Thursday, May 17, 2012

If a tree falls...

We are lucky enough to live in a leafy urban neighbourhood where a high canopy of sugar maples casts sun-dappled shade on the gardens and sidewalks.  But the graceful giants are all over a century old, and several more seem to fall every year.  Everyone is becoming increasingly protective of the trees around here, glaring indignantly at the sound of chainsaws.  This spring, WE are to blame for the new gaping hole in the canopy.  We did it advisedly, for safety, but even so we feel sick about it.  Here's what we've lost:

The gorgeous, irreplaceable sugar maple canopy, before
And the gap in the canopy, now
And here's why we did it:
The devastating split in the trunk
The tree, earlier in its life, suffered an injury that created a 20' long split in the trunk.  Although the tree was making a valiant attempt to close in the split, it continued to trap water and rot from the inside out.  Five years ago, we had an arborist assess the tree.  He performed a weighted stress test that revealed quite a bit of movement at the base.  The tree lacked a root flare on two sides of the trunk, another possible indicator of risk.  However, the canopy of the tree was still strong.  He said the tree would continue to weaken, but he couldn't tell us how long we had.  We waited, possibly foolishly, another five years.

Can you blame us?
The canopy looking southwest (it's the middle tree that's doomed)

And looking north and south (the trunk illuminated by the sun)

If we'd kept our heads in the clouds, we might've been okay, but every time we walked by the uneven terrain caused up to watch our step, and when we looked down, we saw this:

Sawdust (in increasingly large chunks), rot, insects, lack of root flare
 And we worried.

Knowing we were gambling with the advent of every major storm, we finally agreed we would take the tree down this year.  We wish it could've happened before the trees leafed out. 

The beginning of the end--the view, forever altered, from my studio

going, going, going, going....

The final pass with the big chainsaw

They felled the final piece of the trunk
The rot was bad, especially half way up, where the tree could've snapped...
The man who felled it said he could tell by the way the chainsaw went through the trunk that the wood was soft and said we could sleep easier now. 

but perhaps not quite as bad as we'd hoped
All of the darker area in the trunk was quite wet, and much of it spongy.  Who can say how much longer the tree may have lasted.  Now we'll never know.  Alas.

Five hours to fell what took 120 years to grow.

We still feel a little sick.

Still, maybe our little 10 year old tulip tree will take advantage of the gap. And we can enjoy redesigning our newly light filled side yard.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Long and Winding Stair, Part 1: Flipping the Stairs

Looking up the narrow stairway 

Our old house was converted to a duplex in the late 1940s.  As part of the conversion, the main stairs were walled off.  Worse, the stairs began immediately at the front door with no breathing space at all. When we first bought the house, the font door opened onto a tiny vestibule with one door leading to the main floor apartment and directly to the left, the stairs, narrow and airless, leading to another door to the second floor apartment.

Looking left from the front door
The initial vestibule walls and the doors are long gone, but several years ago we hatched a plan to open up the stairs and flip their orientation to give us a much more open front entry hall.  Last summer, we began to execute our plan.

Looking down the narrow stairway
As we have with all of our house renovation projects, first we drew.  Some careful site measurements led us to the realization that if we wanted to flip our stairs within the same footprint, we would need to make use of two split landings to get the necessary height under the stair at the front door.  Here's the new floorplan:
The new "flipped" stair plan
Pages of freehand sketching (not shown), were magically transformed into SketchUp drawings by N.

The new stair plan in SketchUp

The main floor view from the front of the house

The second floor landing

The side view (note the split landings)
Then we visited many stair builders to find someone who could build what we wanted (which was a saga in itself) and gathered bids. And then, on a scorching hot day in July, came the point of no return:
Demolition day 1
Many more demolition days followed, and most looked very similar. I'll spare you the mess.  The problem with a stair demolition is that we still required the stairs.  So at the end of each day of tearing out the stairs, we rebuilt the stairs and climbed, exhausted, up to bed.  We enacted this daily Penelopean feat (only in reverse, and with more machismo), over the course of several weeks.  Here's just one shot of some of the strange geometry of both having and demolishing the stairs simultaneously:

Escheresque. Old stringer and new, temporary stringer, side by side
Bit by bit, we tore out the old walls, framed new walls, and one day, everything was made new and bright with a deep coating of pale pink spray foam insulation.

