Islander creates a serene backyard scene around a majestic live oak tree
The Galveston house for sale on Oak Street didn’t impress Jeff Nielsen much. It seemed out of date, for one thing. But then he opened the back door and saw a massive old oak tree not visible from the front of the house.
“And I decided to buy it, even though it needed remodeling,” said Nielsen, owner of Island Bicycle Co., 1808 Seawall Blvd.
He bought the home with its majestic live oak in October 2019 and named the tree Big Joe following a family tradition of names beginning with the letter “J.”
The buckling, old concrete patio had to go, Nielsen said. During the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, he moved ahead with replacing the patio with a 1,000-square-foot deck. His son-in-law, Thomas Carroll of Friends-wood-based Carsey Builders, and some of Carroll’s crew built the deck in three weeks, Nielsen said.
The house inspector who went to look at the property before the sale turned out to be knowledgeable about old trees, Nielsen said. The inspector, who was curious and fascinated, measured the tree’s circumference at 190 inches and estimated the tree could be 160 years old. Nielsen decided to check the circumference himself in September and also came up with a 190-inch circumference but now thinks the tree might be even older.
Priscilla Files, senior arborist at Galveston Island Tree Conservancy, urged caution when gauging ages of big trees.
“The only way to truly know is to bore a core and count rings, which is a really bad idea,” Files said.
“I suspect it was planted or germinated after the 1900 Storm,” she said. “That hurricane would have likely wiped out a relatively young live oak.”
Big Joe survived Hurricane Ike in 2008, Nielsen said. That hurricane destroyed about 40,000 trees on the island.
Big Joe’s many branches sway in different directions like a mythological Hydra creature with many heads, yet Big Joe presents a graceful symmetry overall. The calm and restorative reassurance of the oak canopy offers Nielsen and his family and friends the perfect spot to relax, eat dinner and listen to cicadas at sunset. They spent a lot of the pandemic stay-at-home time under the shade of Big Joe, Nielsen said.
The new deck stretches from the back door to the middle of the yard where Big Joe dominates. Carroll built a bench on the deck that bends around the tree. The diagonal pattern of light-colored shades of wood adds a sharp geometric component under the soothing swirls of green coolness and thick, textured bark.
One reason Nielsen wanted to get the deck built during the pandemic downtime was he figured it would be a good use of everyone’s time, he said. A couple of things challenged that idea. One, some of the hardware became difficult to find and expensive as many other people also got the idea to start home improvement projects during the early days of the pandemic. Two, the bike shop experienced an unexpected boom in bike sales and parts as people sought outdoor activities for the same reason, Nielsen said. The second challenge pulled him back to work.
Despite those twists in the plan, Nielsen and Carroll got the deck done. New furniture with cool colors and a modern resort vibe now adorn the deck. A fire pit, a nearby grill and an outdoor TV add to this backyard scene.
“I spend all my time here,” Nielsen said.
At least he does when he’s at home and not busy keeping up with the growing demand for bicycles.
Big Joe is healthy and doing well, and Nielsen is keeping up with the correct and proper trimming of a large live oak. Big Joe’s shade is welcome in the Texas heat.
“It’s always 20 degrees cooler under here,” Nielsen said.