Wednesday, August 3, 2011


People often ask to have the "suckers" removed from trees.
Sometimes clients ask me if I will be removing the suckers from their trees as I prune. The answer is always a little bit complicated. The client usually wants them removed, but it is rarely in the best interest of the trees to do so. For those who have come to associate that "clean" look with well maintained trees, I have to explain why this practice is not a good idea. 

The problem starts with the name itself. “Sucker” is a common term applied to the small interior sprouts that grow from the stem and major branches of a tree. Some people limit it to just the whips that grow up from the roots or base of the tree, but most of the time the gist is that there are a lot of dense, ugly little clusters of branches crowding up the middle. They want to see nice, “clean” branches arching gracefully to a nice spray of leaves at the ends.

Looks good to some, but weakens trees.
Everyone has a different opinion about how far this should go, of course, but the basic idea is the same. At its worst, this practice is sometimes called "lion-tailing" or "poodle-dogging" because of the puff of green leaves at the end of long, bare poles.

There are many problems with this. First, there is no need to remove sprouts; these branches don't “suck” anything more from the tree than any other branch. Second, the more prolific the sprouts, the more likely it is that the tree truly needs them to shade itself and produce energy in response to some kind of damage. Third, the more we remove the interior branches from a tree, the more likely it is that the tree will suffer large branch failures in years to come. Fourth, in most cases, the more we strip out these interior branches, the more vigorously
Multiple wounds and potential for sun scald

the tree will try to replace them, making this an endless cycle.

Sucker” is just a poor way to describe the interior growth of a tree. Every new leaf a tree grows, regardless of its location, requires a small expenditure. However, as soon as the leaf gets started, it begins to produce energy for itself and the whole system. If there is any truth to this myth, it is this: to some degree, a tree has a finite amount of resources to fuel the photosynthetic reaction. If there are a lot of interior branches using some of these resources, there is less to be sent to the top of the tree, so it may take longer to reach its full height. Later, I will explain why this is actually a good thing, but it may help explain why this issue won't go away.

First, a little background: Tree branches grow in two ways. Each branch gets longer by adding new cells to its tip; this is called primary growth. After the first year, the branch continues to get longer but also increases in diameter by adding a new layer of wood just under the bark; this is called secondary growth. (It is secondary growth that creates the rings we count to learn the age of trees).
Cut one, get several.
Every branch supports its parent. New branching occurs when a latent bud on the surface of a branch is stimulated by sunlight. In the upper canopy, this means the highest tips keep reaching higher, while the widest tips keep reaching wider, and the older parts of branches keep getting thicker.

So, imagine a large tree trunk, and a few feet up a really large branch comes off the side. The stem is thicker below that branch than above it, creating taper. So, a tree that has been excessively "elevated" all its life is roughly the same diameter where it originates as it has where the branching begins. A tree that has had more low branches retained may not be as tall, but it will be stouter and stronger.

Similarly, a branch in a full canopy has developed a distinct taper along its length, which makes it much stronger. This is why slowing a tree's vertical growth by diffusing its energy throughout many small branches can actually benefit the tree greatly over the long term. 
This Oak was sunburned badly.

But, if a dramatic change occurs to suddenly put more light on the trunk (such as a storm break or removal of an adjacent tree), you get a quick flush of interior sprouts. Without the sprouts, the bark of the tree can be damaged by the sudden increase in sunlight, just as people sunburn. Sun scald can kill a section of bark, which is the tree's best defense against disease and insects. It might not even be very noticeable to the casual observer, but this damage can become a weak point where the branch will break someday. Further, since now all the active buds are at the tips, the branches get longer and longer without significant taper; this puts more strain over the length of the limb (the way a dumbbell tires us out more at arm's length than it does when held close to the body). 

