Death by Palm Tree?? (And good riddance, lawn.)

At the beginning of August, we’d occupied our house for almost a year, and we’d never seen a roach on our property, inside or out. Not a single one. Then the Great Roachapocalypse went down on our front lawn. As of that moment, the lawn’s days were numbered.

It’s hard for me to admit this, because roaches, but the event was your proverbial blessing in disguise. We never liked the lawn. It was Bermuda grass, and it irked me to think we were wasting water in the desert to keep it green. Mowing it took time we didn’t have, and even when freshly-mowed, the grass looked ragged. Getting rid of the lawn sat high on our list of things to do when we felt we could afford it. The roaches simply expedited the undertaking. Let me tell you, it’s amazing what you can suddenly “afford” when a thousand sewer roaches start swarming in a cloud above your lawn.

We were instructed to have our palm tree trimmed first. Not only was it badly in need of it, but it was suspected that the droves of sewer roaches had been lurking beneath the palm tree’s fronds. That’s probably exactly what they were doing… keeping to themselves under the palm fronds, waiting for our sprinklers to come on so they could skitter down and frolic in the glorious, cool oasis that was the sprinkler water puddled where the lawn dipped toward the metal plate covering the water main.

So we had the palm tree trimmed and we were progressing toward the goal of a grass-free front yard when we were unnerved anew. Because astonishingly, the horror story that began with the Great Roachapocalypse continued during the front yard conversion process, when we learned things from our landscaper. Specifically, we learned about a manner of death that I’d never heard of before, an unfathomable manner of death that I wouldn’t wish on anyone: Death by palm tree.

Did you know that the most common way to die while trimming a palm tree is to get murdered by the tree, itself? Neither did we. I listened, aghast, as our landscaper described the phenomenon, an instance of which she’d actually witnessed.

“The dead fronds on the underside fell on him and pinned him to the tree trunk. That’s what happens. You get suffocated.” She made a motion with her hands to demonstrate a palm tree’s fronds slapping downward, like when you collapse an umbrella.

That’s what happens. The fronds clap down, and the tree-trimmer is swallowed up. By the palm tree. My mind veered to the image of a palm tree as a monstrous, upside-down Venus Fly Trap, which, in that case, would be a Venus Human Trap.

Of course, I had to research this atrocity. I was half-hoping to find it debunked on Snopes, even though our landscaper had seen it for herself, but I found news articles reporting such palm tree deaths in three different states, including Arizona (Arizona and California have the highest palm tree death rates). I also found an informative article penned by an experienced palm tree-trimmer by the name of Rich Magargal. In the article, Mr. Magargal describes the three most common ways that people can die while trimming a palm tree, and some preventative measures that can be taken to avoid such a demise.

Here are some quotes from the article:

“Finally, and most importantly, is the alarming and growing death rate by suffocation.

The vast majority of suffocation accidents are the result of fronds sliding down, or sloughing, onto the climber. Just a few feet of fronds can instantly and completely immobilize a climber. There is absolutely nothing he or she can do to remove them because their entire body is forced down and against the palm trunk with hundreds of pounds of pressure. The force of the fronds is primarily on the head of the climber, forcing the chin into the chest. This is how suffocation occurs. Take a moment to put your hands behind your head and pull your head forward bringing your chin in contact with your chest. Notice how little pressure is required to make breathing impossible. Now, imagine several hundred additional pounds of weight on your head and picture yourself under the skirt of fronds 50 feet in the air.”

This already far exceeds my capacity for imaginative comprehension, BUT THEN the author goes on to say:

“Remember, when a climber is working under the skirt, the fronds hang down to around his or her knees. Also note that it is much darker and cooler underneath, so every manner of creature having two to eight legs can be present with you.”

ROACHES.

The only true phobia I have other than roachaphobia is claustrophobia. I’m also an anti-fan of heights.

So I’m reading this article and imagining that I’m trapped high up on a palm tree, pinned beneath a hundred pounds of dead fronds with my neck bent down and suffocating to death while covered in huge roaches, and I die a little bit inside, like some of my cells are withering in a sympathy death for my imaginary worst-nightmare self, and I’m SO GLAD AND GRATEFUL that we were able to have our palm tree trimmed, our lawn torn out, and a flat bed of gravel put in its place.

This is the gravel we chose:

 

We went with the option on the right-hand side of the circle.

We went with the option on the right-hand side of the circle.

 

(I love how she arranged those samples for me!)

Here’s how it looks:

 

Behold our newly trimmed palm tree and our grass-free, roach-free front yard.

Behold our newly trimmed palm tree and our grass-free, roach-free front yard.

