Removing Palm Trees for Dummies

I spent a couple of hours last weekend removing a dead palm tree from our front yard. Well, I should qualify that: I achieved partial removal, but I still consider that a victory.

When we landscaped our new house eight years ago, we asked the contractor to plant a specific type of palm. In his great arrogance wisdom, he planted a different species (the identity of which we can't remember) without telling us. We actually had no complaint for six years, as the tree seemed to flourish. 

Photo - healthy palm
Our tree in a happier time

But the overly harsh winter two years ago was its undoing. We had hope, without any accompanying optimism, that it would somehow recover, but we finally accepted the reality that not only was it no longer alive, it had no zombie prospects.

Photo - sad palm
Can't quite put my finger on it, but something seems amiss

The remaining tree trunk wasn't massive, but it also wasn't something I could make short work of with a sharpshooter shovel and a chainsaw. Have you ever tried to disassemble a palm tree? It consists of a seemingly infinite number of layers, each of which is progressively weirder in composition. The outer layer (of this species) consists of the "bark" which is basically bullet-proof and lined with hooked teeth that are the envy of Great White sharks. Beneath this bark are thin layers of fibrous material so dense and tear-resistant that early Polynesian cultures used them to fashion unassailable chastity belts for their virgin daughters. OK, I made that up, except for the unassailable part. There's no way a saw can effectively cut through those fiber layers without becoming a tangled mess.

Given these anatomical challenges, I devised a cautious plan that I hoped would allow me to deconstruct the tree bit by bit. I first cut the roots using the aforementioned sharpshooter. I had no idea how deep the root system extended (I still don't, but we'll get to that later), but a key part of my plan was the ability to tip the trunk onto the ground and work on it there.
This step proved to be easier than expected. After digging around the base of the tree, cutting through the less-than-extensive lateral roots, I wanted to push or pull the trunk over. I thought about wrapping a chain around it and using the truck to tip it, but after a few tentative shoves by hand, the trunk actually snapped off at ground level, having apparently rotted over the past two years of dormancy (aka, death).

Photo - palm tree trunk lying prone
Oh, snap!

With the trunk lying prone, I proceeded with my Plan of Dismantlement. Pro tip: It's much easier to take a palm apart from the base up, rather than from the top down. As long as I respected the natural order of the layers - and wore thick leather gloves - I was able to easily strip off the deadly "bark" (I'm sporting just a single Band-Aid as evidence of the wisdom of my approach).

Photo - pile of dried palm fronds
The term "fronds" is much too...sissified...for these vicious objects

I was then left with a bare trunk to dispose of, one that I estimate weighed 150 pounds or so...more than I could gracefully load into a wheelbarrow or truck bed. So, how to break it into manageable pieces, given its resistance to sawing? I could envision only one solution, and it involved brute force.

Photo - palm tree trunk stripped of its fronds
Bare naked palm

I dug a pickaxe out of the tool chest and set about channeling my inner John Henry. Yeah, I know; he swung a sledgehammer, but work with me here.

I didn't know what to expect, and the first swing of the pick wasn't very satisfying as the tool just sunk into the trunk without causing any discernible useful destruction. But after a few more powerful (in my mind, anyway) swings, I sensed some progress. Then, just like that, the trunk began to disintegrate into twenty pound chunks. Again, I suspect that was due to the rot that had set in. It took little time and effort to break the remaining trunk into those manageable pieces.

All I'm left with now is the root ball, still securely sunk in the dirt. I plan to use a shovel to cut under it, but that work is somewhat complicated by not knowing exactly where the sprinkler lines run. The last thing I want to do is cut a pipe. Well, the absolute last thing I want to do is cut my toes off, but I'm pretty sure I can avoid that. I also fear that the muddy root ball may weigh as much or more than the trunk itself, so getting it out of the hole and fragmented for disposal will be another challenge. I suspect there's more pick swinging in my future.

Photo - base of palm tree
The final challenge

Stay tuned for the next exciting bevy of botanical bashing!

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Eric published on February 22, 2016 7:15 PM.

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