Pink foam insulation and framing for a possible future window in the stairwell
And then, just one day later, a day that had us contemplating an elevator instead of stairs, the new stairs appeared!

The new, reversed stair

It would be several months before the railing installation could begin.  In that time, we installed a glamourous temporary railing of clamps and 2 x 4s, had the room drywalled and taped, framed the under stair closet, and painted the room. 

Next: The Long and Winding Stair, Part 2, The Railing

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Riches to Rags

Or, in like a lamb, out like a lion.

Our Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata) obviously didn't know that old adage about the changeability of March weather.
March 22, 2012
On March 21st, the day before I took the picture above, the magnolia broke bloom (a full month earlier than its typical bloom time).  A day later it was festooned with stunningly beautiful white flowers and abuzz with flying insects. 

Almost full bloom

March, 28, 2012
Then two successive nights of below freezing temperatures withered the blossoms on their stems, and there they remain, brown and bedraggled like dirty rags, yet still firmly attached!   No petals will blow gracefully from the tree and litter the ground this year.  Can't say what became of all the insects.

March, 28, 2012
In yesterday's Globe and Mail, gardener Marjorie Harris warned, as ever, of the dangers of rushing the season and the wisdom of letting the garden rest until the soil has truly warmed.  If only she could speak to the trees! I confess, like my magnolia, I couldn't wait and was out pulling the shoots of garlic mustard--my current nemesis--while the magnolia bloomed.  Today, snow and sleet returned to weigh down the heads of dozens of my early blooming daffodils who've given up and are having a little lie down in the snow.

Same tree, last year, May 5th!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Backyard thugs unmasked: Sciurus carolinensis

We've had our share of losses at the teeth of the local rodent population.  Just before bloom time each year, squirrels decapitate my spring bulbs, and rabbits have decimated many of our small trees and shrubs while searching for food in past harsh winters (see here).  This year's mild winter had lessened our worries about more property damage.  But then one balmy February morning we looked out the window to see this:

Can you spot it?  Look for the tree limb with its bark completely stripped

That limb belongs to a beautiful basswood tree (genus Tilia), which although it appears behind our fence is actually our tree. We hope to reclaim it when we re-fence the property, but only if it can survive this current onslaught.  At first we suspected raccoons because the damage seemed so extensive, but then we caught the true fiend in the act!

Caught in the act
It was a grey squirrel (well, a black grey squirrel, but same species, Sciurus carolinensis).

Oooooh, you varmint!
Now, I abhor violence, but at this moment I was really longing, like Alfie, for a Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot, range model air rifle BB gun.  Unfortunately, as you can see, we're in an urban area (note the alignment of neighbouring windows and offending animal) that precludes any violent action--even against known felons.  And so, we plot.   Squirrel catapult?  Squirrel scarecrow?   

Apparently, pregnant female squirrels have been known to strip the bark from several favoured tree species, especially basswood--well known as a source of cordage*--in the search for nesting material.  So, we can look forward to a rapidly expanding population of squirrels who by genetics or observation will continue to strip the bark from our trees.    Squirrel taxidermy?

*I didn't actually know about basswood's cordage potential until this year and neither apparently did the local the local squirrel population, because in twelve winters here this is the first time I've witnessed this specific form of destruction. My source was Google, but theirs? 

A dropped bundle of freshly stripped basswood cordage, now apparently sullied by snow and unsuitable for nesting

the damage done
What we do know, through experience, is that this behaviour is certain to spark copycat crimes.  And I would like to nip them, so to speak, in the bud.  Any suggestions of just desserts for bark-stripping squirrels would be welcome.