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Lesson from the Storm: Take Care of Your Trees!
Posted on Feb 5, 2015 by Michael Parkey

This article first appeared in the November 2014 newsletter of the Eastwood Homeowners Association.

Many of us are still cleaning up and doing repairs after the storm in early October.  Like other storms of this type, the majority of the damage came from falling branches and trees.  Our trees are the glory of Eastwood, but when one falls on your house, it is a catastrophe.

After this storm, and all other storms, I do an informal survey of my neighbors, friends, and clients.  In my 35 years as a landscape architect, the results have always been the same:  trees that have received proper care from a qualified arborist are much less like to suffer damage, and to cause damage to their owner’s property.  We must remember that falling trees can and do kill people.

Why is this so?  The first thing an arborist does for a homeowner is to evaluate the safety and health of the trees.  I have never met an arborist who does not love trees and want to save every one, but if an arborist sees that a tree is unsafe and cannot be made safe, he or she will recommend removing it.

But removal is not usually necessary.  Proper pruning, done periodically over the life of the tree, greatly increases safety.  Dead or structurally weak branches are removed.  The healthy growth of the tree can be controlled through canopy reduction.  In this process, long limbs are carefully shortened to create a more compact form.  Shorter branches are lighter and do not move as much in storms.  Wind forces on the branches are decreased.  And when we get our rare but inevitable ice and snow storms, there is less weight to break the limbs and bring down our power lines.

Arborists have other techniques.  If the structure of the tree is weak with narrow branch angles, it can be reinforced with bolts and cables.  Although counter-intuitive, sometimes the best thing for a tree is to have some holes drilled through it for big bolts.  This is especially helpful with beautiful but structurally unsound multi-trunk trees.  Eastwood lost several majestic multi-trunk red oaks that might have survived if properly pruned and cabled.

Diagnosing tree diseases is difficult, but a well trained arborist can often see and treat these problems before they become dangerous.  With the ongoing drought, trees are under great stress making disease and pest problems more serious.  An arborist can also give you advice on how to avoid accidentally damaging your trees yourself.  If you are planning an addition to your house, a swimming pool, or any other type of construction, these can cause serious injury to trees.  Even something as seemingly innocent as building a raised flower bed around the trunk of a tree can have fatal consequences.  Eastwood lost an enormous pecan partly because a previous homeowner had done this.  The current homeowners removed the raised bed as soon as they moved in, but the damage was already done.

Good tree care is not cheap.  Pruning a large tree requires climbing it, and this is a dangerous job.  Strangely, insurance companies will pay for your damaged roof but will not give you a credit for proper tree maintenance.  Still, the roof you save may be your own.  And if your tree does not fall on a utility line, you may keep the electricity, telephone, internet, and cable television working for everyone on your block.

How do you find a qualified arborist?  A minimum requirement is certification by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA).  This is voluntary but strict, and requires training, examination, and continuing education.  Not every person in a tree care crew needs to be an ISA certified arborist, but they must be directly supervised by one.  As with any contractor, your arborist should be bonded and insured.

I have seen a lot of bad tree work in Eastwood during the last year.  Bad work makes trees more dangerous, more prone to disease and premature death.  There is no license or other legal control on people who do tree care.  Anyone with a truck and chainsaw can call himself an arborist.  His price will be cheaper, but only in the short term.

One of the things I love about trees is that they can out-live us.  We should help them do just that.

A beautiful multi-trunk red oak destroyed by the storm
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Stampede at Maggot Farm!
Posted on Jul 2, 2013 by Michael Parkey

Thanks to the generosity of two friends, I am now a maggot farmer.  One friend loaned me her BioPod, and the other gave me my first livestock, the maggots.

Most people who deliberately raise these creatures do not call them maggots.  That word is associated with putrescence and death.  The maggots are actually the larva of the black soldier fly Hermetia illucens.  They are also called grubs, soldier grubs, prepupal instars (to be entomologically correct), phoenix worms, and my favorite euphemism from the British, “gentles”.  The BioPod people have an anthropomorphized larva as their mascot, Grubbie.  But if you saw them, you would call them maggots.