“Thinning” the canopy, a practice commonly promoted by some companies, isolates branches, which are ill-equipped to resist damage by themselves. A dense canopy parts the wind like a building, allowing branches to support each other. Add to that, a branch with all its weight at the end whips around more violently;
These "clean" trees are more likely to break in the wind.
interior growth dampens the motion and spreads out the energy of the storm. As a result, denser trees sustain comparatively minor damage.

But if the branch does break, a well developed interior canopy still provides an advantage. Regardless of where those long, bare, untapered poles break, the only real recourse is to remove the entire branch back to its parent. But if we have preserved the interior crown, when a branch breaks near the end we can make a good cut a short distance inward and leave the next strong sprout to replace the lost section.

All of this is complicated by the fact that, in Austin, we have a lot of mature Live Oak trees. Live Oaks keep a dense canopy of leaves through the winter, so they tend to shade out their interior branches, developing an open crown naturally. So, homeowners look at their neighbors' oaks and want their trees look the same. Unfortunately, all trees are not equal. Ash trees especially will suffer the effects I have described above when routinely stripped out. Elms and Pecans, Hackberries, and most of our other large trees also tend to suffer more than Live Oaks as a result of this type of pruning. I can make your Ash tree look somewhat like a Live Oak, but I cannot make it nearly as strong as one.

Sprouts grow soon after drastic changes in sun.

When faced with all these facts, it's a rare client that still insists on the strip-em-out annual program. Still, leaving interior sprouts is sometimes unattractive. I think it's okay to let the trees be ugly for awhile, but not everyone agrees. 

For those who insist on improving the appearance of a particularly crowded tree, it is completely acceptable to thin out the sprouts to a few strong-looking, well spaced branches. In highly structured gardens, it might even be helpful to “clean” a short section of the largest limbs near each major branch union. The select few remaining branches, with any luck, will develop more quickly than the individual members of the cluster; they are likely to provide just as much shade as the whole group would have done. 

By highlighting the tree's structure in this way, a talented arborist can keep the majority of the interior growth while distracting the eye from the shaggy sprouts that are helping the tree recover from a significant, stressful event (or events). A healthy tree will either develop some of the remaining sprouts into permanent branches, or higher branches will shade them out. Over time, the ugly clusters of sprouts will naturally fade away. Clients are happy and trees recover. Sprouts become a non-issue.

A well informed consumer will learn to look at the finished job differently; the best pruning work will focus on dead branches and specific problems (clearance issues, disease, natural damage, etc.).  Rather than looking for a drastic change in the tree's appearance and a huge pile of green branches going into the chipper or trailer, they learn to expect mostly dead wood on the ground and a tree that looks a lot like it did before the pruning. There are exceptions, of course, but even a tree that needs to be reduced should look similar to when it started. Proper reductions occur in the dense, green tips where loss of branches is not as noticeable.

But some companies continue to promote the practice of removing “suckers,” while others will readily comply with a client's request to do so without informing them of the consequences. An uneducated consumer might end up with severely damaged trees despite the effort and expense of hiring a “professional.” And so, sadly, it turns out the real “suckers” are the people who get burned by these unethical and/or ignorant companies. 

Protect your trees from unnecessary damage; whenever you interview potential arborists about the work on your trees, be sure to insist that interior live branches will not be removed unless absolutely necessary. If you have the time, ask for references and look at the company's previous work to make sure they understand what you are talking about. If more consumers do these things, the companies that prey on suckers might be forced to learn proper tree care.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Random thoughts on a rainy day

