Fancy Coffee Friday: Septic Tanks and Sycamores

The Amusing Muse Fancy Coffee Friday: Septic Tanks and SycamoresHow about that weather?!

The last two weeks have been a real roller coaster ride here in Southern Wisconsin. We went from -45°F air temps to nearly 40°F in a span of 36 hours only to freeze again. That kind of weather can cause issues for septic systems and trees alike. How? Let me tell you…

Last week Thursday, in anticipation of Mr. Muse’s return from business travel, I decided to be a super person and scrape the ice off of the front walkway. As I approached the end of my task, I caught whiff of a not-so-pleasant odor: septic tank. The thing about living in a rural area where you aren’t hooked up to city sewer and water means that catching a whiff of nasty from the septic tank isn’t unusual, especially if the system is getting a work out that day with lots of laundry being washed, a load of dishes in the dishwasher, people showering, etc.

It is, however, not normal to see black water running out from beneath the tank lid and down the driveway.

Whoopsie-doodle.

Actually, my words were, “Huh? Why is there water running down the drivewaaaa….. OH! Shit!”

It seems that the lack of snow to insulate the ground before freezing temperatures, after a very wet fall, caused the discharge pipe for the septic system to freeze. So, between the tank pumper and the sewer line cleaner, I learned a great many wonderful things about septic systems.

Who knew that I would be staring into the roiling stink of a septic tank so close to the start of this year. But there I was, watching the progress of a water jetter making its way into a frozen drain field pipe and talking trees with the owner/operator.

Mr. Muse and I happen to have big trees in our yard, heck – all around our property, and one of those trees is a middle-aged cottonwood whose canopy just edges into the area of the septic tank. Cottonwoods are thirsty trees, and once they tap into an area of plentiful water, like, say, a septic drain field pipe, they like to take advantage of it. We tend to get a lot of roots in the septic filter and it was suspected that we had a root problem in the drain field pipe. But, outta sight, outta mind.

As I stood there, hovering over an open septic tank “jawing” with the nice gentleman, he asked why we didn’t cut down the tree, as aside from the roots, there is the cotton fluff that blows and drifts everywhere. I shrugged and said, “I like trees. Besides, cottonwoods gotta do cottonwood things.”

He paused, looked at me and started to laugh, saying, “Well… I guess that’s right.”

I went on to explain that the birds like the trees, the orioles like to make their nests in the branches of the cottonwood, and I enjoyed seeing the impressive drifts of fluffy cottonwood cotton. I relayed how at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in Minnesota I came across a cottonwood so large that it took me 56 steps, heel-to-toe, to walk around and would take a good 6-8 adults to give it a hug.

He stood a moment, contemplating, and said that it did, indeed, sound like a big tree. He added that he had a big tree in his yard that dropped branches all the time and he’s been thinking about cutting it down for years. I asked if it was diseased. He didn’t think it was and started to describe it. I was watching him work with the water jetter as he described the tree, asking clarifying questions here and there, and as he wrapped up clearing the pipe, I said, “What you have is an American Sycamore. Very pretty trees. They have neat seedpods, too.” He shot me a look, and grabbed his phone, stating, “I need to see if you’re right.” Laughing, as I was 99% sure I was correct, he pulled up a website and said, “Well shit! You’re right! I DO have a sycamore tree!”

He asked how I knew what it was just by his description and I went on to talk about competing in horticulture, all of the plants I needed to know along with all of their various parts. I also mentioned that there was an impressive and beautiful stand of sycamores at Apple River Canyon State Park in Illinois. They are in the picnic area and were worth enjoying.

Commenting that I certainly seemed to know about trees, he asked me about a few more around the property, and I wrapped up with, “I like trees. We need trees. Everything needs trees. They are important. I won’t cut down a tree unless it absolutely needs to come down. This cottonwood? Nah. She can stay; it took her a long time to grow to this size and with luck, she’ll get bigger. The septic pipes can always be cleaned out, but think of how long it would take to get another tree this size.”

