The Case of the Moving Palm Tree

When we bought our house here in Tucson, it was full of deferred maintenance issues and was one short step away from being a tear-down. There was ample evidence of the previous owners lack of DIY savvy, and our low-ball offer–one the real estate agent tried to not present–was done without any contingencies. We knew the house had problems, and we didn’t want a guy who solved leaky toilet problems by bolting the bathroom doors shut to be in charge of repairs. Instead, we took a deep breath, bought the house as is, and then tackled the problems ourselves.

Built in the fifties and remodeled badly in the late seventies, our remodeling experience was a true-life version on that old Steve Martin movie, The Money Pit. Someone sent us a video of that movie at the time we were doing our extensive (down to the studs) six-month live-in remodel. When the kitchen in the movie blew up, I stopped watching, because it wasn’t funny any more because we had been there. Once we peeled off the sheet rock, we had discovered a nightmare of concealed wiring dangers lurking out of sight. I’m talking about 220 wires for both a clothes dryer and a commercial convection oven that had been twisted together without even so much as the benefit of a wiring nut. To this day, I’m surprised the place didn’t burn down around our ears.

There were air-conditioning problems; hot water heater problems; (Yes, my copy-editing mavens, I know the term hot water heater is redundant but it don’t know how else to say it!) air duct problems; (The air duct guys showed up with their machine, disappeared into the attic, vacuumed like crazy, came down three hours later and told us we had broken their machine, and then came back after lunch with a new machine to finish the job.) irrigation problems; (The landscaping was dying.) pool problems; (The creepy was dead and the pool was full of pond scum and palm tree debris.) as well as the aforesaid plumbing problems.

Just outside the front door and to the right was a palm tree that had been planted so close to the house that the trunk was encroaching on the edge of the roof and breaking the shingles. And just outside the back door was a 75 foot tall dead palo verde tree which, had it fallen over, would have taken out the family room, kitchen, and office.

We didn’t take on everything at once. We bought the place–a project rather than a home–in 2001 and we’ve been working on one issue after another ever since. The first thing we did was replace the filthy orange carpet in the living room. It had been installed in the late seventies, and I can tell you straight out, it had never been cleaned. How do I know that? Because when the carpet installers were laying the new carpet that first week, one of them came out and asked what they should do about the floor outlets. “What floor outlets?” we asked. It seems that the orange carpet in the living had been laid over not one but two floor outlets. They were sitting there, open and with live wires in them–again no wire nuts–and would have electrocuted anyone who had attempted to run a carpet cleaner over the top of them.

After that we went to work scrubbing blackened bath tubs and fixing leaky faucets and toilets. One toilet in particular was forever backing up which is how we came to have a Rot o-Rooter guy in our Rolodex and on speed dial on both our phones. He snaked the line several times and told us we had a root problem that he was never completely able to eradicate.

The lot sits on a busy street, and we were forever dealing with trash people threw into our yard as they drove past or with the broken bottles left from late night drinking parties held in our driveway. We wanted to build an outside wall, but first we had to deal with the tree problem. We’d had two saguaros in the front yard, but they had been planted in a spot where rain water pooled. As a consequence they died an ugly death from too much water. (By the way, I met the saguaro removal guy’s mother at the Tucson Festival of Books. Turns out she’s a fan now.) The dead palo verde in the back yard had to go and did, but the idea of simply chopping down that palm tree that was too close to the house but almost as tall as our roofline was more than either Bill or I could stand. So we hired a tree moving company. First they sent in a crew to dig a hole in the front yard where the saguaro had been. Then they excavated the root ball on the palm tree and voila, there was the real source of our backed up toilet problems. The palm tree had been planted over and had grown through the sewer line.

A photo of the fully grown palm tree.

Our palm tree, grown up.

Tree moving day turned out to be a major event. The guy with a crane that would hold 12,500 pounds arrived exactly as scheduled. Unfortunately, the Rot-o-Rooter guy did not. We needed him here to a. shut off the water; b. cut through the sewer line on both sides of the root ball; and c. replace and reconnect the missing piece of sewer pipe that was going bye-bye with the tree. The plumber showed up an hour late–with the time clock ticking on the crane–because someone had broken into his truck overnight and stolen his equipment. He had been delayed by a. making a police report and b. gathering up new equipment.

When the crane finally pulled the palm tree up and out, the operator told Bill. “This crane is built to hold 12,500 pounds. Your tree clocks in at 12,200.” Whew, but it worked. The tree, complete with that section of sewer pipe, went into the new hole in the middle of the yard. The dirt excavated from the new hole went into the hole where the tree had been. I can tell you, that tree did NOT look happy for a very long time. In fact, for months I thought it was a goner.

Photo of a Copper's Hawk

A visit from a Cooper’s Hawk.

We use the back yard and back patio far more than we use the front yard or front door. For one thing, we mostly come and go through the garage at the north end of the house by way of a sidewalk that leads to the kitchen door. For one thing, the front of the house faces west. The means that for most of the year it’s in full sun while the back of the house is in shade. The back patio is where I was sitting this week, doing what I do–writing. When a shadow flashed over my head, I looked up and saw a Cooper’s Hawk land in a tree just outside our interior wall. (Yes, we did get the outside wall built by a local tradesman who called his company “The Irish Setter.” He did a good job of it, too. There’s a place on the wall where there’s clearly rubber left behind by a tire tread. There is NO accompanying crack in the wall.)