Something I did today that I should do more often: ate food I made from actual ingredients in my own house.
Something that really didn't surprise me today: really old Malt-o-Meal from the back of the refrigerator tastes kind of rancid. That wasn't the only food as mentioned above, thankfully.
Something that did surprise me today: Even when it's cold and wet out, and everyone else is inside with the heater, Dill prefers to hang out in the back yard. Someone has to monitor the birds and squirrels, I suppose.
Something I did today that I should do less often: slept late and wasted the morning. I guess "wasted" is a loaded word. I could have been up at 6am and I still wasn't going to get much done in the soup outside. Deferred the day, let's say.
Something I did today just to exercise my brain: tried to write out the chords from Moonlight Sonata from memory. I didn't get very far, and strongly suspect I got some wrong. It did help me learn to play a little of it on the guitar, though.
Something I did today that almost nobody ever does: roasted my own coffee in a popcorn popper.
Something I didn't do today that practically everybody does: watch football. I'd have said watch TV, but I'll probably do that before the day is out.
Something I'm determined to do today despite the weather: get these stir-crazy dogs to someplace they can run around awhile.
Something I've been meaning to do and might get to: empty the compost bucket. Now that it has some really fragrant chopped onion that was in the fridge too long, I think it's pretty likely.
Something I probably won't: mop the kitchen.
Primary short-term goal: organization.
mid-term: move to the country.
long-term: ?

Monday, April 19, 2010

New ideas on tree planting

April is not the best time to plant trees in Austin, since hot days may be just around the corner. But it is almost Arbor Day for most of the country, so it seems like a good time to discuss planting techniques. Although following traditional guidelines may work for most situations, I would like to discuss what's happening on the cutting edge of our industry in relation to transplanting container-grown trees.

If you saw my post on root crowns, you know a little bit about the problem we are trying to address. Trees grown in containers are very likely to have multiple problems with their root systems. Most of them stem from standard nursery practices. When a plant is grown in a container, roots will radiate outward until they hit the side of the container, then turn. Some turn downward, but most begin growing around the container until they encircle the root ball. This would not be a problem if it were addressed, but nurseries tend to pull the plants out of one pot and put them into a larger one without any notice of the circling roots. To the extent that the plant can still function, new roots reach the sides of the new container and the problem repeats. By the time a large container-grown tree reaches the consumer, it might have several internal rings marking each of the smaller containers that have housed the plant.Many of the transplanted trees we see today are performing poorly due to these root issues, and I expect that to be the case for many years to come.

Some research has shown that nurseries can easily correct the problem by shaving off the outer edge of the root ball each time the plant is potted up (for example, Ed Gilman in Florida and Brian Kempf in California). This removes the circling roots and starts the tree off right in the new pot. They found no negative affects on tree growth from this practice. Notice this is not the same as the tradition of slicing through the sides of the root ball vertically to break the circling roots--they found no difference between sliced root balls and those left untouched. This is removing the outer soil all the way around and off the bottom. How much to remove will vary based on container size--a one-gallon pot might require only a half-inch slice, while a 90-gallon pot might lose the outer two or three inches. The key is to remove circling roots and leave roots radiating out from the stem.

Unfortunately, most nurseries have not caught up to this research. It is rare in most markets to find a container-grown tree without circling roots at multiple container sizes. This is where the installer comes in. Gilman and others have had some success shaving the largest rootball at planting, but I am going to talk about a more aggressive approach. Some researchers have been turning tradition on its head by washing, dismantling, and reorganizing root systems when they are installed (Appleton, Bonnie Lee 2007. The BareRoot of the matter. American Nurseryman: Issue
10, Vol. 205: 41-46; Flott, Jim 2006. Don’t Plant Trees, Plant Roots. City Trees. Journal of the Society of Municipal Arborists. Vol. 42, No. 2: 32-36). While we used to learn that root balls are delicate and should not be disturbed more than necessary, Appleton has been instructing equipment operators to drop the trees from a few feet in the air so the root ball will be easier to dismantle. Though shocking to some, this practice seems to be leading to better results over the long term.

Flott and others have been soaking the root balls in tubs of water for a few hours, then reaching in to massage out the substrate (nursery-speak for the soil in the pot, which is not really soil but primarily organic matter). Appleton uses a high pressure hose or a pressure washer along with had massaging to work out the substrate. In each case, the goal is to remove as much of the substrate as possible to reveal the root system. Then circling roots are worked free of the ball so they can be spread outward at planting. Though, naturally, the goal is to avoid as much damage as possible, it is surprising how many roots can be lost without penalty to the tree after transplant.