Black soldier flies are harmless native insects, found almost everywhere that is USDA zone 7 or higher.  If you put food scraps in your compost bin, you have probably grown black soldier flies without knowing it.

The BioPod is an ingenious device from Prota Culture that makes maggot farming easy.  You can read all the details at their excellent web site, but basically the BioPod produces compost, compost tea, and maggots.  All you add is food scraps.  In a hilarious article about maggot farming gone bad, Jim Schutze called the BioPod a maggoteur.  I affectionately call mine the maggotoir.

So why would anyone want maggots?  These larvae are high in protein and calcium, and are relished as food by birds, fish, and various reptiles and amphibians raised by zoos and hobbyists.  Since I raise both chickens and fish in my backyard, it seemed a good idea.  And what gardener could pass up compost and compost tea?

The maggotoir had been set up for about three weeks, and was just beginning to produce a few yummy mature larvae for my hens.  Then we had our first 100° day.  Soldier fly larvae are pretty tolerant of high temperatures, but the combination of heat and humidity was too much for the little fellas, and they made a break for it.  When I lifted the lid of the BioPod that hot afternoon, the lid and interior of the container where swarming with maggots, desperate to escape the heat!  (Anyone who has lived through a Texas summer knows the feeling.)  Larvae spilled out of the BioPod onto the ground below.  The free-range chickens had a feast.

Fortunately, I had read the very thorough owner’s manual for the BioPod, and knew what to do in case of stampede.  I propped the lid open so heat and moisture could escape, and put a plastic bag of ice cubes on the food scraps in the pod body.  The “premature crawl out” was soon over, and calm returned to Maggot Farm.

Now, a confession.  I am not a squeamish person, and almost nothing in the natural world disgusts me.  But since childhood, I have been absolutely repulsed by maggots.  Part of the reason I wanted to raise them was to appreciate them, if possible.  And it worked.  I not only appreciate them, but sympathize with them in the Texas heat, enough to bring them ice packs on hot days.

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Datura nights
Posted on Aug 30, 2012 by Michael Parkey

Yesterday evening an event occurred in my garden that happens several times each year, and which I am always eager to see.  It is the mass flowering of my jimson weed, Datura wrightii

Jimson weed actually has a very long bloom season, from April until October.  But occasionally conditions occur that produces an especially spectacular show.  A long spell of hot weather in which the mature plants slow down, followed by heavy rain predictably will cause the simultaneous bloom of hundreds of flowers.  And these are not tiny little things, but huge white trumpets six to eight inches in diameter. 

For several days before you can see the long, greenish-white buds standing erect on the plants.  Each unopened flower is twisted shut, the spiral clearly visible at the end.  After sunset when dusk deepens into darkness, all the flowers open within 15 minutes of each other.  The opening of an individual flower actually happens quickly enough to see the movement.  The trumpet expands and unfurls until a spring tension builds up, then it pops open fast enough to cause the whole branch to tremble.  Last night this happened at about 8 PM. 

As soon as the flowers open, you can smell their sweet but lemony scent.  And so can their natural pollinator, a fast-flying hawk moth big enough to be mistaken for a humming bird out past her bed time. 

The flowers remain open all night and into the next morning.  As soon as it is light, the honey bees have their turn, mobbing the flowers with a high, whining buzz.  On a cool, rainy day the flowers might stay open until sunset.  On a hot day like today, they wilt by 10 AM. 

Datura wrightii has numerous common names in English:  jimson weed, loco weed, devil’s weed, Indian apple, angel trumpets, and sacred datura.  There are literally hundreds in other languages, including all the native American tongues from Central America to New England.  All species in this genus have a rich ethnobotanical heritage because the plants are loaded with trophane alkaloids; compounds which are fatal to mammals in surprisingly small doses.  Do not eat this plant!  In slightly smaller doses, the alkaloids cause hallucinations and delirium which can last for days, leading to their ritual use by many cultures.  In even smaller doses, the plant can relieve the symptoms of severe, acute asthma. 

