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On Gardening: I survived the blizzard of 2010, but will my plants?

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, February 11, 2010; PG10

Funny what sounds a hair dryer will mask, like the almighty crack of an old holly tree falling apart.

The holly decided to collapse toward the end of the weekend's blizzard. The hair dryer was taking ice off a bird feeder. It wasn't until I took the feeder from the kitchen sink to the back garden that I noticed half the tree sideways over the pond. Ah well, the storm had prepared me for the destruction.

The snow had already pushed over a larger holly, and elsewhere in the garden large limbs of various evergreens had crashed down. A young and cherished Southern magnolia had lost a major branch in spite of my two mid-storm excursions to knock the gathering snow from its leaf clusters with a broom.

Across the region, such loss is the legacy of a massive snowstorm that seemed to conspire against woody plants, particularly evergreens, with a combination of a lot of wet snow and wind.

The damage takes different but common forms; some of it can be fixed, and some cannot. Either way, there is no great need to rush out and make repairs until a tree is poised to risk life, damage property or take out a power line. Big tree work is best left to trained arborists, especially in icy settings, and beware of "landscapers" knocking on the door offering to clean up damage.

Broken branches

Snapped branches should be cut cleanly just outside the swelling or collar where the base of the branch joins the trunk, but there is no need to be hasty. Waiting a month or two won't harm the tree. The break of an important branch may create a tree that has lost its appealing symmetry, and you may decide eventually that it has lost its charm and should go. In time, there is a good chance that the void will be filled by other branches, though as my friend and retired extension agent Bob Stewart points out, the gaps on the sunny southern and western sides of a tree are more apt to fill in than those on the shadier sides.

If the top of a trunk has snapped, it is typical for the nearest lateral branch to turn toward the sun and form the new leader. This takes a few years but can be worth the wait. If two side branches are competing for the leader spot, you should remove the weaker one at some point.

Shrubs, which have multiple stems and denser branching, are more willing than trees to fill in from breakages, so cleanly remove the broken stems and sit back. Stewart has an old cherry-laurel that is 10 feet tall, and he suspects about half of it will be gone once he prunes out all the damaged wood, "but it'll grow back." English boxwood, slow growing and brittle, suffer far worse than most shrubs, and removing broken branches helps, but not like tying them preventatively at the start of winter.

Split stems

I have never sought to save woody stems that have split. Stewart says small stems that have parted can be tied so that they grow into one again, but this is generally successful only on small branches and during the growing season when the cambium, the vital level beneath the bark, is actively functioning. Because the cambium is now dormant, it is not likely to graft itself together. Even if the repair is successful, the material used to wrap the stem must be removed within a year to prevent constriction.

Leaning trunks

Whole small trees that have keeled over can be righted as long as the root system is intact and you can push the tree perpendicular. (Once a trunk gets much beyond three inches in diameter, it is difficult to tackle.) This should be done soon -- the roots must not dry out -- but not when the ground is frozen. Stewart recommends a mulch, guy wires and stakes on three sides of the tree so that future gales don't blow it back over before the roots have a chance to anchor it properly.

Splayed trunks

Multi-trunked evergreens like Leyland cypress or arborvitae may have splayed to reveal, as my gardening friend Peter Schenk observes, "a terrible-looking interior." Manipulate them back together, tying them if necessary.

Smothered shrubs

The best thing you can do for azaleas, Japanese hollies or any other shrub buried in wet snow is to leave it alone. Trying to excavate it will only damage stems and buds. Flattened plants will spring back, perhaps not immediately, but they will want to reach for the sun again. Once the snow is gone, find broken branches and cut them cleanly where they meet another stem.

Often, storm damage is the result of errors made or conditions encountered years before. When a tree sits on hardpan, the roots stay shallow and rob the tree of its anchoring qualities. A lack of skilled pruning when young can create problems later. My American hollies were planted as a hedge decades ago and then neglected, so each spindly specimen produced competing leaders. Time to get out the loppers and the bow saw.

As for the lopsided magnolia, I shall let that be and hope a new side branch fills the space, albeit on the north side of the plant. Battered and misshapen trees and shrubs speak to one's long relationship with them and are worth keeping as memories of storms and gales.

Stewart and his wife, Nicole, recall planting a rare Japanese raisin tree on the edge of their property in Charles County. First, a wayward truck sheared it to the ground. When it grew back, bravely, a tornado shredded the top growth. Now, it's a multi-stemmed shrub some 18 feet tall instead of a single trunked 40-footer, but it tells its stories.

"It's respected as a survivor," Bob says. "The tree that refused to go away."

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