The process from here is really as simple and basic as it sounds. Once the container is removed, we begin washing out the substrate. Our experience is mainly in the spray method rather than soaking, but in either case we get water into the edges of the ball and begin massaging with our hands to loosen and remove the substrate. We like to start on top of the ball, since most container-grown trees have been buried too deeply. Once we begin to define the root crown, we seek out and cut any stem-girdling roots. Only after we have established the proper grade of the plant do we begin working on the sides and bottom of the root system. It can be difficult to get started, but soon enough individual roots start to become visible and we begin tugging gently to see where they grow. Some roots will be broken in the process, but by carefully working around the perimeter, we can gradually dismantle the root ball. It is not unlike untying a big knot.

Once most of the substrate is removed, we generally have well defined flares at the base of the stem with large, loose roots. There is usually still a small ball at the center, but it is much smaller than the original container. Now we know more about how the hole should look. We only need to dig a deep enough hole for this center ball; beyond that point, we dig shallow trenches to create pathways for the loose roots. The tree is inserted into the hole and the native soil is worked back in with water (if we use the soaking method, we can use the tub of water to help work the soil into the ball). Sometimes called "mudding in," this technique helps to work the soil deep into the root ball. Add a little soil and a little water, then jiggle the tree and use your hands to push soil into the gaps. If air pockets are left under the tree, it may lead to root loss or settling that will adversely affect the tree's ability to adapt to the new site. Continue to add more soil and more water until you either run out of soil or the hole is full. Then follow standard mulching procedures (remember, mulch should be three inches thick on the soil surface but SHOULD NOT be piled against the base of the tree (see more here).

This is messy, muddy work. Depending on the site, it may be difficult to wash out the ball near the planting hole without excessive damage to nearby soil and turf. But if you dig the hole first, then wash the root ball out into the hole, the moisture merely helps keep roots hydrated to minimize loss and makes it easier to work the roots into the native soil. Still, it may be necessary to create a staging area for the washing, then bring fully washed trees to the planting sites (just make sure to be efficient--too much time exposed to air will allow more roots to dry out and die before the tree is planted). It is still a good idea to keep a tarp handy to collect the soil that is dug out, which helps to ensure there is enough to backfill the hole at the end. one big benefit to this method is that the hole becomes a wide, shallow dish (read: easy to dig) instead of a narrow, deep pit. Roots are immediately placed in contact with native soil, so transplant shock is minimal, as are problems with stem-girdling roots. Because the roots spread out farther, the tree is more stable and usually needs no staking.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

acpt 2

Puzzle 5. What can I say. BEQ authored the pain this year. Again, most of the room failed to finish. What's really disturbing is when the elite are getting up and leaving while you're still looking for the first clue you can answer. It wasn't the hardest I've seen overall, but here's the difference from last year: I got less of that one in the allotted time, but ten more minutes and I would have finished. This one I've seen online and I remember some of the clues for the ones I missed, and I still don't know what the answers are. I don't know what that means, but there it is.

I've had some ups and downs today. After my big confession earlier, I looked at my scans, and the judges overlooked my mistake. [Man, since I found out I'm not supposed to double-space after a period, I am really struggling to stop that.] I'd like to think I'd own up and see that they correct things regardless, but now that I've publicly announced my failure, I really can't take credit for a correct solution. Further, after reviewing my #5 scan, I found another couple of squares that didn't get marked. #4 and #6 I finished correctly. So I can't say for sure what my ranking is, but I'm right around 200 of 646. Give me the 150 I got that I shouldn't have, and throw in about 175 for a correct #5, and I would be ranked at 150 or so. The online results haven't caught up yet to the point that I know where I'd be in the C division. All so much navel gazing anyway, but I'm intrigued to see how far I am from greatness.