 

We now have a flat bed of gravel that will be inhospitable to roaches when they come back with the heat next summer. There will be no water there to attract them, and nowhere for them to hide. THE YARD IS BEAUTIFUL.

See that mark on the ground on the left? Here’s a close-up:

 

Roachapocalypse Ground Zero.

Roachapocalypse Ground Zero.

 

This would be what attracted the roaches when it was hot and our Bermuda grass was being watered. The water was collecting here on this plate. Our landscaper created that border around it before she put in the gravel.

Enjoy some pics of I took of random palm trees with deadly frond skirts on full display:

 

The pic on the left was taken on Saturday morning, and I took the one on the right on Saturday at dusk.

The pic on the left was taken on Saturday morning, and I took the one on the right on Saturday at dusk.

 

The tree on the right shows the most dangerous scenario for a palm tree-trimmer, with its loose fronds hanging down. As Mr. Magargal says:

“There is a lack of knowledge about sloughing. At any point along the trunk of a fan palm it is natural for the fronds to come loose and remain near the trunk, unattached but woven together in a skirt. When the skirt drops nothing can survive beneath it. Even experienced arborists miss the potential of sloughing. Usually, if a palm is going to slough off it may occur as low as 25 to 30 feet from the ground.”

We still have a small patch of grass in the backyard, but there were no roaches on that lawn, because there’s no dipping-down point to collect water back there. We’re keeping the grass there for now.

Those palm trees, though. I’ll never look at them the same again. They’re full of surprises. Our landscaper pointed out some hummingbird eggs she found in ours:

 

Sadly, these hummingbird eggs were abandoned when the palm tree was trimmed.

Sadly, these hummingbird eggs were abandoned when the palm tree was trimmed.

 

So that, I hope, is the end of the story as far as we’re concerned. If you have a loved one who trims palm trees, please share Mr. Magargal’s article with him or her. Let’s save our palm tree trimmers!

When the sea boileth over. (My roach nightmare come true.)

We interrupt (what has become) our standard Friday kitty-update programming for something entirely the opposite, and I’m abjectly horrified that I even have such a thing to report.

The cataclysmic event happened the day of our recent exterminator appointment. I’d arranged to telecommute that day because we didn’t know what all would be involved.

We didn’t want to call the exterminator. The idea did cross our minds when the crickets started showing up at the beginning of the summer, but we thought we could get away with avoiding it. We said to each other, “The crickets will leave. The problem will resolve itself.” Which, of course, led to the brisk proliferation of crickets in the house, until such a point arrived that we were living amongst them like no civilized people do. Finally, just as we’d wound up vacuuming herds of spiders in our house in France, we had to get medieval on the crickets in this house… Creepy Crawley Pest Control style.

We’d seen no insects other than the crickets. We had lizards, mostly baby ones, but we’re fond of them and don’t view them as pests. Scorpions don’t trouble us, either. My one major, remaining phobia, as many of you know, is roaches. Summer in Arizona brings the sewer roaches, which I always envision as boiling up from the bowels of hell. Had we seen a roach anywhere on our property, inside the house or out, I’d have been on the phone with Creepy Crawly that same second.

I knew this company. I’ve used them before, in previous houses, and I had confidence in them. I know that their product isn’t harmful to dogs and cats, and I know that they’re effective, so I’m happy to open the door when Z from Creepy Crawly rings the doorbell.

He’s a no-nonsense guy and explains the process succinctly. He would “blast” the outside first, then come in with a different apparatus to drip-deposit the de-insecting solution along the baseboards inside the garage and house. 

Now, let me just pause to assert that if I had my druthers (am I old enough to get away with using that phrase? I’ve been waiting to age into the right to say it, kind of like get off my lawn, which would actually be funny considering this post)… if I had a choice, I wouldn’t choose to have a lawn. I dislike the maintenance involved, and, moreover, I don’t believe in cultivating lawns in the desert. Alas, our house came with its front lawn and the smaller lawn out back. When we moved in, ripping out the grass and xeriscaping our yard went high on our list of “Projects to do one day.”

We bought the house about a year ago. We still have the lawn.

No-nonsense Z from Creepy Crawly explains the treatment process and wastes no time. He does the exterior first, spraying his lethal brew along the front of the house near the door and making his way around the perimeter of the lawn, winding around the date palm and wrapping around to the sidewalk.

Meanwhile, Callaghan is in the garage, getting it ready. The garage will be done next. I go to give him the tool I’d retrieved from the house as requested and walk back out onto the patio, stopping to stand under the awning. I’m looking out in the direction of our neighbor’s house when –

“This is why you need me,” Z announces loudly as he heads toward me from across the lawn.

