Choosing a Leader (or I Haven’t Killed the Tree Yet)

Hello, and who ARE you?  (Besides you, of course, Mom.)

The pepper tree lives.  And grows, rapidly.

The last time I wrote, I vowed to curb my over-pruning tendencies and put away my pruning shears for one whole year.  Well, of course, I didn’t.  Lucky for me, it seems that the tree will need more frequent pruning to keep it in check and well-behaved.

So I have broken down and taken the shears to the tree TWICE since last I posted in late April.  The first time, it was due to a seeming need to choose a leader. . . .

[At this point, I think it’s important to point out that this is all an experiment for me.  For once, nerdy academic that I am, I’ve not memorized the manual before attempting something new.  In fact, at best, I’ve skimmed the manual.]

In my LIGHT manual skimming, one thing that stuck was that if you want height, it’s important for a tree to have one clearly dominant vertical trunk (aka The Leader).  Vertical shoots produce a growth hormone and, if there is more than one, they dampen each others’ growth.  Cut off competitors and the leader will grow more strongly.  So I decided that I wanted my tree to grow taller faster and took out the competitor.

That said, it’s hard to objectively say if I truly ‘needed’ to choose a leader as I am pruning intuitively–and how seriously can we take the intuition without experience?  I guess that’s a question I’m trying to answer.  The assumption being that intuition guided by experience produces the best outcome.

But choose a leader, I did.

Here are the ‘before’ pics.  You should be able to see that there are two vertical shoots.


The candidate on the left is actually just a branch off the original trunk, but, as you can see, it’s growing more vertically than the original leader.  It would be possible to train the original back to a more vertical shape or to let the slight bend add to the tree’s character.  However, I still wanted the tree to develop more height and was concerned that the original leader was growing in such a bowed manner that it might jeopardize the long-term viability of the tree.  So I went with the shoot on the right.  See ‘after’ below.

IMG_3263 IMG_3262

The pepper tree has responded well with rapid growth.  I ended up staking it to train it vertically anyway as the asymmetrically selected branches gained weight and were pulling the top of the tree to the right.  [Beware of just poking a stake in next to a tree–you can knock roots off.]


With all the new growth, as you can see from the picture above, the lower branches on the right were growing directly into the stair railing.  Not going to work in the long run.  So I cut them (and the lower branch on the left) back to a third of their length.  I’m keeping them around for some extra leaves, ie nutrition, while the tree grows to the desired height and seems to have enough leaves on the upper, developing branches to sustain it.


Another tidbit that I’ve gleaned about pruning–the branches stay at the height from the ground that they start at.  All vertical growth in a tree comes from the leader, not from the base.  Important to keep in mind when imagining the tree’s potential future shape.

If my pepper tree doesn’t make it through all this experimentation, my next pick is a New Zealand tea tree.  So delicate and gorgeous up close and so suited to our climate. . . more on tea trees another time.  It has occurred to me that, on an unconscious level, I’m actually in the process of slowly murdering my pepper tree so that I can replace it with a tea tree.  Time will tell. . . .

Now, if only pruning brains was as seemingly straightforward as pruning trees.  With trees, one can kind of know what effect on the whole a cut to one branch is going to make.  And the branches are so accessible and few, and pruning shears are more easily wielded than words.

Until next time.


Hello, My Name Is Lois, and I Am An Over-Pruner [Or What I Learned Volunteering With Friends of the Urban Forest]

Today’s picture of my over-pruned pepper tree; ‘a Charlie brown tree,’ my fellow FUF volunteer, Kristen, aptly noted.

About a week ago now, I played hooky from the office and attended a ‘No Frown Friday Tree Care Day’ volunteer event with Friends of the Urban Forest [or FUF.]  So many good things about that day.  For starters, the weather was glorious–sunny, cool in the shade, clear.

We met up at 11 am in the Marina.  The majority of the volunteers were from Twitter*.  We volunteers were divvied up into teams; each team led by a FUF employee or two and given a list of trees, previously planted by FUF, that were due for some attention.

Our team–Allegra, me, Kristen.

Our FUF employee and team leader, Allegra, was full of knowledge and a willing teacher.  What a pleasure to be around someone so stoked about their job.

We approached each tree with the following objectives–

1)  Examine the roots.  Brush the soil, mulch, etc, away from the ‘flare’ so that the base of the tree isn’t getting fungus-y due to water collection.  Check for roots that might be circling and thus choking the tree.

A gingko with circling roots.
Same gingko with circling roots removed.

2) Check the leaves for any signs of infection/infestation.

3)  Look for the leader.  Basically, you want to trim down any vertical shoots that might be in competition with the leader so that the leader gets the good stuff and the tree attains maximum height.

Allegra peeking inside the foliage to determine which one of these branches is the best choice for leader.

4)  Check for damage due to rubbing/crossing branches.

Note the dark area on the trunk, likely due to rubbing against the stabilizing strap.

