April 20, 2009

Killing Trees

When I was little, I thought every single tree in the world was great, and if you cut down a tree, you were killing the world. I still have that inclination, but I know it's not true. There are trees that just don't live that long, and it's fine to cut them down when they start to decline. There are trees that were planted horribly and compete with one another for limited light and room. There are trees that are just plain terrible for environment and use up limited resources. I have all three of those problems in my small 1/2 acre.
On one side of the property line, there is a very pretty tree with spikes of purple flowers in the spring, but it's declining quickly. I suspect it's a short-lived tree, but I also suspect that it hasn't been cared for properly. It's sending off suckers. There are broken branches. There are vertical growths. Basically, this tree needs to be removed and make way for one of the babies or replaced entirely.

In the back, there are a row of trees that were planted WAY too close together. We've cut down 2 already and cut down a third this past weekend. The trees want to create a fountain with a huge canopy, but because of limited space, they're growing in crooked awkward ways and will doubtfully live for long. Additionally, they don't add much to the landscape, and they will compete with the oak tree that is far more valuable as the oak will live much longer and would cost a whole lot more to remove and the removal could potentially damage the house. The backyard had an obscene number of trees and still has too many. There were 3 cedars, 6 unknowns, 1 pecan, and 1 oak. We're down to 1 cedar, 1 oak, 3 unknowns, 1 pecan, and 1 Eve's Lecklace (a short understory tree) after a lot of work. There are some potted fruit trees, but those are movable and don't count.

And did you know that cedar trees are partially responsible for the drought and water shortage on the Rio Grande? They were planted to help control erosion and because of their drought tolerance. The thing is that cedars are drought tolerant because they can reach their roots down DEEP and suck up loads of water. They use up so much water than very little vegetation can compete and ultimately have caused a lot of problems. The Texas State Parks and Wildlife Department have been selectively spraying the cedars to kill them along the Rio Grande. Two years ago, I had a total of 6 cedars. In the past year, we've chopped down two, and we've cleared it with on of my neighbors to cut down 2 more that are right on the property line. This past weekend we started the process of cutting down these 2. A bonus to this is that my neighbors are allergic to cedar pollen, and having 2 huge ones probably isn't working out too well. I'm personally not allergic, but there are loads of people who are.

There are only two trees on the property that I intend to keep out of the original 16+. I have to say 16+ because I've cut down so many young trees that I can't remember how many there were originally. I am planning on planting more trees, but they'll be trees that are well-adapted without destroying the environment or are completely native. They'll also fit the space, either naturally or through pruning such as with fruit trees.

When we bought the house, we didn't know just how much work the yard was going to be. We knew about the millions of mimosas and all the bamboo. We knew the landscaping hadn't been cared for in a long time, but we didn't know how much labor and expense there would be.

Also, my boyfriend dropped a cedar branch right on top of my wavy prickly pear cactus and Swartburg Beauty iceplant. Fired.


  1. Now that is a big project, I should know, we had to have a dieing Locus tree cut down last year and now the other locus tree is declining
    too. They are about 30 feet tall, well at least we'll have some fire wood for the winter.
    Good luck with all the trees.

  2. This is a really interesting post. I would like to link to it on a post I'm doing on earth day if that's ok.
    I hate cutting down trees, but it has only recently come to my attention that some trees aren't so great for the environment. I read that in particular short-lived trees that are near the end of their lives pretty much have no environmental benefit. We have some seriously declining and rough-looking pears, but they are huge and provide so much shade for our house that I can't imagine cutting them down. I'm basically underplanting them with other trees and gambling that the pears don't fall and crush the babies when they fall!

  3. Cathy - Firewood is a definite bonus to cutting down trees. I have some benches planned for the trees I cut. I expect the bulk brush pickup will turn the rest into some lovely mulch.

    Ginger - It's totally fine to link to this. I would love to have pear trees. Pears in general don't love Central Texas though, but I know they age-out and can't last forever. They're a short-lived tree as well. Fruit trees in general are lucky to reach 20 years old. Removing parts of the cedars has given a lot more light to my new garden, which was not the intent, and I'm glad that they'll be gone since there's been a drought here for a few years. Trees will be going back. I just want to make sure I pick good ones and not leave the catastrophe to someone else to deal with.

  4. It is a hard decision whether to cut down trees. We've had to take two down. One because it destroyed our driveway as well as our neighbors with its roots. The other because it was very diseased. A third one fell over on its own luckily not on our house!
    I bet you'll have fun deciding what to replace them, especially since it sounds like you are much more conscious about the right tree for the right place.

  5. Thanks! It's really cool that you're thinking of how you can use the felled trees. You'll have to show us what you do!

  6. It looks like the purple-spike-flowering tree is a vitex, which has been put on the City of Austin's invasives (do not plant) list. I had a big one in the front yard of my old garden, and during the early years it was gorgeous. But it got steadily more and more scraggly, as you describe. I took it out and replaced it with a crepe myrtle.

    You're right to remove unsightly, damaged, or inappropriate trees (within city code, which mainly has to do with trunk size) in order to replace them with better selections.

  7. Too bad about the trees but it sounds like you thought it out well.


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