LET INGA TELL YOU:
If I had to sum up what I’ve spent my time on during the last three years, it would be one word: trees.
I wrote a column a year ago called “It was more than just a tree” about the beautiful 35-foot kaffir plum tree that was not only the focal point of our front yard for four decades but was the backdrop for every family photo. I’d spent hundreds of happy hours reading in its abundant year-round shade. In earlier years it was constantly full of kids, both ours and neighbors.
But in 2015, I started to notice signs that all was not well. Sap began to ooze out of its trunk. Its leaves were not as abundant. I decided a professional consult was necessary. Let me say that you would think that persons in the agricultural pest industry and/or professional arborists could agree on a diagnosis. But you would be wrong. The tree was sprayed, it was cut back by 40 percent, it had stuff drilled into its trunk, and inserted into the ground around its root line.
It was the sixth tree professional who probably got it right: He looked me right in my 68-year-old eyes. “Well, you know, lady, sometimes things just get old and DIE.”
“I’m aware of the concept,” I said coolly, making a mental note to savage him on Yelp.
And yup, we did finally have to declare it dead. We had a weepy ceremony for it and thanked it for all the pleasure it had brought us.
Kaffir plum trees turned out to be scarce so we decided to go with a Chinese Elm since they obviously do very well in this climate. Given that we don’t have 40 years to watch this tree get big, we went with a 17-foot tree that required a great big, really expensive crane to lower it off its flatbed truck and into the equally expensive new hole that had been dug for it. Since trees have always fed my soul, I named it Alma (Latin for nourishing). It also sounded good with “elm tree.”
Obviously Alma wasn’t producing much shade (none really) but I sat outside reading all last spring and summer beaming good thoughts at Alma and wishing her speedy growth. But from the get-go, she exhibited serious droop. “Just a little transplant shock” said the landscape guy we’d bought it from who installed it. “Don’t worry.”
But then all the bark fell off. The leaves fell off. The leaves that didn’t fall off with covered by some black sooty bug. The landscape guy maintained it was being overwatered even though we had had a custom bubbler system with its own personal valve installed just for this tree, and the front yard sprinklers reconfigured so they wouldn’t touch the tree. I call the arborist guy he recommended who is probably the only arborist in San Diego we hadn’t already hired for the last tree.
The arborist showed up in October and said heck no, it’s not getting enough water. He sprayed the bugs, and drilled stuff into the trunk, and put special fertilizer into the soil. “You’ll just have to wait until next February to see if it makes it,” he said, not sounding optimistic.
February came around. Alma still looked positively moribund. Every other Chinese Elm in San Diego was in full bloom but Alma’s few remaining leaves were falling off at record rates. Everyone who walked by said, “I’m so sorry your new tree died.” Even our lawn maintenance guy concurred. “Muerto,” he announced.
I called the arborist for a second consult only to learn he had died. I regarded this as a bad karmic sign. Inanimate solidarity?
The landscape guy who installed the tree started hedging on the warranty, and stopped answering calls.
And then one morning in early April as I went out to get the newspaper, I thought I saw something green on the tree. Yes, it was a little tiny green bud. I went to get Olof. Of course, we’d been down this road with the last tree. Sometimes they like to toy with you. Even the kaffir plum produced 37 carefully-counted leaves in its last gasp.
But then every day there were more buds, and finally — yes! — some actual leaves! We still didn’t dare hope. But slowly over the next two weeks, Alma burst into full bloom. Her bark came back. The bugs were gone. While most of the trees on our property have flourished on benign neglect, we are terrified of over- or under-watering Alma. Is she getting enough fertilizer? Not enough?
We’re still going to worry obsessively about Alma for the next few years. But seeing her abundant foliage is a source of incredible joy to both of us. Could there be actual shade in our future? We are literally and figuratively rooting for you, Alma.
— Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in La Jolla Light. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org