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Good trees, bad locations

Birches aren't drought-tolerant and other things to know

Newly cut stump
This stump is all that's left of the fifth and last birch tree in my yard. (Photos:
Kathy Morrison)

The last of the five birch trees that were in our front yard bit the dust Wednesday. The tree crew took just 45 minutes to fell it, the branches hitting the muddy lawn with a loud "thud" as they were cut off.

Birch branch
Birches are prized for their white bark but
the branches can be brittle.

The other four white birches had been removed when we bought our Carmichael home nearly 22 years ago. Someone had planted pairs of the trees on either side of the driveway -- a horrible choice for a tree that attracts aphids and the resulting honeydew. I knew enough then to demand they be taken out, to protect our cars.

But the fifth tree was on the opposite side of the yard, the southern side, and it did a great job shielding some of the garden and house from the afternoon sun. (Of course it also dropped tons of small leaves in the fall.) The squirrels used it as part of their arborial highway, and the scrub jays often sat in the upper branches, keeping watch against predators while their nestlings slept in the nearby fern pine tree.

It takes a long time to kill a tree, so I think the big California drought of 2011-2017 spelled the eventual doom of this birch tree.

Birch tree in winter
This birch tree in a Carmichael neighborhood looks healthier
than the one we had removed this week.

White birches, also known as paper birches ( Betula papyrifera ), were a trendy landscape tree in the suburbs of the later 1950s right into early 1970s. The house I grew up in, built around 1960, had a classic trio of white birches outside my bedroom window.

My current neighborhood was built between 1962 and 1970, and some stands of birches remain, but they are looking their age. And people still plant them -- a house a block away has two relatively young trees growing right in the lawn.

Tree fans contend that there are no bad trees, only bad tree locations, and I'm inclined to agree.

Here's the truth of the matter: Birches are natives of very cold climates. They need moist soil, and their shallow, wide-spreading roots are vulnerable to heat and drought. That makes the white birch one of the worst trees you can plant in drought-prone California. The aphids, of course, are another issue.

This last birch put out roots under most of our front lawn, but the irrigation cutbacks were clearly hurting it. The leaves this past year were much sparser than in past seasons, and a few of the branches in the crown didn't have leaves at all. My neighbor was afraid it was going to fall on her house -- though it wasn't leaning -- so we had our favorite arborist come look at it.

He agreed that the tree was slowly failing and could lose the top in a heavy windstorm. Birches in our climate, he noted, have a life span of 15 to 20 years or so. And this tree was at least 25, probably more. He said we could have it topped or have it removed. I've seen a few pathetic topped birches in the neighborhood, and I didn't want that.

So down it had to go, and yesterday it did.

The yard seems more exposed, so I probably will plant some shrubby native perennials in that area, but not another tree. There are utility lines buried nearby and I don't want to chance disturbing them.

If you have a birch in your yard, keep a close eye on it. And while you're at it, get to know the other trees around you, to forestall future questions. A tree that doesn't match our climate can survive -- with extra care.

But natives and other low-water trees are better choices. The Sacramento Tree Foundation site is an excellent place to start learning about these, with loads of information on trees for local landscapes. It also has information on how to hire an arborist.


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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Jan. 29

Bundle up and get work done!

* Prune, prune, prune. Now is the time to cut back most deciduous trees and shrubs. The exceptions are spring-flowering shrubs such as lilacs.

* Now is the time to prune fruit trees, except apricot and cherry trees. Clean up leaves and debris around the trees to prevent the spread of disease.

* Prune roses, even if they’re still trying to bloom or sprouting new growth. Strip off any remaining leaves, so the bush will be able to put out new growth in early spring.

* Prune Christmas camellias (Camellia sasanqua), the early-flowering varieties, after their bloom. They don’t need much, but selective pruning can promote bushiness, upright growth and more bloom next winter. Feed with an acid-type fertilizer. But don’t feed your Japonica camellias until after they finish blooming next month. Feeding while camellias are in bloom may cause them to drop unopened buds.

* Clean up leaves and debris around your newly pruned roses and shrubs. Put down fresh mulch or bark to keep roots cozy.

* Apply horticultural oil to fruit trees to control scale, mites and aphids. Oils need 24 hours of dry weather after application to be effective.

* This is also the time to spray a copper-based oil to peach and nectarine trees to fight leaf curl. Avoid spraying on windy days.

* Divide daylilies, Shasta daisies and other perennials.

* Cut back and divide chrysanthemums.

* Plant bare-root roses, trees and shrubs.

* Transplant pansies, violas, calendulas, English daisies, snapdragons and fairy primroses.

* In the vegetable garden, plant fava beans, head lettuce, mustard, onion sets, radicchio and radishes.

* Plant bare-root asparagus and root divisions of rhubarb.

* In the bulb department, plant callas, anemones, ranunculus and gladiolus for bloom from late spring into summer.

* Plant blooming azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons. If you’re shopping for these beautiful landscape plants, you can now find them in full flower at local nurseries.

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