Welcome to the latest edition of Tree Stories, our series in which people introduce us to trees that have put down meaningful roots in their lives.
Here, Chris Hart tells us the tale — in his own words — of the juniper trees that live in front of his house. Planted by legendary horticulturist Kate Sessions, these two twisted centenarians grow through the holes in the ipe wood deck that Chris built himself in the neighborhood of Ocean Beach, San Diego, California.
These trees are over 100 years old — they were planted in 1910 when the house was built. This was Kate Sessions’s signature back in the day: two juniper trees planted in front of a house to [represent] peace and prosperity.
When I originally bought the house in 2000, I was going to tear it down and build a couple of different houses on the property. The process included digging up 53 tons of concrete — the original owner who had been there for 40 years had been a contractor and his wife was in a wheelchair. He was the handyman for the entire neighborhood — he was the cornerstone of the neighborhood. The concrete was painted in the colors of the Mexican flag.
While I was in the process of digging it up, I saw a group of elderly women looking at the yard. They were immediately on me about the trees: ‘You’re not cutting them down.’ It was more or less a mandate. Not a discussion. ‘No, you’re not. If you do, you’re going to have problems. The woman who planted them planted most of the trees in Balboa Park.’ How many old ladies come out of the blue and aggressively fight for the trees?
[Back then], it was like going through a tunnel while you were walking up to the front door — that’s how overgrown [the junipers] were. It was the ugliest house on the street. I trimmed the trees so they would frame house. The looked like big bushes; I cut them to look like bonsais.
[Inside the house], I found all these artifacts: a wedding photo from 1912, a bottle of Milk of Magnesia from 1905, a chimney built at a diagonal. I didn’t have the heart to tear it down. So I rehabilitated the house to bring it back to what it should be — instead of cookie-cutter condos. It’s had four owners in 100 years. I really had a soft spot in my heart for it.
The trees do shed, and that’s what kills the lawn, so I have to be diligent about blowing the needles, but that’s the whole personality of the trees. In the springtime, I pressure wash the front of the house to remove the dead debris and needles. Every couple of years I power wash the trees. The twisted bark is really interesting — when you pressure wash it, they’re red and really beautiful.
The junipers get most of their moisture from the fog and from the evening dew. I created the holes in deck to bring out the twisted trunks of the trees; I have had to extend the holes once before, in 2005.
They are kind of like a shrine in a way. People will come through front gate and will just want to stand under the trees. I will be walking around in my boxers, and people will be there looking at the trees, taking pictures. I feel their presence through the living room and see the sunlight streaming through them. Sometimes a family of raccoons will hang out in the tree — everything seems to be attracted to them.