But jimson weed is not a plant to toy with.  In a famous incident, British soldiers were sent to put down a rebellion in the Jamestown colony of pre-revolutionary Virginia.  The colonists fed the soldiers cooked Datura greens.  The soldiers spent the next ten days in alkaloid-induced psychosis; they ran naked through the colony and smeared themselves with their own excrement.  Not my idea of a fun party!  The name “jimson” is actually a corruption of “Jamestown”. 

But we do have a little party whenever there is a datura night in our garden.  We get out the lawn chairs, watch the flowers open, and try to get a good look at the hawk moths even though they fly so fast they are just a blur.

The morning after a datura night; the flowers look a bit wilted at the edges.
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West Nile virus, water conservation, and your landscape
Posted on Aug 17, 2012 by Michael Parkey

Last night my east Dallas neighborhood received the first aerial spraying for mosquitoes in an attempt to control the West Nile virus outbreak.  I took no special precautions, and this morning my chickens, pigeons, doves, and goldfish were all happy, apparently healthy, and eager for breakfast.  Of course any possible long-term effects are not visible.  I have been waiting for reports from my bee-keeping friends, but the worst predictions of disaster seem to be unfounded.  But that does not make me happy about aerial spraying. 

Make no mistake, we are in a public health crisis.  I will not quote the statistics repeated in every news report, but in my neighborhood of 379 homes, two residents are sick with the virus.  These are not statistics, these are my neighbors who live less than a block away.  For public health officials, this is a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. 

How did the crisis develop?  A warm winter and relatively wet spring created good conditions for mosquitoes.  In fact, a mosquito borne West Nile Virus outbreak is almost as predictable as hot weather in the summer here.  But we didn’t take any steps to prevent it early in the year.  Instead, we neglected the problem until it became a crisis, just like we neglect city infrastructure, air quality, and other public health problems. 

When the crisis hits, we then reach for what I call the Texas Big Fix:  a spectacular, expensive, inefficient, and rather ineffective solution that arouses great controversy.  The “ground assault”, “aerial attack”, “war on West Nile” is a perfect example. 

The best way to control mosquitoes is to kill their larva and eliminate their breeding habitat.  This is far more effective and safer than ground or aerial spraying, but it requires a sustained, patient, labor-intensive, and skillful effort.  It also requires an informed public who is willing to participate.  The techniques are well known.  Drain all stagnant water, especially that which collects accidentally in normal objects of the urban environment.  If the water cannot be drained, treat it with Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti) or stock it with Gambusia affinis, the native mosquito fish.  Send out code inspectors to cite owners of neglected swimming pools.  This all takes work, but it is not rocket science.  Local governments could hire and train our own citizens to do it, instead of giving the money to out-of-state aerial pesticide application companies. 

And stop over-watering your landscape!  Early last Wednesday, my neighborhood received about two inches of rain.  As I walked one block to a visit a neighbor that same evening, I saw three irrigation systems running!  And all of them produced fugitive water that ran down the street and into the storm drain. 

Not only is this wasteful and stupid, but I can guarantee that the 60 year old storm sewers in our neighborhood are not working perfectly any more, if they ever did.  The soil has moved, pipes have settled and broken, and water stands in them.  These are bacteria-rich pools of stagnant water, protected from extremes of temperature, the perfect environment for mosquito larva. 

Unlike most public health emergencies, West Nile virus is most prevalent in the richest parts of Dallas County:  the Park cities and north Dallas.  These are precisely the areas where people habitually over-water their landscapes.  Most of us know that mosquitoes lay their eggs in stagnant water.  But did you know that adult mosquitoes need shady, humid, wind-free places to rest during the day?  And they need fresh, juicy plant growth.  Male mosquitoes eat nothing but plant sap and nectar, which they suck from soft plant tissues.  Depending on their species, female mosquitoes can subsist on plant sap for a long time, but they need a blood meal in order to lay eggs.  That is why they bite us. 

Sacramento and Yolo Counties in California have been controlling mosquitoes for many years with aerial spraying.  They tell us that they can detect no adverse effects on humans, animals, or the environment.  Aerial spraying is probably not the Apocalypse, but it should not be our only solution either.  What really frightens me is that when the disease subsides, with or without aerial spraying, we will all go back to sleep.  And do nothing about the mosquitoes until next summer, when we will have another outbreak, and reach for the Texas Big Fix again.

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