Some Trees Grow in the Rancho

Looking more like twigs than trees, about 30 saplings sway awkwardly in the arid, dusty and increasingly hot landscape of Rancho Santa Clara.

It’s not an encouraging sight. These guys, some growing crooked, are practically invisible, scattered over the largely barren 7.5 acres of land. Amazingly, most are sprouting new leaves. At least three are definitely dead, even though I keep watering the dearly departed too, hoping for a botanical miracle.

Stew and I planted the trees six months ago, almost exactly at the beginning of the dry season during which zero rain falls for several months. We talked grandiosely about land reclamation schemes, contrasting foliage and clever designs to shield the land from future neighbors.

Duh. Planting those poor fellas at the worst growing time of the year instead revealed one of the worst weaknesses a gardener can have–impatience. I was afflicted with it in Chicago, where I used to put out tomato seedlings before the last-freeze date or watered or fertilized other things too much, hoping to speed up their growth. Yearly setbacks didn’t seem to teach me anything.

One thing we did get right at Rancho Santa Clara was the selection of trees either native or accustomed to the harsh soil and conditions in this area. We consulted with a Mexican agronomist, who gave us a list of suitable native trees, though he charged us the exorbitant sum of US$500 for his efforts.

The tree selections were:

(5) Mexican Poplars (Alamo mexicano in Spanish). These are the fastest-growing of the bunch, though if they are anything like Lombardy Poplars in the U.S, they may not be very long-lived.

(6) Tejocotes. These natives also seem to be quite sturdy, with silky leaves that are green on top and silverish on the flip side. I’ve seen them fully grown and they are rounded and very attractive. Mine have a ways to go.

(4) Gravillea. Also very common. Two are alive and well, two seem headed for the compost pile.

(10) Pirules (Peruvian Pepper). Originally brought from Peru, pirules are now ubiquitous in San Miguel and central Mexico and seemingly indestructible. Their fine foliage is pendulous, somewhat willow-like. They can stand alone in the middle of a field, grow from a crack in the street, or on a rocky crag. After a nuclear attack pirules and cockroaches will be among the survivors. My kind of tree. All ten pirules I planted, about five feet tell, are very much alive.

(3) Jacarandas. Gorgeous trees that cover themselves with purplish flowers in late March, and quickly shed them to make room for lacy foliage. My three specimens–give them credit for courage and perseverance–tried to grow some leaves which were then nipped by frost early February. So they started growing again, this time from the ground up, which means I’ll see purple flowers in, say, maybe 20 years. The agronomist did not recommend jacarandas; that was my idea.

(2) Tepozans. These are true natives, and the leaves were used by the Aztecs analgesics, sedatives and diuretics, for rheumatism and also to cures sores and exposed ulcers. One of mine is hale and hearty, the other one dead. Given their long medicinal pedigree you’d think these suckers would have been the last trees to croak.

(4) Pinus greggi. Common around here, with bright green, bottle brush-like foliage that is now covered with candles apparently in expectation of the rainy season. One fatality. Should get a few more of these.

(4) Casuarinas or Australian Pine. Has long needles and makes a whooshing sound at the slightest breeze. They’re are supposed to be gorgeous when grown, which is a long way for me–mine are about four feet tall and not at all bushy.

The rest of the plantings are agaves, bougainvilleas and some climbers we put along the chain-link fence. Agaves went through a hard adaption after planting, making me fret that I’d be the first gardener to kill a dozen cacti in one fell swoop. In fact, I read later, agaves and other succulents should not be watered too much when a freeze might occur. The leaves plump up and can shrivel when they freeze. They struggled but seem to have made it, thank God. That would have been embarrassing.

The bougainvilleas are in hibernation, slowly coming alive though mostly from the bottom.

What have I learned from this mixed experience?

The first lesson is the hardest: Wait, in this case until just before the rainy season. Though the saplings are slowly leafing out, all they have done during the past six months is basically stay alive. We’ve watered them religiously but even that seems like a waste. Should have let nature take care of the water and acclimation of the trees.

Second lesson is also tough, though not as much so as waiting: Don’t be so damn cheap. A bushy, rambunctious 12-foot tree is not that much more expensive than a puny pre-adolescent. Stew and I are in our early 60s, and if we want to to see the foliage combinations, lush green screens and all the other horticultural yadda-yadda during our lifetimes, big is the way to go.

Third is to judiciously prune off about a third of the branches. I did that, but only two weeks ago and already the trees seem to have responded by greening up and sprouting leaves in previously bare spots. Judicious pruning means keeping in mind the eventual shape of the tree so that it doesn’t look like it got a cheap haircut. But prune you must. I should have done it earlier except the trees I bought looked so helpless (see my second point above) that pruning felt a bit like child abuse.

Pruning in this harsh climate might be particularly important. The wind is constantly blowing, stressing the trees in various ways, including by speeding water loss through the leaves. I should think that during the transplantation process there is some shock to the roots, including breakage. Pruning the foliage would compensate for any root losses of and restore the balance between the two.

The fourth point is particularly tough on the guy who plants the next batch of trees, who is not going to be me or Stew. You got to have large holes, which around here, particularly during the dry season, is a chore. The hardened black soil, so promising when wet, it almost impossible to work now.

I may have complicated the problem by hiring Don Francisco. Just by the use of “Don”–a title of respect used primarily on old guys like me, Don Alfredo–you can tell he was no strapping 30-something. Indeed, he was thin, slightly hunched and had a pointy white beard that curved forward and made him look a bit like a munchkin. What he lacked in youthfulness, though, Don Francisco made up by eagerness to work and effervescent disposition. He showed up at our gate asking for work. He was irresistible. How could I turn away such nice–if old–person?

I probably should have. I kept asking for deeper, wider holes that I don’t think ever materialized. I think he should have thoroughly combined the soil he dug up with generous amounts of compost and tierra lama, a sandy type of soil used to keep the native black dirt from caking up when it dries.

Instead he essentially backfilled with the same dirt and rocks. I have read somewhere that there is a “tough love” school of tree planting. You put them in whatever soil you have and just mutter apologetically, “Sorry, but that’s all we have,” as you walk away. According to this expert, the trees will be better for it by adjusting more quickly to the difficult environment.

I may go the opposite direction next time, including (gasp!) some chemical nitrogen source. I had a bagful of soil tested by the agricultural extension in Austin, Texas, and the results were rather alarming. The soil at the ranch is sorely deficient in nitrogen, which would make growing trees, particularly fruit trees, a difficult job. Dousing the soil with chemicals is not a way to go long-term but it might be a necessary initial correction. Compost certainly is helpful in improving soil quality but its nitrogen content is not very high. I’m not sure.

What I should do immediately, though, is just wait. The rains should start in the middle of June, about ten weeks from now. That means we should start putting in more trees and plants in, say, seven or eight weeks.

That feels like a long time.

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