatorium havanensis
Prairie Broomweed Amphiachyris dracunculoides

Native grasses were in full sway, as well. Big Bluestem and Little Bluestem were especially lovely, having come into their burnished beauty with fluffy, toasty and creamy seed heads.

Lost Maples is notable for its good bird watching, especially during migratory periods. We heard lots of twittering, mostly of the Carolina Chickadee and Titmouse variety, as well as some invisible twittering that I couldn’t identify by sound and song. Some of the usual suspects who live in this part of the world, glorious Northern Cardinals and noisy Ravens, were common. I was thrilled to see a Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta. In birder-talk, that’s a lifer for me. Cornell lists this area as non-breeding, but my Merlin app suggested Meadowlarks are rare in the park. I imagine some part of its migration, coupled with a good source of yummy insects enticed this handsome bird to the open area.

Perched on a Mountain Laurel that clearly had upper limb damage (probably from last February’s ice/snow storm), the bird had a good view of potential snacks.

Limestone rock is a fixture (pun intended) in this area, as it is throughout Central Texas. As we hiked, we passed by a number of stunning limestone outcroppings, many of which have developed travertine stalactites over the centuries as rain water has seeped through the porous limestone.

The best known rock outcropping is named Monkey Rock. Do you see it?

I especially like that King/Queen Monkey is flanked by sentinel young American Sycamores.

Throughout the day we occasionally heard scurrying in the brush, but of course, it’s always hard to see what dashes away to safety in the undergrowth when humans bumble by. This Greater Earless Lizard, Cophosaurus texanus, while well-camouflaged, was visible to us on part of the trail that was rocky. It remained mostly in place for long enough to catch a photo, and eyed me warily. The handsome critter was patient. Even though we saw the lizard, it’s obvious how well it fits into its environment and how a predator might miss this fella.

The upper part of the Sabinal River, once named Arroyo de la Soledad, courses gently through the park and is fed by smaller creeks, lending its own defining efforts to the land and rock formations. Ferns are happily growing along many of these pools.

Until this recent trip, I’d never been to Lost Maples and I’m not sure why I waited so long to visit. I’d love to see the autumn colored leaves at some point, but this is a place that I plan to see in other times of the year. It’s an place of great beauty and rich diversity in both flora and fauna.

Mega Monarch Migration

A while back I’d read that this year was good for the Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus. From Canada, through the mid-west states of the United States, and now in Texas, Monarchs are on the move in healthier numbers than in recent years. I saw my first autumn Monarch back in August, earlier than normal, but I never complain when I see a butterfly, especially a Monarch. Throughout September, individuals wafted through my garden, drifting up and down in gentle butterfly fashion, alighting to nectar on whatever flower caught their fancy.

In the past week, the amount Monarchs visiting my garden has exploded to numbers I haven’t seen in years–if ever.

On blooming, mostly native Texas perennials, there are 10-20 fluttering beauties sipping the good stuff from the flowers’ offerings.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen this number of Monarchs and I’d forgotten the soft sound of many butterfly wings as they whoosh from their feeding perches: joyful for the gardener and full of promise and life for the insect.

The Monarchs are nectaring on a variety of flowers, but wings-down their favorite is Frostweed, Verbesina virginica. I’m grateful that I grow a number of these tough native plants which produce blooms that Monarchs and many other pollinators love.

Monarchs are also fond of Gregg’s Mistflower, Conoclinium greggii. This charmingly fuzzy ground cover perennial blooms throughout summer, but the height of its blooming season is September through November–just in time for the Monarchs.

Interestingly, most of my close up photos are of male Monarchs. The two black dots on the hindwings indicate a male. Also, the black segment veins on their wings are thinner than those of females.

It’s not only the Monarchs that are gracing the garden, but scads of other pollinators are out in full force like this cousin-to-the-monarch, the Queen Butterfly, Danaus gilippus.

Monarchs and Queens resemble one another in their similar coloring, adorned with black veins and white dots, but Monarchs are larger than Queens. Unlike Monarchs, which we Texans only see during spring and autumn migration, Queens are familiar in Texas gardens throughout the year because they don’t migrate. It’s common that Queens are mistaken for Monarchs, but check out this great tutorial on how to tell the difference between the two.

Monarchs are fueling for their continuing migration to Mexico for winter. Other flowers they nectar from include this native Turk’s Cap, Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii,

…and the lush blooms of the Mexican Orchid tree, Bauhinia mexicana.

To witness the results of a successful year for this beleaguered and endangered creature is heartwarming, but it also validates my decision years ago to use mostly native plants in my garden and to always plant for the benefit of pollinators and other wildlife.

A garden is at its best when supporting life.