Speaking of, 1) Dan Feyer 2) Howard Barkin 3) tie: Tyler Hinman, Anne Erdmann 5) Kelly Langan 6) Kiran Kedlaya 7) tie: Stella Zawistowski, Francis Heaney 9) tie: Al Sanders, Ellen Ripstein 11) Eric Maddy 12) Katherine Bryant 13) Trip Payne 14) Dave Tuller 15) tie: Amy Reynaldo, Doug Hoylman 17) Joon Pahk. I stopped there because it was a ways down before I recognized another name from the Rex Parker blog. Joon is exactly 400 points behind Dan, who has 9690 (I have 7750 uncorrected).

I finally met up with Rex Parker (who isn't competing), and he introduced me to Sandy (also not in it), imsdave, mac, Bob Kerfuffle, PuzzleGirl, Karen from the Cape (and her mom), Eric Berlin . . . it's funny how fast those dominoes fall. I had a great dinner with some of those folks and met ACME at the restaurant. Somehow I lost them on the way to this evening's unofficial puzzling. I hope they've done better than I have tonight.

One puzzle to go (21X) in the morning. Whatever miracles I may have been hoping for have not materialized, so I look forward to solving it for fun, then watching the finals.

ACPT has begun

Well, here I am in NYC. Last night I checked the bar for imsdave, but never recognized him, so dinner was with some non-puzzling friends who came up from DC. Afterward, I went to the wine-and-cheese thing, but I suck at that stuff and really didn't enjoy myself. That's okay. It was good to catch up with old friends, too.

This morning I staked out a spot in the big room and settled in to wait for the big start. I kept watching for online friends, but somehow the only ones I ever found were busy working the event so I haven't spoken to any of them. I have practiced hard puzzles all week as I toured the city—on the trains, at lunch, when I sat down in the park, always solving. And I don't know if I accidentally got some archived puzzles I'd done before, or if I'm improving, but I was really finishing most of them, albeit a little too slowly, making

me think I have a chance at solving #5. Incidentally, if you get a chance to see the paper exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design, it's well worth the trip.

So now we're on our first big break for lunch. Three puzzles down. I have already learned two things that either I didn't get last time or I forgot.

  1. It's better to sit near people who are slower than you. Last year, I was finishing ahead of the people around me. Sure, some speedsters were leaving in other parts of the room, but I barely noticed them. This time, both of the guys to my right are getting up while I still have half a puzzle to go, and it makes me think I'm going too slow and I need to get on with it already. Rushing and losing concentration are not conducive to good results.

  2. When there's a niggle in the back of my head that says something is not right, I should pay attention. Short version is, I already have at least one mistake after three puzzles.

Longer version follows. I will not provide any outright spoilers, but if you want a pure solving experience on these puzzles later, stop reading now.

The second puzzle was by Liz Gorski. It was one of those alter-a-common-phrase-to-make-a-new-funny-phrase themes. I got off to a slow start and wondered if I'd even finish. I finally pieced together the first theme answer and found it quite puzzling. No time to dwell, though, so I kept solving. By the end, I had figured out the theme and knew all the other stuff was right, but I still couldn't see how that first one worked. Glanced at the clock, saw a minute was about to turn over, and stuck up my hand to get the extra 25 points for finishing early. I wandered around in the lobby awhile, unable to let go of that first phrase. I kept trying to figure out what the source was and could not make sense of it. Finally, it hit me. I had read the abbreviation “co.” as country, not company. And so my hopes of a perfect set of solutions were dashed before lunch.

Of course, I said going in that I didn't expect to win, and it was true, and even if I hadn't made the mistake I wouldn't win, and that's okay. But it really hurts my pride and my ego to fail so early, and it really dashed my confidence going into the third puzzle (by Patrick Berry). I was slow and shaky. Then I had a couple of places near the top where I was stuck, which shook me even more.

