My boy and his placenta tree turn three

Kids grow fast, as do avocado trees — especially when planted over a power-packed placenta. Oddly, prior to looking through the retrospective below, I had felt rushed for both of them to hit some developmental marks even faster.

As of today, Cass can legibly write most of the letters in his name, but he continues to do this curious thing where he writes his c’s backwards.

And as for his Fuerte avocado tree, my aim has been that it produces fruit for Cass to eat and that it develops a broad branching structure for him to climb. The tree is healthy, but it has yet to produce fruit, and it’s not yet big enough for Cass to climb.

Alas, sometimes you get focused on goals, on achieving results, but miss the wonders of the process along the way.

Cass and placenta tree at birth

Just planted and just born, 2014.

Cass and placenta tree one year old

One year old, 2015.

Cass placenta tree two years old

Two years old, 2016.

Cass and placenta tree three years old

Three years old, 2017.

I’m determined to enjoy processes more. We’re not promised another day on this Earth. The process is really all we have.

Miles and his placenta tree turn one, but one of them almost gets eaten by a gopher

Miles and his placenta tree turn one, but one of them almost gets eaten by a gopher

I love avocado trees, and I sure love my son Miles, but toward the end of the summer his placenta tree started to lose leaves and then lose more leaves and then have some die back on branch tips, so I got emotional in a way I never have toward a tree. I’ve killed many trees over the years; it’s part of the learning process. But the prospect of killing the avocado tree that I planted over my son’s placenta upon his birth felt like failing as a father.

I dug around the base of the tree with my hands to find the problem. Was it a disease? Could I even save it? A healthy avocado tree has roots with white tips poking up into the mulch or leaf litter beneath it, but I found none. So I dug deeper. I found only a few roots. Where were they? Then my fingers poked into a cavity, I wiggled them in the air pocket, and I knew immediately where the roots had gone — or more accurately, who had eaten them. I followed the gopher tunnel more than halfway around the base of the tree. A gopher had eaten over half of the tree’s root system. A tree that loses roots sheds its leaves in order to bring its top into balance with its bottom.

I had never been angrier at a gopher. I immediately set every trap I had.

At the same time, I felt grateful that the buck-toothed varmint hadn’t finished off the tree entirely. Only a few weeks prior, another gopher had eaten to death a young Hass avocado tree I had planted in another part of the yard. Until the killing and damage to these two avocado trees, the Hass and Miles’s Sharwil, I had thought of the gophers in my yard as being a real threat only to my vegetables, which they had been attacking from day one. But now I had to patrol the rest of the yard where the fruit trees are too?

It’s appropriate that Miles and his Sharwil avocado tree would surprise us and require us to adapt. Miles was so calm and sleepy in his first few months of life that we were worried, and now — at one year old — he’s so loud and stubborn that we’re a little worried in a different way. In that photo at the top — our annual “pose with your placenta tree photo” — he squirmed out of Ursula’s lap to roll around on the ground and run toward me to grab my camera.

As for his placenta tree, I did catch the cause of its problems.

But only after a protracted hunt. So I’m adapting my methods and diversifying my arsenal.

The Cinch trap on the bottom represents my latest acquisition. The Cinch trap’s main benefit is that you don’t have to dig a big hole to set it. I have grown so tired of making craters around the yard in order to set pincer and box traps, especially within the vegetable beds. (I’ve also grown tired of standing near an active feeder hole to try and get a shot at a gopher’s head. Waste of time.) The Cinch trap can be inserted into a small surface opening to the gopher’s tunnel network. I’ve found it very effective so far. (Here are some videos that have helped me use it properly, done by master Cinch trapper Thomas Wittman.)

I dug around Miles’s Sharwil tree today to check for roots, to see if any had grown back in the past month or two since eliminating the gopher, and found some white tips. Hurray! Happiest I’ve ever been upon seeing avocado roots.

My lesson going forward is to immediately set traps whenever gopher presence is detected in the yard. There is more at stake than just plants.

