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  • Writer's pictureJohn R

The Three Amigos Throw Down

A ruthless, no-limbs-barred dustup is slowly taking place in the back yard.

We planted three trees. From left to right they are: a Raywood ash, a bald cypress, and a zelkova. They are The Three Amigos, which admittedly isn’t the cleverest sobriquet but then perhaps you weren’t busy using most of your brain power to devise new tequila cocktails like some of us were when the name The Three Amigos sprang into being. We planted them within a year of each other, and they've grown like baby baleen whales in a bay full of krill. Which is to say, prodigiously.

We planted them along the west edge of our property with the idea that they would eventually shade our hacienda from intense late-day sun. Miracle of miracles: something we had hoped for, even planned, actually came to be. They grew into fat, leafy, Campeones de la Sombra. Thirty-five-feet tall, magnificent limbs and foliage, towering healthy ten-year-young trees. Where once had been broad swaths of plutonium-hot sunshine draped against the west side of our house, turning the interior into a convection oven, was now deliciously dappled, cooling shade. The Three Amigos formed an arm-in-arm phalanx of protection. We put a table and four chairs in the grass at the base of the bald cypress because the fronds are so beautiful and the sense of being wrapped inside a forest, even in the modest confines of our backyard, was enchanting and mysterious and stitched through with the zings of hummingbirds.

But there we have the problem: the modest confines of our backyard.

The Three Amigos ruthlessly competing for fall foliage champion.

Before I get into that, I wanted to state for the record that the bald cypress, genus Taxodium, really is an awesome tree. Each of the Amigos has its charms, but the bald cypress is in another league. It has relaxed, silky limbs that drape, poised, like the arms of a botanical ballerina. Feet in the fifth position because the bald cypress prefers to root outward, not so much down, the roots cruising the surface of the lawn like shark fins.

A lawn mower land mine—a knee of cypress root.

In tree-speak they’re called knees, and they’re characteristic of the cypress. Usually, I spot new knees only after I’ve trimmed a quarter inch off the top of the root knob with the lawn mower and the blades make that I just hit something that wasn’t grass awful chopping sound that neighbors no doubt hear and think What an idiot and you’re sure the chopping has severely dulled the blade and you consider stopping to assess the damage but then you think What the hell? I’ll sharpen it next year and you keep on mowing.

Beyond the roots, the bald cypress has a cool trick that very few trees have. It loses its needles in the fall. It’s one of only a handful of deciduous conifers in the world, another North American favorite being dawn redwood, Metasequoia, which has graceful limbs similar to the bald cypress. The needles of both trees turn vivid fall colors before falling off, the dawn redwood showing bright gold and the bald cypress turning dark, coppery red.

Back to modest confines. We bought trees with horizontal spreads of 50 feet or so and planted them 20 feet apart in a backyard that’s approximately 19 feet wide. You don't have to be Alan Turing to figure out that spatially, things don’t add up. Why was this simple equation lost on our intrepid homeowners? Good question!

Sure, chalk it up to human error. Somewhere along the way we mistook our darling saplings for well-mannered, modestly aspirational trees. And when first planted they were ever-so-cute, like dorky pre-teens flailing at each other harmlessly with make-believe swords made of twigs.

But as they have grown—outward as well as up—their thrusts and parries have become more determined, more competitive. As the shade they’ve provided has enlarged, so has their thirst for more sunlight, nutrients, and water. It’s an arboreal cage fight for survival.

Peter Wohlleben, author of the book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from A Secret World, frames it up like this:

“Trees have friends, feel loneliness, scream with pain and communicate underground via the ‘woodwide web.’ Some act as parents and good neighbours. Others do more than just throw shade –they’re brutal bullies to rival species. It’s a hard-knock life.”

Zelkova's leafy canopy.

I’m not sure about the screaming, though. It’s more like heavy breathing. Anyway, the Amigo in the middle—the zelkova—gets it from both sides but counters with weight-lifter limbs and tumbled masses of leaves. The Raywood ash is less pugnacious, preferring to grow in a narrow, columnar shape, but it’s making a determined attempt to be the tallest of the bunch. And the suave bald cypress? Its limbs are like the outstretched arms of a ballerina, albeit one with the heart of a dominatrix.

Okay, I lied. There’s another Amigo. It’s a crepe myrtle at the back end of the property, and it’s crowding the bald cypress. I guess it was hard for me to admit that conditions are even worse than initially indicated.

Okay, it’s even worse than that. An enormous climbing rose has grown up into the crepe myrtle and thoroughly entangled itself in the myrtle’s branches. Hard to tell if it’s symbiosis or a fight to the death but I think there’s enough material there for another blog. Meanwhile, it’s a double hit of deep red roses and pink crepe myrtle blossoms.

Two beauties—Deb and the bald cypress.

What to do? Sure, I could prune, that’s something I’ve seriously considered. But now the branches are way up there and other branches are way over there and it just seems as if the problem requires professional intervention that’s above my pay grade, meaning it falls to Deb whose grail-like search for the ideal combination of price and performance in any home improvement endeavor is ongoing and inexorable and a thing of beauty. Freeing me to enjoy the back patio, nursing a cold one and sitting contentedly in the glorious shade of the Three Amigos (and that other one).

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