A Little Bit Of Knowledge Can Grow A Beautiful Thing

By Kathleen Ferris

The wrong tree in a desert yard can get ugly fast. Then, too, if the right tree is not correctly planted, nurtured or maintained it can die, grow in tortured directions, or fall over in a hard wind. Starting over can be expensive, but who wants a yard without trees?

Trees cool your home by shading windows and exposed walls. Trees provide children and pets with shady places to play and keep the sun off your patio and barbecue area. Trees also provide shelter for other plants in your yard, including succulents and even cactus, which can yellow from too much direct summer sun.

See a variety of species at Glendale's Tree Trail before you buy.

See a variety of species at Glendale’s Tree Trail before you buy.

It’s not hard to grow a tree in a desert yard. It’s just different from growing a tree in Oregon, Colorado, or Pennsylvania. Here are five things to know before planting.

1.) Plan: Know what you want before heading to a nursery. There are plenty of desert-adapted trees that will thrive in your yard. Want to know what a tree will look like as it grows and when it matures? Many cities have demonstration gardens where homeowners can learn about a variety of trees before selecting. For example, the Tree Trail at the Glendale Main Library is designed to introduce homeowners to smaller desert-adapted trees for small yards and spaces. The Tree Trail also has a variety of large shrubs that grow faster than trees, are easier to maintain, and still offer the shade and drama of a tree.

2.) Buy Healthy: Buy a tree in at least a 15-gallon container. Avoid a tree if the roots are growing out of the holes on the bottom of the container. That indicates that a tree has been in the container too long and its roots are wrapping around each other. Also look for a tree with even branching or symmetry. Tight nursery stakes can inhibit the growth on one side of a tree.

3.) Plant Right: Don’t plant a tree too deep. Keep the lower, bell-shaped part of the trunk above ground. Use native dirt without mulch to back fill the planting hole. Mulch disappears quickly in desert soil. When mulch disappears it leaves gaps around the roots of a tree. Instead, put a layer of mulch on top of the soil to hold moisture. Only stake a tree when needed and then avoid staking a tree too tightly. A trunk needs to move in the wind to grow strong.

Glendale is one of many Valley cities that has a demonstration garden.

Glendale is one of many Valley cities that has a demonstration garden.

4.) Maintain: Trees need to be deeply and slowly watered at the edge of their canopies. If you use drip line emitters, move them away from the trunk as your tree’s canopy grows. If you plant a tree in a basin and plan to use a hose to water it, then you will need to widen the basin as the tree grows.

5.) Expect Litter: There is no such thing as a tree that won’t drop at least some leaves, pods, or flowers. Homeowners often view these natural occurrences as “litter” on their thick layer of gravel. This can lead to pruning a tree in an unnatural way, making it grow crooked and leaving it vulnerable to disease. Plant your tree in an area with decomposed granite and scattered riprap that looks more like natural desert. Then a tree’s leaves, pods and flowers will have a chance to decompose and blend in with your landscaping. You won’t mind them as much. For the same reason, use a shade structure to shade your pool and not a tree.

Your city is eager to help you plant and maintain trees. Check your city’s water conservation website for simple tree care instructions, videos and classes. You also can find help at the Arizona Community Tree Council and at AMWUA.org.

For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

Sheared Shrubs Lose Beauty And Health

By Kathleen Ferris

Desert shrubs do not thrive when homeowners and landscapers shear them into geometric shapes, such as balls, squares or inverted pyramids. Regular shearing weakens these shrubs, detracts from their beauty, discourages them from flowering, and shortens their lives. Desert shrubs just don’t conform to formal garden expectations. It’s painful to see these rugged plants neatly shaped in Valley parking lots, front yards and streetscapes.

Sheared desert shrubs get woody and show signs of stress.

Sheared desert shrubs get woody and show signs of stress.

Shrubs that grow in humidity and get regular rain survive and recover more easily from regular shearing to create hedges and formal shapes. Desert shrubs are different. These shrubs survive all year long on sparse resources under relentless sun and arid conditions. They can’t withstand the added stress of shearing.

Leaves make and store food that shrubs need to grow and to fight off disease. When gardeners regularly shear off leaves, the shrubs use their stored energy just to survive. They live in perpetual stress.

Sheared desert shrubs build shells of small leaves and the insides get dense with woody branches. Eventually, shrubs can’t make enough leaves and woody holes begin to break through the shell. The shrubs get ugly and eventually wear out.