Miles’s placenta tree

Miles's placenta tree

For Cass, the choice of planting his placenta under a Fuerte avocado tree was obvious, but for Miles, born last week, the options felt overwhelming at times. First, we didn’t know if we were going to have a boy or girl. Before Miles was born we did decide that we would plant another avocado for a boy and then a different, sweeter type of fruit tree for a girl, but that was as far as we got.

When Miles surprised us and came four days before his due date, we had to quickly choose a specific avocado variety. They are innumerable; for avocados, every seed is slightly different from its parent, so every seed ever grown is unique, a different variety, like humans.

We considered Holiday (also called XX3), but it’s a runty tree, not auspicious for our son. We considered Pinkerton, but Ursula didn’t want our boy’s tree to have “pink” in the name.

We landed on Sharwil. It is a variety that originated in Australia, is widely grown in Hawaii, but is rare in California. The varietal name Sharwil is a union of the beginnings of the last names of the men who grew the first of these trees, Frank Sharpe and J.C. Wilson, according to the book “The Avocado: Botany, Production, and Uses.” It’s fruit is said to be similar to the Fuerte, with green skin and medium size, and friends whose opinions I trust say that Sharwil tastes great. That’s right, I’ve never tasted a Sharwil myself. But Miles has been a surprise from the moment he was born, so why not keep it going with his placenta tree?

A couple of other things that encouraged us to select Sharwil are the beauty of its foliage, which includes shinier, broader leaves than many other avocados, plus the fact that the fruit is ready to eat later than Fuertes. The Fuerte season starts in winter whereas the Sharwil season starts in spring. The Sharwil fruit is also reputed to have great “hang time.” For some in Southern California, the fruit remains on the tree, mature and ready for picking, all the way to December — Miles’s birthday. Maybe a yearly ritual can be eating the last Sharwils on Miles’s birthday.


Instead of placing the placenta directly beneath the tree, I buried it only a few inches under the soil and to the side. This is because avocados are not deep rooted; “80 percent of the feeder roots of mature avocado trees are in the top 6 inches of the soil,” says Gary Bender in the “California Master Gardener Handbook.”

Also, according to my own experience, last year I placed a pile of yard and food scraps beside Cass’s Fuerte and covered it with woodchips. Some months later I dug into the decomposing pile and found roots proliferating within it, feeding off of it. This is what I expect will happen among Miles’s Sharwil and his placenta.

Cass and the Placenta Tree Turn One

It was exactly one year ago that Cass was born. When we brought him home from the hospital we also carried with us his placenta, and in the light rain that had started falling I dug a hole, placed the placenta along with the amniotic sac and umbilical cord into it, and planted an avocado tree over the top.


Cass's tree





Why take the placenta home from the hospital and plant a tree over it? Because it’s not mere “biohazardous waste,” as the bag the hospital stored it in stated. And because the placenta is a nutrient-dense organ whose decomposition in the soil will over time feed the tree. In other words, instead of treating the placenta like trash I wanted to treat it like a resource. And it also makes the tree planted at the same time as the birth of Cass that much more connected to him. Literally, a part of him is growing that tree.

The tree is a Fuerte, the kind of avocado that becomes a spreading jungle of branches that are perfect for climbing in. I climbed in Fuerte avocado trees in Glendora when I was young, as did my parents while they were growing up. It feels like a tradition that should carry on. By the time Cass is big enough to be able to climb a tree, this tree should be big enough to handle his weight. They’ll grow up together. They’ll also live off each other, in a way — the Fuerte using nutrients from his placenta and Cass eating the tree’s fruit.

Once the tree was planted and I spread some woodchip mulch around its base, the light rain that was falling became heavier, and I was glad I didn’t have to water the tree in. The clouds did so for me.

Ursula had been awake much of the previous night feeding and worrying about Cass; he was our first child. But after I got the tree planted she was able to take a nap, and Cass also slept, beside me in the living room. I watched the godsend of a storm through the window. It had been the driest year on record. We were in the middle of a multi-year drought. This was the first real rain we’d had all winter. For that moment all felt right with the world.

Cass and his Fuerte both at one year old

Urs with Cass and his Fuerte, both at one year old