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Bill Pramuk, Trees and People: A bull in the china shop
Trees and People

Bill Pramuk, Trees and People: A bull in the china shop


I must confess. As a young retail nursery worker in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, when asked for recommendations for fast-growing evergreen trees in home landscapes, I made some mistakes. I’d like to write them off to inexperience, lack of foresight or not asking enough questions about the planned tree location. And, by far, I was not the only perpetrator.

I am talking about one of the most popular and beloved tree species in the North Bay Area: coastal redwood. In the right setting, it is unmatched for elegant evergreen foliage, rapid growth, longevity, and resistance to pests and diseases. On the other hand, what looks cute as a youngster can become a monumental problem when it grows up.

A redwood with a trunk diameter of one inch, planted around 1980, can now have a trunk diameter of three or four feet. One specimen I have in mind, perhaps 50 years old, attained a trunk diameter of over six feet. And I was put in the position to make a recommendation for saving or removing it. It was planted only about 12 feet from a house, which now had doors sticking because roots had begun to lift the foundation.

Look across Old Town Napa from the vantage point of the Imola bridge, or West Napa from the plateau at Alston Park. The tallest things you see are redwoods, and it looks more like a forest than a city. It is a pretty sight, and I hope Napa can retain that character for a long time.

Sadly, all too many of those redwoods are now wreaking havoc with pavement, curbs, gutters, driveways, sewer, and septic field lines, fences, and even home foundations. Why? It’s obvious, isn’t it? A big tree grows a big root system and a big trunk.

Up until the early 80s, the redwoods we were selling were grown from seed. I remember Pete Van Winden sowing seeds from the redwoods — now gone — along the south boundary of the Pueblo Garden Center, in the 1970s.

The wild seedlings have natural variability in color and form. Some are very slender and tall, others rangy and wider, some dark green, others paler and turning bronzy in the cold of winter.

Then, new cultivated varieties — clones grown from cuttings  — were introduced into the trade. The best known are Aptos Blue, and Soquel. Other lesser-known cv’s are Los Altos, Woodside, Santa Cruz, and many others. Most were selected from naturally occurring forest specimens, and some from commercial nursery crops grown for reforestation.

Benefits of the varieties include: Predictable form, color, and size. One variety known as Korbel KT is dwarfish with a slender columnar form. It is one of the few that can actually fit into a city garden, but it does not really look much like a redwood.

One of the wonderful features of Sequoia sempervirens relates to the species epithet, sempervirens, which means ever-living (or green). When cut down to a stump or even burned to a blackened pole, they have the ability to sprout and live on for centuries or even millennia.

Here in Napa they are listed in the Municipal Code as a “Protected Native Species” under certain circumstances: Within the city limits, trunk diameter 3-feet of larger, and located on a commercial property of any size or residential property one acre or larger.

Redwoods tend to get a lot of respect from homeowners when the specimen is their own tree. But when it’s a neighbor’s tree, not so much. They are the cause of consternation and neighbor disputes on a pretty regular basis.

For me, it is like “Oy! Not another redwood problem!”

A classic case is that 6-footer. Careful excavation revealed numerous main anchoring roots growing directly toward the house, 12 feet away. Cutting the roots near the trunk to forestall further damage to the house would be likely to compromise the structural stability of the tree, not to mention severely harming its health. Who wants to see a six-foot diameter trunk falling onto the roof? Certainly not the guy who made the recommendation for care.

Nowadays I generally recommend planting them at least 50 feet away from homes and infrastructure. And where a fairly compact form is appropriate, plant Soquel.

Where root pruning is a viable option to forestall infrastructure problems a low-risk distance from the trunk for cutting roots is a radius from the trunk equal to about five times the trunk diameter if you are cutting on only one side of the root system and if the tree is in good health.

For the 6-footer, that distance would be somewhere in the middle of the house.


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Bill Pramuk is a registered consulting arborist. Visit his website, Email questions to or call him at 707-363-0114

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