I kept plowing along, though. It was a larger grid with sports-related puns. Again, an early theme phrase was stumping me. I didn't rush to stick something in there, though, and kept staring until finally the correct fill hit me (I hope—I'm pretty sure—well, we'll see). I was thinking how I'd cry foul at the blogs if this was a daily puzzle, since it involved a proper name crossed with something else I found obscure—already things are blurring in my mind. I'll get the set of puzzles tomorrow and I can really beat that dead horse to death, but for now I'm just glad I dug it out and regained a little mojo. Anyway, once I finally saw the pun, the other answers seemed pretty gettable after all (probably a good lesson to learn for the next time I'm tempted to pick nits).

Now it's time for lunch and regrouping. More later.

Friday, February 12, 2010

American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Since I haven't been keeping up with the trees here, I thought I'd derail myself to hype the main event of my vacation, which begins next week. Starting Feb 20, I will be competing in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn, New York. This will be my second time in the contest, which was created and continues to be primarily the work of Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle. If last year was any indication, he culls out the best of the best for this event, presenting seven puzzles by constructors well known to most of us who are geeky enough to participate in the event. I think the 7 contest puzzles are meant to approximate the range of difficulty that the NYT uses, starting with fairly easy puzzles on Monday, then getting progressively harder till Saturday, with a moderately challenging but oversized Sunday.

The puzzles last year didn't quite adhere to the same difficulty range. Of course, I am speaking from only one year of experience, so take this all with a grain of salt. But I would say the easiest puzzle was probably not quite as easy as the typical Monday NYT; the middle puzzles were probably all Tuesday-Thursday level. Instead of a pair of killers, as is typical on Fridays and Saturdays, the tournament has only the dreaded Puzzle 5 to sort out the top solvers from the rest of us schmoes--it was hard, but I would say not quite as bad as some of the NYT weekend offerings. As in the newspaper, some puzzles have a theme that may give extra hints to solvers, while #5 was themeless last year (I can't remember for sure, but I think the rest all had some kind of theme).

The hotel sets aside a huge room for the contest. Long, cafeteria-style tables are filled with contestants, who get one puzzle at a time. Everyone starts together, and a timer begins to tick off the minutes. Proctors around the room watch for hands; when you finish, you turn in your solution, the time is noted, and you may leave the room. The next puzzle begins about half an hour after the deadline for the previous one. In between, people talk about the puzzle; play other games; and shop in the lobby for puzzle books, games, and (at least last year) crossword-themed art. There's a lunch break, which means a lot of impromptu groups walking to one nearby restaurant or another. I suspect there are elite, highly competitive solvers who go to their hotel rooms to stay focused and eat special crossword-solving diets and such, but I didn't meet any of them. Saturday night (and Friday night) there are informal games and social activities, then there's puzzle #7 Sunday morning, and the live finals Sunday afternoon. The top three solvers from the A, B and C divisions all work a final puzzle on a stage with live commentary (wearing headphones to drown out any help from the audience or commentators). They all have the same grid and solution, but three different sets of clues makes each round significantly harder than the previous one(s). It was very exciting to see the A final especially--this video shows eventual champion Tyler Hinman as he agonizes over the last couple of squares, and finally figures it out to win with the only correct solution (again--accuracy trumps speed).

My skill level puts me solidly among the schmoes. I can do well on the early-week puzzles, and pretty quickly by most people's standards, though I'm not nearly as fast as the best. As of last year, I'm not sure I had ever successfully completed a Friday or Saturday puzzle. I can now say I definitely have (a few times), but I am far from the level where I expect to be able to do so on a given weekend. After four puzzles, I think I was near the top quarter of the field (someone who really cared about this could go to the site linked above, where all the results are listed and broken down in more ways than I care to list, to calculate my actual position, but I'm satisfied to guess). Puzzle five dropped me down to somewhere between the 35th and 40th percentiles. I had a good #6, and then missed one letter on Sunday to finish 244th out of 674 (MOAPO!!).

