Lessons from the Blizzard of 2013

Winter is not supposed to be easy. It’s meant to test the fortitude of gardeners and plants just as spring, summer, and fall do. This winter more than most perhaps. As I write this most of my garden is still under a thick clot of snow and I feel extra silly for ever sulking about the “damage” our first snowfall caused. A few tilted seedheads? Please. And despite the groundhog’s predictions, meteorologists seem intent on drumming up excitement for a “parade of storms.” Spring might still come early but not before winter teaches us another lesson or two.
The Blizzard (are we really calling it Nemo?) took itself out on a category of plants that most of the time we’re perfectly justified in taking for granted. All spring, summer, and fall, evergreens are supporting actors, there in the background. Come winter, we rely on their bulk and color to sustain us but still manage to forget they’re there. They suffered in this storm. The snow was too heavy and the wind pushed many way past their breaking point. Limbs, tops, and whole trees came down everywhere. Others have been deformed, bent out of shape, maybe permanently, from the weight of winter.
I know I probably wasn’t the only one who panicked and tried to knock snow off of weighted limbs. Even my deciduous trees’ naked branches held more snow than seemed safe. I could barely open our door until I had released the top of my little shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis), which had folded double in front of it, from under the drifts. A ring of lower branches on my flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) were touching their toes. The whole tree looked like it had been peeled like a banana. And my daintiest evergreen, a 6’ tall, young Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’) with glorious burgundy winter color, took the storm lying face down. So I smacked as much snow as possible off those plants. I needn’t have. They turned out to be incredibly resilient and my interference could have caused them — and myself — a lot more damage.
I really hope it’s too late now for this advice, but the only time it might be a good idea to try to unburden shrubs and trees is when more heavy snow or ice is on the way. And then we must be gentle about it. Using your hands or a broom for extra reach, loosen as much of the load as you can without breaking anything. Otherwise leave them be and let the snow insulate their branches until it thaws. I’m trying to train myself to believe that whatever doesn’t break my plants, makes them stronger. I have also decided to enjoy the jaunty way some of my columnar shrubs, the boxwoods in particular, are listing and frayed. If I had planned ahead, I would have swaddled them in twine to keep their thin branches from bowing outwards and staying that way, but now I’m almost glad I missed that step.
Some of my shrubs are still buried. I don’t have high hopes for my lavenders especially the ones under the deepest drift and shovelfuls from the driveway. They tend to be brittle as they age and don’t usually live long anyway. So it might time for something new. I’m much less worried about roses, spirea, buddleia and anything else that can be cut down to the ground to come up fresh. And I secretly wish some stems had broken from my lilac because I haven’t been at all faithful about pruning it. If you were lucky or unlucky enough to lose limbs in your garden, be sure to give the wounded parts a fresh cut at a crotch or all the way back to the branch collar at the trunk. They will heal cleaner, healthier, faster.
Every season seems to bring its share of heartbreak and every season teaches us new lessons in resilience. It will be a while before I take warm baseboards, hot showers, and evergreens for granted again. But don’t we gardeners live for these lessons? Heartbreak and loss open up all sorts of new opportunities. Garden on.

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