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Neil Sperry: Ice storm reminds us what zone we’re really in

Posted Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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It wasn’t so much about what I wanted my column topic to be. It was more about how I could make it relevant now that it’s eight days after one of the most damaging ice storms we’ve seen in the past 30 years.

Oh, arguably, the winter of 1983-84 probably did more total damage to Metroplex landscapes than this past week’s bout. It dropped below freezing just before Christmas in 1983, and it never made it above 32 degrees until several days into the new year. Plants that normally did fine with a day or two of subfreezing weather were lost entirely that year. It really caused us to rethink the plants we use in our gardens, and several old favorites (waxleaf ligustrums leading the pack) all but disappeared here.

However, the New Year’s Eve ice storm of 1978 (New Year’s Cotton Bowl of ’79, the Joe Montana game — remember that one?) was more like this storm. Bitter cold, and ice that broke tree limbs all over North Texas. Power was out all over the region, and trees took years to regrow. Some had to be replaced. All of that sounds eerily familiar.

So what can we learn from all of this? Here are my observations and commentary just a few days removed. I hope they’ll be of value.

This is really an early date for such a storm. We still have a lot of winter left ahead of us. It does make you wonder what’s coming next.

Because it did blow in so early, plants may or may not have been acclimated as much as they needed to be — we may see more damage than we normally would had this happened in late December or January.

Many of our trees still had leaves. In some cases (red oaks, ornamental pears and others), they were leaves that were just about to be dropped. In other cases (magnolias, live oaks, yaupon hollies), they were evergreen. All of that extra surface area allowed much more ice to form on the trees, and that did much of the damage that you’ve been recording on your phone’s camera this past week.

Aside from the ornamental pears, which are short-timers for other reasons (brittle trunks and susceptibility to cotton root rot), all of the other damaged trees I mentioned are still outstanding choices for North Texas landscapes. Almost all will recover if they’re given the corrective pruning they deserve.

I’m convinced that we are still in USDA Hardiness Zone 7! Yes, if you look at the USDA map online, you’ll see that it moved Zone 8 several counties to the north when it was reconfigured a couple of years ago, and that Zone 8 took in the Metroplex in the process. For anyone unaware, that map is sacred information to gardeners and landscape architects. It is a compilation of more than 100 years of low temperatures, and it predicts how cold any county in America can expect to get. That, in turn, gives measure to the plants that can be grown there.

However, the fallacy of our new rezoning has been that the winters of the first 10 years of this century were a good bit warmer than average, and they skewed the averages upward. North Texans, confident beyond practicality, started planting gardenias, pittosporums, Japanese yews, fatsias, star jasmine, oleanders, loquats, fig ivy, a variety of palms and (gasp) the ultimate reach: sago palms.

If you live in the middle of the urban heat pocket, maybe you can get those plants to survive, but most of us cannot. Or perhaps I should say that after last weekend, did not. I’m a Zone 7 guy through and through, and there are plenty of good plants from which I can choose.

Different topic: They just opened the gates and the quack tree pruners came galloping out. They’re the guys with the magnetic truck sign, ladder and chain saw. Maybe a hard hat. Probably no credentials.

Rule of common sense: The good certified arborists — the ones you really want working on your trees — are so busy right now that they don’t have time to be knocking on doors. They’re trying to get all the phone calls returned.

There is no reason to rush. Other than getting trees out of your way and cleaning up whatever rubble you can easily pick up yourself, wait on the bonded, proven arborists. Just wait. Your trees and your pocketbook will thank you. Butchers can ruin a tree that could have been saved. The team that works on my trees know I’ll be calling, but I know there’s no hurry. I’m waiting.

Be cautious if you’re doing any tree pruning yourself. When branches come down, it tells you that the tree has been compromised. It might just have been from the weight of the ice, but there could also have been weakening decay in the tree’s interior. You can’t tell. Don’t rest a ladder against a damaged tree. Don’t take a chain saw up a ladder, and don’t lift a chain saw over your head. This is a time to call in a pro.

Hopefully you didn’t encounter much damage. If you did, however, take heart. Gardens have a way of healing themselves if we just keep loving them.

Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens” magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227.

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