5)  When considering branches to keep or remove, keep in mind that San Francisco regulations require 14 ft clearance on the street and 8 ft clearance on the sidewalk.  Although most of the trees we visited were too young and short to begin taking branches off at these heights.  It was more about envisioning which branches would be only temporary and cutting them back to keep them in check for now.

So after these considerations and determinations, we pruned!!!!!  I did my first three-step cut with a handsaw–first cut, a couple inches out on the trunk on the under side so that the branch won’t peel back excess bark from the tree as it’s coming off; second cut, the main cut, outside the first cut and on the top side of the branch, to take off the bulk of the branch;  the third cut, up against the collar of the tree to remove the stub left behind.

Our first tree pre-pruning. Ack! Can’t remember the type of tree! Anyone?
Kristen lopping off one of the competitors for leader.
After. So well-coiffed.

We made a pile of the removed branches and periodically checked that we had not removed more than a third of the tree’s foliage.  Trees need adequate leaves to make food, especially important after undergoing these pruning injuries.

When finished, a door hanger was left for the homeowner with tips and maintenance, and notations were made about the tree’s condition for FUF’s database.

What I learned?  I’m over-pruning!  Not really a surprise, but I’m taking it seriously now.  For some reason, it finally got through to me that each time a tree is pruned, it’s undergoing surgery and needs time to recover.  Maybe because, this time, I made the connection between pruning and my own experience recovering from a c-section.  I certainly wouldn’t want to have one of those every week or month.  So I’m going to try to restrain myself from pruning the pepper tree again for one whole year!

How will I manage my urge to prune?!  Distractions and more trees.  With that in mind, I brought home a clipping from our last tree of the day, a gingko.  I scraped off some of the bark at the base, dipped it in rooting hormone, planted it in soil and covered it with a plastic bag.  Fingers crossed that it develops roots.  It may be my opportunity to practice a little bonsai.

Sans plastic bag–looking a bit droopy today. Grow some roots, little gingko!!!

Thanks again, FUF!!!!  What an awesome organization; I can’t wait to go out with you guys again.

*Twitter, like many of the Bay area tech companies, requires employees to complete a certain number of volunteer hours each year.  A lovely idea.  Please feel free to use my comments section below to debate whether or not this effort towards community involvement is enough to offset their (perceived?) negative impact on the Bay area (housing costs and availability, etc).  I have no opinion at the moment.

The Pepper Tree Vision (or Why I Am Doing This)

I know the question has been burning you up since my first frenzied week of posts.  Why the hell is she doing this?  There are many reasons actually–all of which we can explore ad nauseum in the future–but reason enough for now is the view from my kitchen sink.

Current kitchen view.
You are viewing my internal stairwell and the external wall of my bathroom.

And, below, what I have in mind.  Grow, Pepper Tree, Grow!

Don't tell my 4 year old that I used his crayons.  And Spiderman with a Carnage arm, aka Fire Claw.
Don’t tell my 4 year old that I used his crayons. And Spiderman.

But, what’s that?  You want to see The Pepper Tree?!  Not that much has happened in a month, but here ’tis. . . both before and after a touch of pruning.


If you’re very good at finding differences, you may notice some teeny tiny fresh sprouts here and there–now missing.

Stay tuned to see photos of what I do NOT want my pepper tree to look like!

Oh, and here’s what you can do with your  pruning leftovers.



Did I say I’d blog again in a month?  Make that a day.  I’m trying to manage expectations in an effort not to disappoint.

Well, I couldn’t stop pruning.  For one thing–oh, how I hate to admit this–those original cuts were made with regular household scissors!  Yes, it’s true and terribly wrong.  Never do it!!!!!  But then I bought a new pair of pruning shears and went back and cleaned up my original cuts (not too close to the trunk and not too far away) and took off a few more errant sprouts.


And, here’s the updated tree.  The changes are subtle; can you spot them?


Meanwhile, a spider has taken up residence at the top!  I imagine he was impressed with my pruning skills and the aesthetic potentials of the tree and just had to live there–at penthouse level.  Let’s see, can you make out the black dot on the fourth siding panel down?  [I definitely need to upgrade my iPhone so I can get better pictures for you guys.]


One last thought I wanted to share . . . the original leader actually died and had to be removed! (Yes, this is exclamation point worthy.)  So it will be interesting to see which of these competing shoots at the top I will choose to become the new leader.  There are methods to ‘train’ a leader by strapping one of the shoots to a stick and assisting the trunk back into a straight line, but I’m inclined to let this develop into an interesting feature of the tree.

Until next time, tomorrow or next month. . . .

Introducing the Pepper Tree

Here it is!  This is how it looked the first day that it arrived in my new apartment. . . mostly.  It had two root suckers* that were pulled off before the picture was taken and it’s possible that I may have trimmed a tiny sprig or two before I caught myself.

*Root suckers are new growth coming off the base of the tree.  It’s important to remove them–if you want a standard one-trunk tree–as they compete with the main trunk for resources.

