Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

From the Inbox: Properly Pruning Pepper Trees

From a Correspondent:

As a newcomer to a townhouse complex in Palm Springs, I am struck by the gardening crew's penchant for squaring and rounding bushes and, where our pepper trees are concerned, nearly whacking them to death – all with the blessing of the boss, who claims to be an arborist. Dunno about that. Have yet to see his diploma. Particularly with regard to the pepper trees, I've been assured that they will come back "when the temp hits 90 again" but I'd like your considered opinion on how they should be trimmed. My sense is, as with guns, guys with whackers and saws never see a limb they would not pull the trigger on.
G. Holt

Dear G.,
Where to begin? Hmmmmm.

  1. Fortunately for the world, gun owners are on the whole far more responsible with their tools than are tree trimmers. I favor finger-printing, licensing and extended waiting periods for pruning implements, but I'm not holding my breath.
  2. Welcome to the world of landscaping-by-homeowners-association. Having had the opportunity to consult with many wonderful HOAs, allow me to offer you the voice of experience: as you prepare to take on the landscaping be aware that one of two things will happen: you will find yourself making a positive and enduring contribution to your new community of neighbors, or you will drive yourself and your new neighbors completely bananas and form deep and bitter grudges that will last as long as you own your townhouse. The choice is yours. Good luck.
  3. "They will come back when the temp hits 90 again" is like saying "if I shave my eyebrows off, they'll grow back again." True in both cases, but just because something will recover from the damage we inflict on it, it in no way justifies inflicting the damage in the first place. Time may heal all wounds, but that doesn't lessen the stupidity of the initial action.

Pepper Trees (Schinus molle) should be trimmed exactly like any other tree: remove dead, broken, diseased, and crossing limbs; remove any limbs that touch buildings, or impede vehicular or pedestrian traffic; call the power company if the tree is interfering with power lines.

Now stop, put down your tools, step away from the tree.

In very rare instances, we may thin the interior of a tree's canopy to reduce the chance of wind-throw, bearing in mind that wind-throw is far more a function of improper watering than it is of thick canopies. In no instance do we top, stub, or lion-tail a tree, nor do we ever remove more than 25-percent of a tree's canopy in a given year.

We always select trees because we are looking for the specific qualities they add to the landscape. That is particularly true in the case of Schinus molle. The Pepper Tree adds a very graceful and distinctive weeping green form to the Desert Garden; if we prune it into an odd shape, we lose any reason for having it in the landscape. If the Pepper Trees in your landscape are the wrong shape, or the wrong size, or planted in the wrong place, then they should be removed and some suitable trees planted in their stead. If they are the right tree for the space, then they should be left alone.

One other thing to keep in mind about incorrect pruning: if the Pepper Tree has a draw-back, it is a tendency towards producing brittle and weak growth. Improperly pruning your trees will encourage more vigorous growth, resulting in more fragile and poorly attached limbs. In the future, these may break and fall, potentially resulting in property or personal damage, and a potential liability for your association. For good or ill, California is on the leading edge in the development of case law around liability for incorrectly managed trees.

And last, but by no means least: whether an individual homeowner or an HOA, it is our responsibility to set clear standards and expectations for landscape maintenance people, in detail and in writing. When we don't do that, then we can't much complain about what we get.

I hope this helps,


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