Properly trimmed desert shrubs grow and blossom.  Photos: Rebecca Senior

Properly trimmed desert shrubs grow and blossom.
Photos: Rebecca Senior

Most shrubs familiar to Valley homeowners, such as Texas sage, California rosewood, and creosote, look their best when they are left alone. They will remain happy with a few inches of careful trimming that includes removing their dead and diseased limbs.

If you must prune, take out a maximum of 1/3 of the shrub’s older, larger branches. Cut the branches at the point where they attach to the plant or at the ground, not where the sidewalk ends. Remove branches that are rubbing against each other. The goal is to allow light and air to reach deep inside the shrub. That way a shrub will grow leaves along every branch instead of a shell of leaves only at the tips.

Desert shrubs need to be wider at the base. Bottom branches shade shrubs’ roots, maintaining moisture and cooling the soil. When gardeners remove the ground level branches, they expose the soil to harsh sun and drying.

Nurseries have desert shrubs that will grow to any height that fits a garden’s design. Buying the right size shrubs help avoid over pruning to make plants fit the space. For example, a gardener can find oleanders that grow to a height of 3 feet or 20 feet. Getting the right size also means less maintenance.

If nothing else will due but a formal hedge, there are a few shrubs that can handle the shearing, such as the desert-adapted jojoba or the Japanese boxwood or myrtle, which require more water. Even these shrubs need to be sheared to a shape that is wide at the bottom or they will lose their leaves on the lower branches.

An ideal desert-garden hedge uses a variety of lightly pruned shrubs in a staggered line, similar to the plants scattered along a desert wash. Leave the formal hedges for English gardens and bring a little desert design to your yard.

Find out how to prune and when to prune shrubs of all kinds at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, get pruning tips and resources at LandscapingWithStyle.com, or find a free class close to you.

For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

Heroic Water Buffalo Heads For The Golf Course

By Kathleen Ferris

There are many well-known names in Arizona’s water history. U.S. Senator Carl Hayden and Congressman John Rhodes delivered the votes in Washington that brought Colorado River water to the state. Governor Bruce Babbitt and state Senator Stan Turley wrestled the Arizona Groundwater Management Act into law and stopped decades of relentless over pumping of this non-renewable resource.

Water Buffalo Val Danos heads for the greens.

Water Buffalo Val Danos heads for the greens.

But few have ever heard of Val Danos, who retires this week as AMWUA’s go-to guy on number-crunching issues and the nuts and bolts of good water policy.

Born Vlassios Constantine Danos, he proudly graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1976. After a few years working for the Environmental Protection Agency in the San Francisco Bay area while following the Grateful Dead, Val’s road led him to Phoenix. It wasn’t long before he was hired by AMWUA.

If your water is supplied by the cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Glendale, Peoria, Avondale, or the Town of Gilbert, you’ve benefited from Val’s efforts. Together, he and I negotiated the agreements that allow these municipalities to receive water from the Salt River Project’s reservoirs along the Salt and Verde rivers northeast of Phoenix. SRP water now makes up about half of these cities’ supplies. Val also helped to develop other agreements with SRP, including one permitting the cities to use SRP canals to deliver Colorado River water to their water treatment plants.

Over the years, he’s worked on measures to enable the storage of water underground for use in times of drought, laws to enhance the state’s water quality, and so many more important water management initiatives that to list them would be to list many of the accomplishments of AMWUA itself.

Val has become a respected member of the water community (known collectively as water buffaloes) and the only one who dares to rock a seersucker suit (when he’s not in jeans). He is a familiar face at important meetings at the Department of Water Resources, the Arizona Water Banking Authority and the Central Arizona Project.

Here at AMWUA, Val is our resident historian, fact-finder and curmudgeon. Colleagues have learned to ignore the loud arguments he has with his computer as he battles it to assemble his exhaustive spreadsheets and power points. He is that old school engineer, whose “sneaking suspicions” push him to go beyond the numbers, to dig up the truth behind what others blithely assume are the facts. Pair that doggedness with a real concern for Arizona’s future water supply and you start to get a sense of the man.

He is the kind of guy you want to play golf with — or have a cup of coffee with to talk about the state of the Red Sox and the world . . . in that order.

They don’t make ‘em like Val anymore. He has been at the heart of much of the work we’ve done at AMWUA for three decades. We will miss his raucous laughter, his facile mind and his humanity. The legend of Val Danos may have gone unsung in the state at large, but he is a hero here at AMWUA.