IMG_2966And this is how it looked after I applied the few pruning principles of which I know.


The principles:

1) Remove the dead stuff.  It’s brown, doesn’t have anything green growing out of it, and when broken off is still brown inside.

2) If two branches are crossing, remove one.

3)  Remove shoots/limbs/what-have-you that are growing down, towards the ground.

4)  If any branches are growing straight up, remove those.  They are competition for the leader.

5)  Don’t cut the apical tip, ie, the leader, as it’s where the height of the tree comes from.  The exception would be if you don’t want your tree to get any taller.

6)  Don’t remove more than 30% of the foliage; your tree needs to make food with those leaves.  (I have a hard time with this one as I can get a bit pruning-happy.)

7) And, after that, just remove any branches that you don’t think you like where they’re going.

Disclaimer:  Following my pruning methods may not get you a normal (standard) looking tree.  I believe my experimental techniques will fall into the realm of Japanese tree pruning, or niwaki.

Here are two more views of the Pepper Tree, as seen from my kitchen window and entryway, respectively.

IMG_2979 IMG_2977

Expect to get your next update in about a month.  Be well.

The Pepper Tree Project Begins

As soon as I figure out how to post photos, this will get a whole lot more interesting.

For now, this is a sort of a bookmark on an idea born of a love of Japanese aesthetics and plants, the up-close observation of someone my own age dying, divorce, and twenty-three years of ‘driving life into a corner’ [yes, I read Thoreau at 17].

In the spring, my partner (it’s a man) of eight years and I decided to go our separate ways.  An easy thing to do in some ways–we have little in the way of accumulated wealth–and hard to do in others; we have a 4 year old child.  If this blog gets going, you will learn more about my son another time.  He’s a delight.

In the past few years, I’ve seen that the pain of learning can pay off, i.e. how investments reap benefits over time. For example, I started running when I was 23, I began to like it when I was 32, and I began to love it when I was 39.  I began sewing seriously at 28; today I make most of my own clothes.   I married a man at 32, started a private psychiatry practice, and watched them track in vastly different directions over the next eight years.  I had a son in 2010.  And now he’s four and has his own thoughts.  I built a garden (and a drip irrigation system!) when my baby-daddy (heretofore referred to as BD) and I moved to the Outer Sunset three years ago and have been intrigued by how it is unfolding over time–especially a purple-tipped acacia, at which I have been hacking mercilessly for a couple years now; still it has survived. . . despite the loss of its apical tip.  I’ll stop here with examples, because I imagine you get my point.

So to the topic of trees. . . another major tree influence in my life is a ficus that I was given as a parting gift, in my third year of psychiatric residency at a community mental health clinic, by a young woman (19? 21?) who had been recently diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder.  She was working at a gardening store and had a moving amount of gratitude towards me.  Since finishing residency in 2004, the ficus has traveled from office to office with me.  In the early years, I would ignorantly cut it back when it poked me with an errant limb while writing progress notes at SFSU’s Student Health Clinic, and, then, slowly, in the following years in private practice, I learned about its light and water requirements, while moving it from place to place around the office.  More recently, during construction of the above-mentioned garden, I read a book on pruning and, finally, began informed cutting on my poor, but very hearty, ficus. And so my tree pruning obsession was born.

[Here I give *a nod* to my original inspiration:  a tree that filled the entire office of a residency mentor (hi, John!).   I never did ask how long he had been cultivating that tree, but I calculate 15 years.  Longer, maybe.  Mine’s at 10+ and seems a bit stunted by comparison.  Maybe I’ll have to do a field trip to his office at some point and do an interview for the blog.]

Anyway, back to the pepper tree. . . . for my 40th birthday in May 2014, I asked my BD for four trees in half wine barrels to create a privacy screen in our backyard.  I remember my ex asking if I was sure that I didn’t want jewelry or something instead.  I was truly amazed (disturbed? outraged?)  that he didn’t know me well enough to know that the trees would please me so, so, so much more.  The trouble that was brewing then erupted shortly thereafter.  (And, no, we are not ending our marriage solely based on the fact that BD didn’t know what I would want for my birthday.)  I moved out on the 4th of July–the meaning is not lost on me–and filed for divorce in October.  One of those 40th-birthday-gift trees, a pepper tree, did not make it into the soil and, until yesterday, had been languishing in my former backyard.

Today that pepper tree arrived at my new home (thank you, BD) and will be occupying a primo spot on the top landing of my apartment’s inner stairwell.  I can view the tree from windows in my entryway as well as from the kitchen sink, and I have a vision of how it will grow and bring some of nature’s magic to my urban home.  This blog is intended to be a record of its life–among other things.  Yes, yes, I know you want a picture now.  Back with that soon.

Tree pruning, brain pruning, psychiatry–google it.  Yes, I’m aware and will elaborate more on how my career evolution has paralleled the tree’s growth and changes in posts to come.  XO, Lo.

P.S. Goodbye, Outer Sunset Sewist.