“What was that?” I turn my head to look at him.

“THIS. Is why you need me,” Z says again, a note of glee ringing in his voice as he gesticulates with the hand not holding the hose. He’s indicating something on the sidewalk. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at, and then my eyes pick up movement.

It’s movement happening so fast, it’s literally a blur. It’s actually happening on the lawn. There’s an animated cloud flashing in shades of dark and red, a fast-moving, chaotic cloud glinting in the sun. I’m confused. It reminds me of the swarm of bees that appeared in front of our neighbor’s house back in San Jose that one time….

My chest seizes up, my insides suddenly on high alert. It’s summer in Arizona.

“What is it?”

“Roaches. Those are sewer roaches.” Z sounds downright triumphant.

The word “roaches” grips my larynx and I feel paralyzed in my throat. My mind falters. I CAN’T be looking at a huge, thick cloud of spastic roaches on my lawn, I think. It can’t be possible.

“Don’t worry, they’ll all be dead within 15 minutes,” says Z merrily, as if that solves everything.

He has no idea. Or maybe he does. He does this for a living. How can anyone do this for a living?

“Baby,” I croak.

“What?” Callaghan steps out of the garage.

“Over there.” I’m fighting my roachaphobic body’s urge to hyperventilate. “It’s… roaches….”

“Roaches? Where?” Callaghan studies where I’m pointing, and the look of confusion on his face probably looks exactly like the one I wore when Z said “roaches.”

“There. That cloud…”

Callaghan slowly makes his way to the sidewalk and approaches the area with unusual care in his step. He stops and looks. I can see his face, and it tells me everything.

I’m shivering in the heat. The broad span of air up to two feet above the lawn gleams thick with oily, reddish-brown wings. Callaghan stumbles back up the driveway and says, in awe, “It’s a sea of roaches.”

And the sea boileth over.

Z is laughing. He’s laughing at our shock. He’s laughing at my pain. He explains that water from the sprinklers has collected where the lawn dips down to the metal grate covering the main water valve. Moistness attracts sewer roaches in the summer, he says. When he sprayed the lawn with his lethal concoction, he activated them into the frenzy stirring before our horrified eyes.

I’m thinking, I’ve walked across the lawn over that exact spot many times. I’VE BEEN TREADING OVER A SEA OF SEWER ROACHES.

My ankles prickled. I was mired in a scenario straight out of my worst nightmare.

I went inside and Skyped a message to my co-worker.

They like to take shelter in palm trees, sewer roaches. This roach population likely came from the palm up against our house. It’s unbelievable, miraculous, even, that we’ve never seen a roach of any kind on our property, outside or in.

Later, I asked Callaghan how many roaches he figured there were. He thought out loud: “I could only see maybe 450 of them, so if you take into consideration what I couldn’t see, I’d say… around a thousand. There were probably a thousand roaches.”

“That’s it,” I said. “That lawn is HISTORY. I don’t care if we can’t afford actual landscaping right now. WE HAVE TO KILL THE LAWN.”

Callaghan, who’d peered inside the swarming sea of a thousand roaches hovering above the lawn, and who, unlike me, is not phobic about roaches, needed no arm-twisting. “I’ll shut off the sprinklers,” he declared. “The lawn will die.”

We stopped watering the lawn, but it’s monsoon season, so we’ve had some rain. The grass grew, and I couldn’t help but think about a thousand huge sewer roach corpses hidden in it.

Before long, Callaghan had to go out and mow the lawn. I watched from my office window as he courageously pushed the lawn mower over the mass roach grave.

The grass is slowly dying, but the ghastly image of the hovering, flashing roach cloud refreshes in our minds every time we look at the lawn, because this is what the lawn looks like right now (I took this picture yesterday):

 

Our front lawn right now.

Our front lawn right now.

 

Lest you wondered whether my phobia caused me to exaggerate, as that can certainly happen, LOOK AT THAT LARGE PATCH OF GRASS THAT’S LUSH, LONGER AND GREENER THAN THE DYING GRASS AROUND IT. That is Exhibit A. That’s where the roaches were. The decomposing bodies in the mass grave have been fertilizing the grass we’re trying to kill.

The lawn can’t be ripped out soon enough! I’m going to call the City of Tempe today to ask about their conservation program (that financially assists with homeowners’ xeriscaping costs).

Z the exterminator is coming back this morning for a follow-up treatment, but I’ll be at work this time, so if another cloud of roaches rises above the ground, I won’t be here to witness it.