Those 674 people came from all over the country and beyond. The majority were from New York, of course, and most of the others were from nearby states, but plenty of us made the trip from across the US. I don't have my contestant list, which included brief bios, but the results show a handful of "foreign" competitors (which I'm sure includes at least some Canadians--I don't really know how exotic we got). Being in Texas, I was torn between entering the West division or the South; I competed in the West, which meant I was in the same region as the eventual winner (for his fifth title), Tyler Hinman. Not that in mattered--there was a similarly elite solver, Trip Payne, in the Southern division, as well (This year I saw a handy map -- don't know if it's new or if I missed it last time -- that puts TX in the South.). No, like most of the contestants, I knew in advance I was not going to win in any of the various subdivisions of the field (well, I was hoping to squeak out a top place among the rookies, but knew it wasn't likely).

The primary divisions are the skill levels: A through E, with most of us falling into the C division. To get into B or A, you have to have competed in the past and done exceptionally well (top 20% or better, or top 3 in the lower division). To get into D or E, you have to have done worse than at least 40% of the field in an earlier contest. As a rookie, I was automatically a C. If I'm reading the statistics correctly, there were 301 of us last year; of those, I finished 108. That's just about what I expect, since I solve the NYT puzzle everyday online and the applet there tracks times--I routinely finish fairly close to the line between the top two thirds (though in good weeks I can make the top 20-25% on Monday and Tuesday, and I often don't finish Fri or Sat at all--or cheat with google to do so).

A word about that--scoring is pretty complex when you first try to read the rules, but the gist is, you get points for each correct answer, a bonus for each completely accurate puzzle, and more bonuses for each minute you finish ahead of the allowed time limit. I think most people finished most of the puzzles in the time allowed, although puzzle 5 ended with most of the room still working. So speed is good, but only if you're accurate. Many people cursed their own failure to check a cross that would have revealed an obvious mistake and saved over 150 points. Again, all the details are at the ACPT site.

By finishing behind the top 20% but ahead of the bottom 60%, I kept myself firmly in the C division for this year. I would have needed another 1400 points or so to make the C finals last time--just about what I would have gotten if I had solved correctly on #5 and #7. So it isn't impossible to imagine. But I won't be holding my breath. So why am I spending all this money to do it again?

It's fun. Not only are these some of the best puzzles anywhere, but nowhere else can I finish a puzzle with a funny theme and talk about it with others who shared my enjoyment (except in the virtual world). If I mention a puzzle to most of my friends, they smile politely and generally try not to look bored. At ACPT, everyone is talking between puzzles about the good jokes or the clever clues. Some people bring puzzles they have made themselves and leave piles of them in the lobby for those of us who need more than six a day. Some dress in crossword-themed clothing. All are receptive to an invitation for lunch or a trip to the bar after the event is over. Most are like me, fully intending to finish well below the winners, and they simply do not care. The rankings are virtually irrelevant to all but a few of us. It's about the camaraderie and the shared passion for puzzling.

So if you made it through this whole write-up, the ACPT just might be for you. See you in Brooklyn!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Crape Myrtle show

After one of the hottest, driest summers Austin has ever seen, we finally got some rain last month. Not just a quick shower that disappears in minutes, but days of slow, steady soaking. For fans of crape myrtles ( Lagerstroemia indica), it was a sweet reward.

Crape myrtles are native to Asia, but they do well almost everywhere. They are tough, reliable trees that usually bloom all summer. In this year's heat, not so much. Irrigated trees in parking lots and commercial developments (and a few residences) bloomed, though perhaps not as boldly as in other years, but most of us saw few, if any, flowers. Finally, the rain changed that. For several days, it was hard to find a place in Austin that was not in view of a burst of blossoms on at least one crape. It was an amazing show.