The hawk settled into the Y of a nearby tree-trunk, crunching contentedly away at something I suspect was a baby quail, probably captured on or near our bird block. (It turns out that when you feed the little birds you are automatically feeding some of the big ones as well.) The hawk is big. Believe me, we keep a close eye on Bella when that guy is hanging around.

Sometime in the course of the day, Bill mentioned to me that the palm tree in the front yard was now double the size it had been when we moved it. He said it, but you know how it is. Sometimes the words a spouse says to you go in one ear and out the other. But for some reason I was out on the front porch this week and actually LOOKED at the palm tree that moved. Yes! Bill is right. It HAS doubled in size.

I’m so glad we moved it and saved both the tree and our roof in the process.

And guess what? That pesky toilet hasn’t backed up once since the palm tree went away.

21 thoughts on “The Case of the Moving Palm Tree

  1. Yes, it’s me again…always commenting on your blog. Why, because I enjoy your blogs so much I feel the need to respond. I can not imagine taking on a project house like that, but how wonderful to be able to put your stamp on it…and Bill’s of course. The reason for the comment this round is because my husband is a plumber/pipe fitter, and he routinely let’s his clients know if they have trees of any sort in their yard they need to put a cup of salt down their toilets once a week to keep the roots out. I think it’s just down the toilets, and maybe the kitchen sink too. If you need more info, let me know, he’s not home at this moment and I rarely call him unless it’s an emergency. Anyhow, thanks for starting my day off with another of your adventures.
    Have a great weekend…
    CJ

          • Hi Kitty, I talked to my husband and he said it isn’t advised in a septic because it could kill the bacteria used to break down the sewage. The salt would kill the roots but would be counter productive.
            You may want to check with your local septic company as they should have a solution that will work without hurting the bacteria at the same time.
            Good luck 🙂

          • Thanks CJ and please tell your husband thanks also. I will talk to the septic company to see if there is something that can kill roots.

            Have a great day! Kitty

  2. I have visited Tucson several times and have seen houses of the vintage of yours. They look perfect when they have been kept up or rescued as you did. These houses have character.

    Have the previous owners ever come back to see it?

    • I don’t know if it hurts the septic system, but in many years it doesn’t seem to have. Now and then I dump some baking soda into the kitchen drain followed by a few “glubs” of white vinegar. It will foam up which is fun to watch. Then add some boiling water to wash it down the drain. This is to break up hair and gunk.

      A neighbor who also has a septic tank told me about this for slow drains. Figured it couldn’t hurt as they are regular household products.

  3. How glad we are that you joined our neighborhood crew! Aren’t our hawks magnificent? I saw one grab a big dove mid-flight a couple of years ago; it was horrifying and very cool at the same time!

  4. Love all your books, enjoy reading your blog, my two places to be are here in AZ and in Seattle, so I REALLY enjoy your books. I so enjoy and look forward to all your books, and your blog, even though it was Tom Hanks in the Money Pit. Loved that movie. And boy, do I feel for you with the stopped up toilets. My house isn’t old but it has the “new” low flush/water tanks, which of course stop up all the time, and take several flushings, so no water is really saved at all. I also enjoyed seeing you at Poisoned Pen.

  5. This post references one of my pet peeves that people (neighbors) do, to themselves and each other. Hello to all wannabe gardeners, plants and trees grow! They can become others headaches when planted to close to houses, each other, property lines, fences, walkways, walls, sewer and water lines and pools. You wouldn’t expect a puppy to live in a tiny house when it grows into a large dog. Be kind to your plants, think future.
    That was a lot of expense to save your palm, kudos. I am thrilled it made the transition. How was it kept upright until it got re-rooted, or does something that heavy not move?

  6. Enough of the root went with it that it stayed upright on it’s own. Seeing it last week was like seeing it for the first time. I’m so glad that it’s not stuck scraping along beside the house!!!

  7. I just had to smile when you mentioned a spouse’s words going in one ear and out the other. I think it’s universal!

  8. I saw your e-mail when I took a break from reading second watch again. I’ve read it twice and truly enjoyed it. Every time I get homesick for the Seattle area I read one of your books. Remodel always costs twice as much as promised and takes 3 times as long. Enjoy your weekend and have a lovely Glass of wine.

  9. Love your comments and your books…from the amount of money you have spent on your house and yard, it’s probably a good thing your books are so popular!

  10. I just finished reading SECOND WATCH fir the third time. I like to read it about every 6 months. I always get such a warm and fuzzy feeling and fall in love with Beau all over again.He has such a sense of humanity about him. You give him that you make him that way. You should be proud .. Jan

  11. When my sister moved into a new house in Glendale, AZ, in 1959 they bought a little tiny palm tree from a bricklayer who worked with my brother-in-law. He had filled his back yard with seedlings and sold them for years, having a cash crop rather than landscaping. It was planted close to the corner of the house, and a few years ago I went by there. The neighborhood had gone to seed, and the tree was lifting the shingles up. It reminded me of the old adage, “The best time to plant a fruit tree is 20 years ago!”
    By the way, We are in Arizona this week, and turns out our son listens to audio books of yours when he is driving for his job! And he wants to know how to make Lefse, so we brought our paraphernalia along with us.

  12. Overcast with showers here in Dixon .ca. reminds me of Seattle except it’s only for a week not 9 months..
    Just finished ring in the Dead, really enjoyed it ..

  13. This is off/topic, but is remodeling in a way. I got “Moving Target” yesterday and see you have a new author’s photo. Altho I’ve liked all of the others, I think this one is the best. It shows your love of red.

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