So, I learned a lot about septic tanks and systems, and I hope I passed on some knowledge about trees.

PS – We’re not the only ones who have had their drain field pipe freeze – chatting with the bee lady the other day, I discovered they had the same issue! The ground is frozen to 45” in some places!!


If you would like to learn more about big, beautiful trees, please visit The Tree Spirit Project. I’ve known Jack a number of years – he’s a good person. He does good things. He takes great photos.


If you have children under age 18 who are interested in learning about plants, please visit the National Junior Horticultural Association. I was involved with this group from ages 12-18, learned pages-upon-pages of knowledge about plants, met a lot of great kids – some I’m still friends with today. I also got to travel out of state for competitions!


If you want to read a lovely story about trees, please check out “A Place for Songs” by Marie Greenstone. It’s a beautiful piece about trees from a Wisconsin author.


The Amusing Muse is a tree lover, tree hugger, and tree planter living in Southern Wisconsin. She and her husband have 20 new trees to find permanent homes for on their property and four new varieties of apple trees that will be planted when they arrive in the spring. That’s a lot of trees.


Clipart in Blog Title Image courtesy of GoodFreePhotos.com.

About The Amusing Muse

Deep thinker whose mind operates at warped speed. Philosopher pondering the big (and little) things in life. Storyteller. Office Ninja. Model. Teller of bad jokes. User of big words.
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8 Responses to Fancy Coffee Friday: Septic Tanks and Sycamores

  1. sassycoupleok says:

    We can never dismiss the importance of trees to our environment and to an extent the more the merrier. However a good bit of research about growth habits of a species before planting is a good plan. Good to know what the long term results of their roots can be as many can be harmful as you know to septic systems, sidewalks, driveways and even the foundation of the house. Trees with deeper roots vs trees with surface roots should dictate when and where they are used.

    • Indeed. I think a lot of people plant trees because they like their aesthetics but don’t take into consideration any damage that might be caused. I love Silver Maples, but their root systems are incredibly destructive to basements, foundations, sidewalks, etc. I’d only plant one FAR away from any “improvements”. The Cottonwoods and Oaks in our front yard have been here at least 20 years, though more likely they have been here 30 or more, unless they are diseased, they will remain, even if it means getting out the pipe cleaner every few years.

  2. Aging Cowgirl says:

    welcome to the world of Winter vs Septic System. I remember the first time we had an issue was when I looked out the kitchen window and noticed that when the toilet was flushed, water bubbled up in the driveway, in front of the garage door. I also remember when the excavator had to dig a pit north of the garage that had to be temporarily covered and pumped until spring due to a frozen system. Yup, first name basis with the plumber now! Hope it all worked out well and Woo Hoo for NJHA. Just exchanged messages with Jason H. about a week ago regarding NJHA memories!

    • I remember the warning about your stinky skating rink! And, it’s good to be on good terms with a good plumber! I’m very happy we found one, and responsive pumper and sewer people, too. Referrals definitely help.

      And, Jason is a good guy. I’m glad we all reconnected. 😀

  3. Shawn Alan Bourdo says:

    thanks for tree info. I’m similar obsessed with my birds here. I want to know what they are all called and where they are from and if someone corrects me I have no problem say “Well shit, thank you.” 😉

    • Oh, I’m obsessed with birds, too. I’ve been very pleased that we’ve had a lot of titmice around the last two winters, and was very excited to spot a Northern Goshawk over a field on the way home last week. I’ve never seen one outside of a book or TV, but I have very nearly memorized what the birds in the Birds of North America field guide look like that I’m pretty quick on the pinpointing of them. Trees, though, are pleasant… and they bring birds. 😀

  4. John says:

    Oh shit!

    I live between suburban and rural area – I remember, when buying the house, that I *GREATLY* favored properties with city water, just to avoid issues like this. It sounds like all is good now – glad to hear it. Sorry you had to deal with it.

    • So far all is still well – and I am grateful for that! I don’t miss city water – it has always tasted funny to me with the flouride. And, we’ve lucked out to have naturally “soft” water that tastes really good.

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