For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

Wildfires Raise Cost Of Treating Valley Drinking Water

By Kathleen Ferris

Wildfires that tear through Arizona’s north country destroy our playgrounds, ravage ecosystems, kill and displace wildlife, and pollute the Valley’s water supply. If the wildfires are not contained, the Salt River Project fears more of these hotter and faster-moving fires also could threaten the life of its reservoirs. To slow and cool the fires, SRP is leading an effort to thin the state’s ponderosa pine forests to reduce the threat. That means cutting down trees, which is expensive and controversial.

The Problem

Before 1850, ponderosa pine forests in the state’s unsettled north country averaged 40 large, rugged trees to an acre. During monsoon season, lightening caused fires smoldered through the forests’ low underbrush of grasses, seedlings and pine needles. The mature, tough-barked ponderosa pines were nearly untouched.

Animals brought by settlers fed on the forest grasses and left the soil bare. That encouraged the growth of seedlings. Slowly, the forest became thick with smaller, weaker trees.

After decades of suppressing fires, the forests changed.

1901 photo taken near Kendrick Mountain shows the historical spacing of trees in northern Arizona forests. Photo: USDA, Fort Valley Experimental Forest Archives

1901 photo taken near Kendrick Mountain shows the historical spacing of trees in northern Arizona forests. Photo: USDA, Fort Valley Experimental Forest Archives

Today’s ponderosa pine forests can have up to 1,000 trees and more per acre. The underbrush includes young trees in a thick layer of pine needles. Fire fighters call this underbrush “ladder fuel” because it carries fire up to the crowns of the largest pines in the forest where the flames grow hotter, move faster and are more destructive. A typical wildfire can progress at three miles a day. During the 2011 Wallow Fire firefighters reported flames moving up to 15 miles a day as winds whipped the flames.

Ponderosa pines near Fort Valley is indicative of the dense conditions that exacerbate fire risks.  Photo: Ecological Restoration Institute, NAU

Ponderosa pines near Fort Valley is indicative of the dense conditions that exacerbate fire risks. Photo: Ecological Restoration Institute, NAU

These hot crown fires leave behind devastated landscapes covered in a thick layer of sterile soil that cannot absorb water. Storm runoff brings tons of soil into the rivers, lakes and streams that feed SRP’s reservoirs. This erosion can continue for up to five years after a fire.

SRP provides half of the Valley’s drinking water. The sediment makes the water delivered by SRP difficult and expensive for cities to treat and turn into drinking water. After large fires, such as the Wallow and Rodeo-Chediski in 2002, that soil also contained ash and carbon making it even more of a problem to treat.

The sediment from these large and unnatural wildfires begins to grow in the reservoirs. The more sediment, the less water the reservoirs can hold. SRP fears that if these newer and hotter wildfires are not controlled, sediment could fill the reservoirs until they are useless. This has already happened to smaller reservoirs in Colorado, similar to Arizona’s C.C. Cragin Reservoir near Strawberry.

The Solution

Research shows that returning the state’s ponderosa pine forests to an average of 100 to 150 trees per acre would significantly reduce the likelihood of crown fires. That would allow fewer trees to grow larger and tough enough to survive wildfires. Wildfires would burn lower and cooler and move slowly through the underbrush without small trees to feed on.

Conservation groups have mixed reactions to forest thinning, but the biggest hurdle is expense. Thinning all of Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests would cost nearly $2 billion. Private industries just aren’t that enthusiastic about cutting small trees because the wood products, such as chips and mulch and home heating pellets, are not as lucrative as planks from larger trees.

Where we are now.

SRP in partnership with the National Forest Foundation has started the Northern Arizona Forest Fund. The fund encourages businesses, individuals and organizations to donate time and money to specific projects that protect the Valley’s watersheds. For example, this year the fund will pay to thin about 1,000 acres around Upper Beaver Creek, 30 miles south of Flagstaff. Chainsaw crews will clear 150 acres of the thickest forest, taking out trees 9 inches or less in diameter. Then the project will use prescribed fire to clear underbrush from the 1,000 acres.

Now consider this: Arizona has over 3 million acres of ponderosa pine forests.

Find out more about SRP’s forest restoration efforts and the statewide Healthy Forests, Vibrant Economy conference Oct. 16 and 17.

For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.